The Relationship Between Sugar And Slavery In The Early Modern Period

4765 words - 20 pages

"No commodity on the face of the Earth has been wrested from the soil or the seas, from the skies or the bowels of the earth with such misery and human blood as sugar" ...(Anon)Sugar in its many forms is as old as the Earth itself. It is a sweet tasting thing for which humans have a natural desire. However there is more to sugar than its sweet taste, rather cane sugar has been shown historically to have generated a complex process of cultural change altering the lives of all those it has touched, both the people who grew the commodity and those for whom it was grown. Suprisingly, for something so desireable knowledge of sugar cane spread vey slow. First found in Guinea and first farmed in ...view middle of the document...

However, such sugar producing areas were in Islamic hands or were threatened by Islamic expansion and this near monopoly drove the prices upwards. Even in the face of such high prices and limited supply the sweet phenomenon caught on very quickly. Initially little more than an exotic good consumed in noble circles, the novelty soon caught on across all of society, and seeing the ample demand and inherent profits in the trade of sugar European merchants began, on a large scale, to trade in the stuff finding that they could grow rich merely on the profits of its export and import. Nonetheless, aware of the advantages of controlling sources of production as well as transport, many eventually began looking for land on which to grow their own cane. They began doing this in Iberia and elsewhere but because of the large tracts of land and the large labour force required for the production of sugar and the lack of these requisites in Iberia, experiments were undertaken to grow sugar overseas. During the thirteenth century, enterprising Portuguese and Spanish merchants sought to enhance their share of the lucrative sugar market by producing cane on plantations they established in conquered Mediterranean islands. In the late 1300's and 1400's the Portuguese colonised Madeira and the Azores for the same purpose as the Spanish absorbed the Canary islands. Indeed it was the profits which made themselves available from sugar production that provided the impetus for the development of the plantation system that matured in the Mediterranean, spreading to the Atlantic and later the Americas on the back of the sugar trade, it was also such a concern which made the institution of slavery so handsome. The world, history shows us, was these early Europeans oyster. I hope, in this essay, to explain what sugar reveals about a wider world, entailing as it does a lengthy history of colonization, subjugation and slavery.A liking for sweetness became established in European taste preferences at a time when European power, military might and economic initiative were transforming the world. In 1452 sugar production began on Madeira, an uninhabited island off the Northwest coast of Africa. Growing sugar cane is brutal hard work, performed in hot humid climates, work that Europeans were not inclined to willingly persue and as such guanches, the indigenous peoples of the Canary Islands, as well as European convicts, were among the first workers brought to Madeira to work on the sugar mills. However the need for labour was so great, and these original workers so fragile, that an alternative source of labour was sought after. Instead nearby Africans became the main labour force in the island's sugar industry, a demand for whom in conjunction with sugar would rise inexorably over the coming centuries. It was these Black African's skills as agricultural labourers and their adaptability to tropical climates that were sorely needed in the agricultural economies of European colonies,...

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