Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar by Peter Macinnis

25 Jul

BittersweetI know what you’re thinking: what is with this girl and addictive white powders?

Anyway, do you remember how one of my issues with Mark Kurlansky’s book on salt was that he made unsubstantiated declarations about how salt influenced history? Well Peter Macinnis totally avoids that issue in this book. Translation: this book is the bee’s knees!

Macinnis starts out by saying that sugar played an important part in history but – had it never been discovered – some other valuable product could just as easily taken its place in this story (XIII). The reason I love this statement is because Macinnis acknowledges just how much of a role chance plays in history: huge. Then, as kind of a warning to his readers (and to all people who study history), Macinnis makes the following statement:

It is better to look at what evil men have done, in an effort to ensure that we do not repeat it, than to look upon past evils with a sanctimonious superiority. We are different, but it is doubtful we are that much better, for few things change as little as human nature. (XIV)

What?! I know! What a punishing yet truthful statement.

In the first chapter, Macinnis lays out the four curses associated with sugar: 1) It’s capital-intensive, 2) Speed is necessary when processing the crop, 3) It is hungry for fuel (fire wood) and 4) It is labor intensive. These four “curses” impact who could cultivate sugar and how it had to be done in order for it to be profitable.

To make a profit in the sugar industry, you had to sow and reap literally tons of sugar cane. This meant that you had to have a lot of land, a dependable source of fuel nearby (i.e. a forest), a large work force, and a work force capable of enduring one of the worst working environments: hot, humid, disease-ridden, and a high chance of getting maimed. This essentially meant that large plantations were the norm. Small upstarts would quickly go out of business because they couldn’t produce as much or afford to sell their product at the low price bigger producers could. Think Mom & Pop stores v. Walmart.

When it came to the workers, it was established early on by research-oriented entrepreneurs that white indentured servants, Native Americans and the ancestors of the Incas/Aztecs made poor slaves. They could not handle the labor intensive work and succumbed to tropical diseases too readily (don’t you hate it when your slave contracts Yellow Fever and dies? It’s really impossible to find good help these days). Solution? Import African slaves who were naturally immune to tropical diseases due to ancestral exposure and could handle the intense labor. At this point Macinnis points out that the slave trade – though profitable – would have been a shadow of itself had sugar not been taken up for production by plantations. Because sugar was so profitable and because it was so labor intensive, the slave trade expanded exponentially. Heh…oops. As a side note, Macinnis also states that European society didn’t treat slaves poorly; they were more like equal opportunity haters. Anyone who was beneath the aristocratic station was treated badly. Slaves were just part of that group. So, there’s that.

And then! The book takes a turn to the eerily coincidental. If you remember, Gandhi played a cameo role in the history of salt as told by Mr. Kurlansky. And he shows up here, too. It’s like one of those pictures with the eyes that follow you wherever you go. Except Gandhi is following righteous causes instead of the movements of an underemployed History major. But I digress! In this book, Gandhi the lawyer comes to the aid of overworked and enslaved Indians who were moved to South Africa generations before in an effort to create a sugar plantation colony. And the only reason he was able to get a law degree was because his family benefited (though not directly) from the riches made from the sugar industry. And the reason Macinnis points this out is because he is tired of only plantation owners getting the bad rep. A significant portion of European/Middle Eastern/African aristocratic society benefited from sugar cultivation and the slave trade. This group may not have held the whip that scarred the back of “uncooperative” slaves but they sure as hell condoned it.

There was only one statement that Macinnis made that I take issue with. Macinnis references the biblical story of Ham and how he was punished for observing his father in all his birthday-suit glory by being forced into slavery and having the rest of his line suffer the same. But Macinnis attributes this not only to the Christian interpretation of the bible (which I have heard/read about many times) but also to the Qur’an. I have never heard or read about such an interpretation in Islam. And before I punish Macinnis (and all those in his line) for painting such broad strokes, I will have to check some other sources.

In the meantime, I give this book four coffees out of five. Dang good.


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