Sugar: A Bittersweet History

Sugar was once the most powerful commodity on earth, influencing the economic policies of nations, driving international trade and wreaking environmental havoc. The Western world’s addiction to sugar decimated indigenous peoples and created a new form of slavery by forcing millions of captured Africans into the cane fields. As it became a staple in the modern world, sugar fuelled the workers of the Industrial Revolution and gave rise to the craze for fast food.

Critical Acclaim for A History of Sugar

An Opiate of the People

The most dispiriting aspect of our belated environmental consciousness is the realization that many of the delightful substances we put into our mouths — like cold bottled water and imported produce — have costs that far outweigh the immediate gratification they deliver. In “Sugar: A Bittersweet History,” her thorough, workmanlike new study, Elizabeth Abbott reminds us that this has been true for centuries. A hundred years before Pushkin described ecstasy as “a glassful of tea and a piece of sugar in the mouth,” the demands of the sugar economy had ripped apart African communities and forced slaves across the Atlantic to work sugar cane plantations. Abbott’s book, which discusses the effects of sugar on everything from the Haitian revolution to Hitler’s Germany, serves as a grim reminder that a consumer’s choices register on a gigantic scale, and are therefore as much political as personal. [In explaining] the process by which a “noble delicacy” trickled down to the middle classes and eventually to entire societies … Abbott offers up a number of fascinating stories, including Hitler’s attempts to ensure a steady supply of sugar through the worst horrors of the war. (Orwell, in “1984,” was canny to present a totalitarian system that understood even its most traumatized citizens would rally at the news of an increase in chocolate rations.)

New York Times

Here in almost 500 pages is a wider, more intimate story of the growth of the sugar industry than most European or US writers have managed.

In the first paragraphs of her introduction, Elizabeth Abbott introduces us to an 18th century farm labourer’s wife who, by sweetening her tea with a lump of sugar, “redrew the demographic, economic, environmental, political, cultural and moral map of the world.”

That may seem a sweeping claim, but by dint of painstaking research from Berlin’s Zucker-Museum and Toronto’s Redpath Sugar Museum to the canefields of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Abbott is fully vindicated.

The growth of the sugar industry is shown to be an integral part of the Industrial Revolution and, perhaps more importantly for us, the growth of deeply corrupt and brutal practices of “labour management” that persist into our present century.

Within a relatively small space, Abbott has given us an invaluable up-to-date history of capitalism and, by implication, its imperialist sequel. Read it.

Morning Star (UK)

Reading this graphic tale of the global havoc sugar has caused and continues to cause, you might wonder why sugar is not a banned substance; it seems to have done as much harm as opium or heroin.

Millions were enslaved to produce it, wars were fought over it, environments devastated, cultures destroyed. Yet, sugar is a major health hazard – the primary cause of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. As early as 1674, doctors had connected sugary urine with what they called the Pissing Evil. Still we love it and consume vast quantities in chocolate, sweets, junk food and fizzy drinks.

The sugar lobby today is a powerful one … but it struggles to answer accusations about the damage its products cause. There is one positive byproduct of sugar, ethanol – a marvellous biofuel made from sugar cane or sugar beet, which thrives in the Irish climate. But of course, we closed all our sugar factories several years ago.

Her style is vivid and she’s done her research, right back to her sugar plantation Antiguan ancestors. It’s a good read – but it might stay your hand next time you reach for a chocolate biscuit to enjoy with your coffee.

The Irish Times

Sugar was to the geopolitics of the 17th to 19th centuries what oil has been to the 20th and 21st. It was one of the building blocks of the British Empire, silting up vast colonial wealth and transforming our culture, diet, health, environment and economy. Sugar was the first super-commodity, and is now so ubiquitous and cheap that we cannot imagine life without it.

Elizabeth Abbott’s “bittersweet history” is a highly readable and comprehensive study of a remarkable product. But it is Abbott’s handling of the “slave-sugar complex” that lifts this book into a must-read. With rare eloquence and passion she demonstrates how sugar enriched Europe while denuding the African continent of its population and retarding its economic development. Her treatment of the scarifying effects of slavery on intimate relationships is particularly enlightening. She argues that sugar forged a type of slavery whose scope and brutality had never been seen before. That slavery – and its sugar profits – was justified by the development of a racist ideology that still reverberates through contemporary life.

In discussing the abolition movement, Abbott redresses the historical focus on Wilberforce et al by reminding us of the role of ordinary people – especially women and the working class – in the fight for emancipation. Abbott, who discovered while writing this book that her own Antiguan planter ancestry included African antecedents, also points out that, for many years, “blacks were the only abolitionists”, struggling daily to undermine the institution of slavery.

The impact of sugar on our environment has been epic and irreversible. Sugar’s impact on our health is no less significant. In a populace increasingly riddled with sugar-induced diabetes, one New York endocrinologist creates an apocalyptic vision of the future: “The workforce 50 years from now is going to look fat, one-legged, blind, a diminution of able-bodied workers at every level.” A bittersweet legacy indeed.

The Independent

PASSIONATE ENGAGEMENT, STELLAR WRITING, and a genius for popularization characterize Elizabeth Abbott’s impressive body of work. The Toronto-based author of such international bestsellers as A History of Celibacy and A History of Mistresses has never been shy about revealing her personal connection to a subject. But nothing in Abbott’s previous divulgences equals an image to be found in her most recent book, Sugar: A Bittersweet History. In the introduction, Abbott describes how, in the final stages of its writing, she scraped her cheeks raw with a swab-stick in order to obtain sufficient tissue for DNA testing, to settle for herself the question of her ancestry. The results confirmed Abbott’s life-long hunch, revealing “bloodlines of European, sub-Saharan African, and East Asian origins, my West Indian heritage… Whether writing about sugar planters, slaves, or indentured coolies, I had been writing about my ancestors.”

I will state my bias here. Elizabeth Abbott and I are friends. I have known her for nearly 40 years. Back in the early 1970s, I was her assistant at a historical research centre she then headed in Montreal. Then, as now, I admired her prodigious capacity for work, her fierce intelligence, and the grace of her writing.

Grounded in exhaustive and meticulous scholarship, Sugar is a sweeping narrative that links the history of a common staple with that of slavery, racism, forced labour, and environmental depredation. It recounts the story of slaves, slave-owners, and abolitionists in riveting prose.

It is a narrative forged in cruelty. “Sugar’s history was written in blood and suffering, and as a writer I immersed myself in the blood and suffering I wrote about. Most aspects of sugar slavery were unmitigatedly brutal.” Asked what were the most difficult sections, she speaks of “slave women’s tormented lives, from their vulnerability in the white world to their struggles to protect their children.”

Last June, a young woman read a glowing and comprehensive review of Sugar in a newspaper serving Toronto’s African and Caribbean community. “Like me, she is descended from Antiguan Abbotts,” says Abbott. “Like me, she is dedicated to tracing her roots. She contacted me through my website and the rest is history, our personal history understood in the shadows of long-ago mysteries and shared bloodlines. We opened our hearts to each other and merged our families. When little Abbotts come to my house to play, I feel matriarchal. I feel completed.”

Elaine Kalman Naves, Rover

“A richly dramatic and fascinating history of how sugar Africanized the New World. Sugar will live on long after most books of this year have been forgotten.”

Sun Times

“The historian Elizabeth Abbott has lived her life according to her principles. Her diet is vegan, her coffee and tea fairly traded, her transportation is public, her two dogs (one an aged “special needs” beagle/bassett in diapers) have been rescued and the sugar she offers you for your tea is organic golden-cane sugar from Paraguay. It costs about $5 for a 454-gram packet, about eight times the same weight of regular refined sugar.

‘There are enough of us now willing to pay for fair-trade coffee, so my hope is that, in future, more will be willing to pay fairly for sugar’ she says.

‘My book is about the give and take between the lives of the sugar consumers and the producers,’ she says.

Abbott has constructed a panoramic narrative beginning in the Middle Ages, when cane sugar was a luxury for the wealthy, through the early modern era when it energized the factory workers of the Industrial Revolution, up to the present, which is seeing sugar in stiff competition with chemical sweeteners and high-fructose corn syrup, used to sweeten everything from ice cream and ketchup to marinades, jams and soft drinks.

It is the book she was born to write, braiding together as it does the strands of her personal history as a former Haitian resident and descendent of Irish sugar planters, with her academic training as a historian of slavery.

Abbott has been invited to speak about Sugar at several American universities, including Yale. ‘Elizabeth was able to give a very real voice to the men and women whose lives were affected, often adversely, by sugar,’ says Geoffrey Little, a Yale librarian who was her host at the university earlier this month. ‘Her description of relationships between sugar slaves, as well as those between sugar slaves and their masters, allowed the reader to understand the complicated web of connections that existed on a Caribbean sugar plantation.’

To research Sugar, she travelled to Berlin (it has a first-rate sugar museum); to the West African country of Benin, where sugar slaves came from; and to the Dominican Republic, where cane continues to be cut today by indentured servants from Haiti who are treated no better than their slave ancestors.

“I retraced the route of the slaves,” she says. “Much of what I have done in my life has been part of that search. How could people allow it [slavery] to happen?”

Her books have been translated into French, Italian, Polish, Japanese and Serbian, making her especially popular in the former Yugoslavia. An invitation to attend the Belgrade Book Fair led her to rescue 16 ill-used dogs and find them homes in Canada, with the help of a Canadian diplomat. ‘I took a cage with me and brought over the first dog, which had been living on a slag heap of industrial chemicals,’ she recalls. “All its fur had fallen out from the poisons. It is now the beloved family pet of a U of T librarian.

‘Every now and then you want to do something totally unexpected,’ she says.

National Post

The subject matter may not be sweet.

What happened as a result of it? Quite the opposite.

Sugar: A Bittersweet History explores little known facts behind the sweet commodity: from how it created a new form of slavery in Caribbean countries to its role in the fast-food revolution of the early 20th century.

For its author, Elizabeth Abbott, the book is the book of her career, as the stories and tales that make up the 464-page tome are in a way her life?s stories, and those of her family.

“It was difficult to know how to approach such a vast subject,” says Abbott, whose great-great-grandfather was involved in the colonial sugar industry. “It?s a book that really has no ending for me personally although obviously the book has a finite ending,” she says.

“I felt I was not only writing as a historian about everything that happened … but also as a subtext discovering my personal history.”

While she was already aware of her Antiguan heritage, through writing Sugar, Abbott became acquainted with extended family of hers living in Toronto. “I have a whole new family now,” she says, with a smile.

Toronto Town Crier Newspapers

“Brilliant and assiduously researched … Abbott takes a spoonful of sugar and analyzes, details, historicizes, and deconstructs it … with a fluid, fierce narrative power and a vengeful intelligence. Perhaps most importantly, she provides testimony of both male and female slaves, whose voices and experiences are at last heard.”


The exploitation of any economic crop-whether cotton, tobacco, jute, rubber, tea, coffee, or sugar-tends to produce iniquity. In writing Sugar: A Bittersweet History, Dr. Elizabeth Abbott chronicles the particularly egregious crimes of sugar-related slavery with passion and sensitivity.

In bringing the story of sugar to the present day, she documents how the consequences of those crimes persist. Most former sugar-producing colonies are experiencing poverty, political instability and environmental degradation.

Yet Abbott foresees a hopeful future for sugar as biofuel. Ethanol has become an element of Brazil’s economic and environmental strategy, and other sugar producers are adopting it.

Like oil is today, sugar was once a powerful commodity that shaped world affairs, influencing the economic policies of nations, driving international trade and wreaking environmental havoc.

Author Elizabeth Abbott is a Canadian whose ancestors settled in Antigua and became sugar planters. Fascinated by her West Indian heritage, she began a decades-long study of sugar and what she learned is both fascinating and repugnant.

Sugar cane was probably first grown on small plots in the South Pacific and made its way throughout the world in “a long and meandering march.” Arriving eventually in the New World with Europeans like Christopher Columbus, it brought death and misery on an astonishing scale. Growing sugar cane for export required huge work crews and involved backbreaking, dangerous labour. Indigenous peoples were run off their land and forced to work on cane plantations. Some groups, like the millions of Taino natives of Hispaniola, were completely exterminated. As local populations dwindled, African slaves were imported to fill the demand for field hands. Disease, starvation, injury and despair killed up to 40 per cent of workers. The abolition of slavery, finally achieved in the 1830s, brought little relief. It was replaced by a system of indenture and although workers were supposedly paid a fair wage, conditions changed very little.

Abbott also traces the social history of sugar. At first it was so expensive that it was available only to royalty, but by the end of the 19th century, ice cream saloons were popular gathering places, cotton candy and other confections were sold by street vendors, European chocolatiers Cadbury and Lindt were making a fortune and an American named Hershey would soon catch up.

Our modern, sugar-soaked diet will have dire consequences, warns Abbott. “Raging diabetes will burden health care systems, erode the labour force, hobble military enlistment and transform the families of unwell diabetics.” And environmentally, sugar cane is a disaster, having caused “a greater loss of biodiversity on the planet than any other single crop.”

Abbott’s meticulously researched narrative is authoritative and compelling. There’s nothing sweet about the story, but it’s utterly absorbing.

McGill News.

“Until better alternatives to sugar ethanol become available, fairly traded, environmentally sound and renewable sugar cane and beet should lead the ethanol revolution,” Abbott writes. Sugar can be valuable, she concludes, but it must be used in new ways.”

Dr. Michael Brett-Crowther, Editor The International Journal Of Environmental Studies

“Meanwhile, in Europe, the abolitionist movement agitated for a ban on slave trade and a boycott on West Indian sugar. “The slave-dealer, the slave-holder, and the slave-driver are the agents of the consumer,” one abolitionist wrote. A model for reform movements today, the abolitionists “placed a moral duty on the woman shopping for her family’s meals, playing ‘the ideology of consumerism in a heroic key.’ “(And you thought the smug “green” shopper was a 21st-century phenomenon.) The history of sugar, like the history of so many foodstuffs, has largely been a history of falling prices: What began as a luxury ended up a cheap staple. But even today, “sugar’s legacy of racism, brutality and coerced labour lives on” in the Dominican Republic’s cane fields, where illegal Haitians cut cane from dawn until dusk, scarred and gouged by the back-breaking work.”

Globe and Mail

“The dark side of sugar – The fight to control the lucrative sugar trade redraws political maps and trade routes, sparks wars and, ultimately, becomes the rationale for [sugar slavery.] Meanwhile, back in Europe, at royal feasts … guests ate from sugar dishes with sugar forks and knives.

Sugar has done more damage to flora and fauna than any other single crop on the planet. The monoculture of sugar is also responsible for the destruction of indigenous agriculture and wildlife.

[Yet Abbott] sees hope in Cuba’s efforts to diversify its crops and adopt organic farming techniques … [and] in Brazil’s efforts to promote its ample sugar fields as a bio-fuel alternative to fossil fuels.”

Toronto Star

“Elizabeth Abbott’s ambitious new book, Sugar: A Bittersweet History … examines how sugar’s rise in popularity changed the world. … In her introduction, Abbott imagines a fictional 18th-century Englishwoman, Gladys, as the first to add a lump of sugar to her tea: “By sipping her sugared tea, Gladys wrenched generations of men and women from Africa and transported them across the Atlantic to slavery.” She “ordained” the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. She redrew the map of North America and reinvented Western cuisine, putting lollipops into the mouths of children and propelling us toward obesity.

Sugar began as a luxury, used more as a spice or a condiment than as an ingredient. Caliphs commissioned sugar mosques, and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey celebrated his installation at Westminster Abbey with sugar castles and churches. At royal banquets, even the plates and cutlery at the sweet table were made from it.

Abbott…is at her best when she is exploring the way sugar changed people’s daily lives. She painstakingly reconstructs the slaves’ voyage from Africa to the Caribbean. We meet the African families crowded into mud huts, and the plantation owners who inhabited the Great House. She explores the complexity of race relations both in the West Indies and back in Europe, examining the unions, often abusive, but occasionally not, of white plantation owners and black slaves.

Elizabeth Abbott writes with passion. When you can immerse yourself in a book and emerge more informed about its subject than you were before you started, you have been granted a gift – and it’s a gift Elizabeth Abbott gives readers of Sugar: A Bittersweet History, an absorbing look at a commodity to which few of us have given serious thought. Read it and you’ll never stir sugar into your coffee or sprinkle it over your berries in quite the same mindless way. I promise.

I enjoyed this absorbing book, for Abbott’s obvious commitment to her subject and her passion for it, for the great, wide swath of her research and its thoroughness – and for her passion.”

Montreal Gazette, Calgary Herald, National Post

“In a very real way, Abbott felt a keen affinity with her subject matter. This has brought a special understanding to her research and writing. With consummate skill, Abbott never gets bogged down in the policies and personalities, or loses sight of the crop itself, and this is no mean feat, as she has a complex tale to tell. Her book is rich in anecdote and detail, enlivened by a wide selection of thoughtfully chosen illustrations.”

Anna Maria Tremonti, host of The Current CBC The Current

“Your Java Chip Frappucino at Starbucks will never taste quite the same after you’ve read Elizabeth Abbott’s Sugar, a sprawling, often fascinating, sometimes annoying history of the world’s favorite sweetener. Sugar is epic in ambition and briskly written, interweaving the invention of the global sugar industry with its far-reaching effect on New World slavery, the environment and, in Ms. Abbott’s words, the addiction of millions of people to sweetness and to unhealthy, disease-causing diets.

The foul relationship between sugar and slavery did create the trans-Atlantic slave trade, wrecked the lives of millions of Africans, and brought fabulous wealth to white planters and absentee investors. Sugar slavery’s most insidious creation was the racialism that justified enslaving Africans and forcing them into the cane fields, Ms. Abbott accurately writes. Black slaves, in effect, became sugar machines.

Sugar was an economic pillar of the British Empire, part of the triangular trade by which British ships carried trade goods to Africa; slaves from Africa to the West Indies; and sugar, rum and molasses from the Indies back to England. According to Ms. Abbott, field slaves could expect to survive only seven years on average; they died, remarked one 19th-century observer, like over-driven horses. Cultivating cane in the Caribbean sun was unimaginably grueling. Failure to meet an hourly work quota might mean a flogging on the spot. The music of the negro is the whip, remarked one Martinique planter.

If sugar was literally polluted with slaves’ blood, as Ms. Abbott arrestingly puts it, the horrors of slavery also aroused humanitarians and jump-started the abolition movement in 18th-century England. Abolitionists calculated that if every family using five pounds of sugar and rum per week refused to consume slave-grown sugar, every 21 months they would save one African from enslavement and death. Cynics scoffed. But by the 1790s, 300,000 English were abstaining from West Indian sugar, while grocers and importers sought new sources of free sugar in East Asia. Parliament voted to abolish slavery in Britain in 1807 and then in the West Indies in the 1830s. These victories, in turn, inspired abolitionists in the U.S.

Oh, about Hershey’s chocolate. At the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Milton Snavely Hershey, a Pennsylvania Mennonite, was amazed to see a contraption that roasted, hulled and ground up chocolate beans into a liquid so that, when blended with sugar and other ingredients, it could be poured into molds and hardened into bars. Hershey bought the equipment on the spot and hurried home to his farm in Lancaster County, where he processed milk from his herd of Holsteins until it was slightly sour-to the horror of European connoisseurs, Ms. Abbott says-then blended it with the output from his new machine. Voila! North America’s first milk chocolate. “

Wall Street Journal

Library Journal, Editors’ Spring Pick

Not So Nice

“Little girls may be a mixture of sugar and spice and everything nice (I’ll leave that debate for another piece!), but when it comes to global cause and effect, sugar leaves all other ingredients behind-and it’s hard to find anything nice about it. In her latest book, Canadian scholar Elizabeth Abbott (research associate, Trinity Coll., Univ. of Toronto) traces the sugar that runs in history’s veins.

A descendant of Antigua sugar producers, Abbott tells LJ that this was the book of my heart, recalling that it took years to figure out what sort of book it would be. When I suggest what it is, she accepts that it’s a sweeping narrative that links and contextualizes the stories of individuals, systems, and movements, while grounded in solid scholarship.

Abbott ranges across oceans, following sugar from its native South Asia through Arab trade routes to Mediterranean countries and from thence to the colonized Caribbean, where such was the sweet tooth and hunger for profit of the Dutch and the French that they sacrificed temperate colonies (think New Amsterdam and Canada) to maintain claim to sugar-producing islands in the tropics. A few score years later, and Abbott is leading us through the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, showing us such popular introductions as ice cream parlors, soda pop, Jell-O treats, and penny candy, not to mention the wonders of sugar combined with cocoa or the ongoing commodification of special occasions and holidays into candy fests.

Abbott’s book is personal, owing both to her own expressions of response to what sugar has done and to her character sketches of men and women caught up in sugar’s web. I wanted…to bring my characters alive on the page, she says, and convey the complexities and nuances of the world they inhabit. Her readers will witness sugar’s crucial contribution first to the fatal geometry of the slave trade and thereafter to environmental damage greater than from any other single crop on Earth. Yet Abbott points out that sugar can be decidedly green. Brazil, the world’s largest sugar nation, has been producing sugar-based ethanol-and cars that can run on it-since the 1920s. Abbott agrees that the outlook is at least hopeful: Sugar ethanol is quite unlike ethanol from corn. First of all, it yields 8.3 times as much energy as that expended to make it, compared to corn’s mere 1.3 yield. By any measure, it’s a ‘green’ ethanol source.

And what of Haiti, where Abbott lived for some years? As a slave colony spun out of sugar, Haiti satisfied half of the world demand, but its early 19th-century independence brought that to an end.

I ask Abbott her thoughts about the country after the earthquake. Haiti is in such a state of devastation, with so little left to repair, she says, that the reconstruction process can be really imaginative and wide-ranging. This may be-should be!-the time to consider reestablishing the sugarcane culture that was once centered in Léogane, the epicenter of the earthquake. Sugarcane grown for refinement into ethanol to replace or supplement costly imported oil would employ thousands of Haitians and help the nation toward self-sufficiency in fueling itself.

Abbott quotes food historian Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, who noted, So many tears were shed for sugar that by rights it ought to have lost its sweetness. Sugar and Sugar both will give readers a lift, and, ultimately, both offer hope.”

Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal

“Sugar is the opiate of the people, lulling forgetfulness and forgiveness of its history of slavery, exploitation, rotting teeth, and depletion of the land. Abbott traces the history of sugar cane from Polynesia to India to the New World, particularly the Caribbean and the American South. Early chapters focus on the history of sugar as a spice, medicine, and aphrodisiac and its transformation from a luxury item for the rich, including gluttonous Queen Catherine, to sweet solace for common people, delivering calories and a boost during the Industrial Revolution. Abbott also details the dark side of the sweet sugar cane, brutal slavery, the subject of a boycott in the abolitionist movement led by William Wilberforce. She ends with the diaspora of sugar production and labor exploitation in the modern age, from the struggle to dominate Hawaii to the geopolitics of Coca Cola and other purveyors of sugary treats. Readers will never again be able to casually sweeten tea or eat sweets without considering the long and fascinating history of sugar.”


“Sugar makes life sweet and adds flavour to our foods while putting pounds on our frames and cavities in our mouths. Every year, Canadians consume about 45 kilograms of refined sugar — about the weight of an average 12-year-old boy. Sugar is a key factor in the rise of Type 2 diabetes in this country. Around the world, sugarcane production has caused a greater loss of biodiversity than any other crop and it’s left a bitter legacy over whole continents. Elizabeth Abbott’s Sugar: A Bittersweet History explains how we got to this point and how our taste for perfectly white, sweet grains has reshaped the world.

Even those who think they know a lot about the story of sugar will find much that is new to them.”

Pride News Magazine

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