Sugar: the spice that changed history–part three

Long ago, sugar became the most popular Asian spice in Europe. During the 1400s, Portuguese investors built large sugar plantations on islands near Africa. Work on these plantations was done by slaves from Africa. When the lands of the western hemisphere were discovered by Europeans, sugar farming was the first industry to be transported to the New World. Millions of Africans were brought to work on sugar plantations (as well as tobacco farms, cotton farms, and so forth) between 1500 and 1800.

Slavery has existed since ancient times. Slavery was considered natural in all parts of the world. Conditions of slavery were regulated by governments; in most places, slaves maintained certain rights under the law. Slavery is mentioned in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. It is not specifically condemned in the Bible, although the Law of Moses forbids one Israelite from owning another Israelite as a slave.

Plantation slavery was harsher and crueler than most previous forms of slavery. Early death was expected of slaves, and plantation owners figured on an average of five years of work from a slave before he had to be replaced. Treatment of slaves was different on different plantations, but brutal beatings, separation of families, and other abusive treatments were common. Some slave owners did not want their slaves to learn about Christianity, because the owners knew that Christian slaves would merit better treatment as human beings. Most slave owners did not want their slaves to know how to read and write, because illiteracy made them easier to control.

Opposition to slavery existed before the nineteenth century, but at first it had little success. By no coincidence, abolition first took hold in Great Britain, the country where the Industrial Revolution began. Slavery was not opposed successfully until machines were designed that could replace the work of slaves. Only then did European and American societies begin to recognize the human rights of workers. Slave trading from Africa was banned at first, and eventually slavery was entirely abolished. In the United States, a four year Civil War was needed to bring slavery to an end. Other countries, such as Brazil and Cuba, continued to allow slavery for years after the United States ended the practice. In some places, slavery continued to be practiced legally until the 1960s.

Industrialization made abolition possible. Industrialization also found new ways to process sugar. What had once been a spice now became an essential ingredient in many factory-produced foods and beverages. Sodas, breakfast cereals, candy bars, salad dressings, barbecue sauces—all of these contain high amounts of sugar, and during the twentieth century, they became increasingly large parts of people’s diets. Sugar is highly addictive, and the more sugar people consume, the more they want. Businesses succeed by giving people what they want, and over the past several generations, people have wanted a lot of sugar.

The politics of sugar turned a corner on January 1, 1959, when Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union assumed that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” and, therefore, “the enemy of my friend is my enemy.” Castro overthrew a government that was allied with the United States, so the Eisenhower administration assumed that he was a communist. Getting no help from the United States to set up a new government, Castro decided to agree that he was a communist, and he turned to the Soviet Union for help. The United States placed an embargo on Cuban exports, including cigars, rum, and sugar. These products became popular in the Soviet Union and its allies, while the United States and its allies needed to find a new supply of sugar.

While some sugar was available from other Caribbean islands, not enough cane sugar was being grown to meet the desires of the Western world. Therefore, American factories began to produce sugar from beets and from corn. Much of the sweet stuff Americans eat today is sweetened by high fructose corn syrup. We pour it on our pancakes and waffles, we spread it on our sandwiches and burgers, and we pour it on our salads. Our desserts and snacks are filled with sugar, much of it made from corn.

The medical reaction to sugar in the modern diet will be covered in part four. J.

How the Civil War nearly began in Arkansas

Most people who know at least a little history of the United States are aware that the Civil War began April 12, 1861, when shots were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. Not many people know that the first shots of the Civil War were nearly fired in Little Rock, Arkansas, two months earlier.

In 1838, the United States government built an arsenal south of downtown Little Rock, on Ninth Street. Munitions were stored in the building and soldiers were regularly stationed there, while other units passed through the area on the way to the border outpost of Fort Smith, facing Indian Territory. With some southern states seceding from the Union after the election of 1860, the United States Army began to rearrange some of its troops. One relocation moved Battery F, Second United States Artillery, from Fort Smith to the arsenal in Little Rock. Captain James Totten was the commander of this battery, which left Fort Smith on November 27, 1860, and arrived at the arsenal on December 6.

In January 1861, a convention met in Little Rock to consider the question of seceding from the Union and joining the Confederacy or remaining with the United States. Because the convention was evenly divided on this issue, the delegates chose on January 16 to schedule a referendum on the question for the coming summer. Shortly after the convention disbanded, rumors began to travel around Arkansas that the federal government was reinforcing its units in Little Rock to defend the arsenal. These rumors were either the result of Totten’s unit being moved or were speculation about further actions which were not, in fact, being considered by the U.S. Army.

Because of these rumors, militia from various parts of Arkansas began to converge in Little Rock, gathering around the statehouse on the south bank of the Arkansas River. The local militia, called the Capitol Guards, tried to position itself between the other units and the arsenal, but it was outnumbered. Arkansas Governor Henry Rector promised to resolve the conflict, although what he could accomplish was not immediately obvious. Although the soldiers in the arsenal were badly outnumbered by the members of the various militia units, they were far better equipped for battle and were in a defendable position in the arsenal.

The hero of the event was Captain Totten. Knowing that armed conflict would lead to civilian deaths and the destruction of civilian property near the arsenal, Totten exchanged communications with Governor Rector. Understanding that Arkansas had not chosen to secede from the Union (and was not scheduled to make such a decision until summer), Totten offered to hand control of the arsenal over to the governor of the state of Arkansas. Rector agreed, provided that Totten and the men under his command left the state and carried off none of the cannons stored in the arsenal. At noon on February 8, Totten and his man left the arsenal. Totten signed papers giving control of the facility to the government of the state of Arkansas, and his unit began its voyage to St. Louis, Missouri. A group of 107 women from Little Rock gave an engraved sword to Captain Totten thanking him for his peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Nearly a century later, outsiders again poured into Little Rock, this time protesting the desegregation of the city’s main high school. On this occasion federal soldiers were sent to the city to defend the nine African American students who had been enrolled in Central High School. By this time, the arsenal was no longer a federal facility. Some years after the Civil War, it had been exchanged for property north of the river, and the building and surrounding land were converted into a city park. The park was named MacArthur Park, to honor General Douglas MacArthur, who had been born at the arsenal in 1880 while his father was stationed there. Today the arsenal is a military museum. The strength of its walls was tested and found durable when the building survived a direct hit from a tornado in 1999. J.

For additional information, consult David Sesser’s The Little Rock Arsenal Crisis, History Press, 2013.

To fly or not to fly (the Confederate flag)

When people in the United States choose to display the Confederate flag, other people are offended. Those who defend the display of the flag say that they are celebrating the culture of a region; they say that there is nothing inherently racist or otherwise offensive about the flag. Those who are offended respond that the flag represents an attempt by some states to leave the Union so they could preserve the institution of slavery, an institution that (as practiced in the United States) was distinctly racist.

Defenders of the flag say that the Civil War was not really about slavery. They say it was really about the rights of states to make their own rules without interference from the national government. Slavery happened to be the issue wherein interference was perceived, but (they say) southerners were not so much fighting to retain slavery as they were fighting to retain independence promised to them (they say) in the United States Constitution.

Abraham Lincoln was opposed personally to slavery. However, he said that the Civil War was not about slavery–it was about keeping the country united. Lincoln said he would be willing to tolerate the continuing reality of slavery if it would hold the country together; and Lincoln said that he was sending soldiers into rebellious states to preserve the Union. Contrary to popular opinion, Lincoln did not free the slaves. His Emancipation Proclamation applied only to slaves in states that were members of the Confederacy and thus (from Lincoln’s point of view) in opposition to their national government. Four slave states remained in the Union during the Civil War, and Lincoln’s Proclamation did not affect slaves in those states. Slavery was ended in the United States by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which was proposed in Congress while Lincoln was alive, but was not ratified until after he had died.

If Lincoln said that he was not fighting against slavery, does that mean that the southerners were not fighting to keep slavery? To answer that question, one must research the reasons given by southern leaders when they chose to secede from the Union and to fight, if necessary, for a new nation, the Confederate States. Because I have family and friends living in Arkansas, and because the history of Arkansas’s secession is rather interesting, I will use that state’s secession as a model for this research.

When Lincoln was elected and some southern states chose to secede from the United States and form the Confederate States, Arkansas had been a state for only twenty-five years. Residents were divided over the issue of secession. While slaves were found in every county of the state, most of the slaves in Arkansas were in the southeastern half of the state, which had flat land suitable for large cotton plantations. The northwest half of the state–featuring the Ozark and Ouachita mountains–held many citizens who favored remaining in the United States rather than joining the Confederate States. Accordingly, the state government decided to hold a convention, with delegates chosen by the voters of the state, to decide whether to secede or to remain.

When they gathered in Little Rock in March, 1861, the number of delegates supporting secession and the number of delegates supporting the Union were roughly equal. The convention conducted its regular business, electing officers and the like, while observers tried to guess what the final vote would decide. On March 11, those favoring secession gave their reasons. They listed six objections to remaining in the Union. These were:

  • In the northern states, a new political party had recently formed, and its central and controlling idea was hostility to the institution of “African slavery.” The newly elected President and Vice President were members of this party.
  • The government of the United States was threatening to deny the southern states protection to “slave property” by declaring that any states added to the Union would not allow slavery. (Up to this time, the country had carefully added one slave state and one free state around the same time, keeping the United States Senate balanced between the two positions. Michigan became a state shortly after Arkansas did so.)
  • Northern politicians claimed that Congress had the power to abolish slavery in the territories, in the District of Columbia, and in forts, arsenals, and dock yards owned by the government, even in southern states.
  • The United States government obstructed faithful execution of its own fugitive slave laws (which required the return of an escaped slave to his or her owner, even if he or she had reached a free state).
  • The United States government denied citizens of southern states the right of transit through free states with their slaves and the right to hold those slaves while sojourning temporarily in free states.
  • The United States government “degraded American citizens” by allowing “equality with Negroes at the ballot box.”

Directly or indirectly, all six of these reasons are connected to slavery.

As the convention continued to meet, it remained clear that the delegates were almost equally divided. After several more days, the convention decided to schedule an election for August in which all the voters of Arkansas could choose between secession or remaining in the Union. With this accomplished, the convention adjourned and the delegates returned home.

The next month, the Civil War began, as shots were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. President Lincoln sent out a message calling for soldiers from each of the states that had not seceded to join the United States Army. The governor of Arkansas refused to provide a single soldier to fight against fellow southerners. Instead, he called the convention back into session. Meeting on May 6, the delegates called for a vote the proposal that had been made on March 11. Perhaps some of them had forgotten the reasons given on March 11; more likely they didn’t care. The vote in favor of the motion to secede was 65 to five. Four of the delegates who voted no then changed their vote, seeking unanimity. Only one of the seventy refused to support leaving the United States and joining the Confederacy.

In this way, and for these reasons, Arkansas entered the Civil War. Next week, I will describe how the Civil War nearly began in Arkansas rather than at Fort Sumter. J.