World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 31, April 2002

In this issue:

  1. From the Editors
  2. Book Reviews
  3. Recent Publications
  4. Conference

This version of the World Sugar History Newsletter, Number 31, April 2002, has been edited for the purpose of on-line display. The contents remain complete.


Readers will be aware that the Newsletter has not been appearing with the frequency that it once did, that is, twice a year. It is a circumstance that we regret and find somewhat embarrassing. Our “excuse” is the lack of “copy” that we have had to work with over the past couple of years. Fewer books seem to have been published about sugar of late. Also, we have been affected by the non-appearance of a couple of reviews for books that we obtained from publishers. Conferences have been rare, and while we have been pursuing new elements on an old subject – largely in response to inquiries brought by new readers of the Newsletter who have come across back issues on our website – there has still not been enough to publish two issues per year. We apologize and hope to return to past practices shortly. In the meanwhile, we shall maintain the numbering of the Newsletter but bring the dates up-to-date. And we will make certain that readers receive all the issues for which they have subscribed.


Pal Ahluwalia, Bill Ashcroft, and Roger Knights (eds.), White and Deadly: Sugar and Colonialism (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 1999). Pp. x + 194. $59 (cloth). ISBN 1-56072-710-1.

A catchy title is sometimes more than a mere enticement. For all of its outward simplicity this book’s title is deeply meaningful. There is an ambiguity about whiteness: does it pertain to sugar or to colonial rulers? And what precisely is lethal: is it whiteness or is it colonialism; is it the production of sugar cane or is it its consumption? These thoughts might have been left unsaid had the book not been presented as (the first?) one of a series entitled “Horizons in Post-colonial Studies”.

Post-colonial studies in this context refer to an analytical approach rather than to a study of former colonies since the end of colonial rule. Essentially, the approach has to do with a reading of the reactions to colonialism. It originated in literary studies, its purpose being to bare the causal effects of colonialism’s narratives and discourses. Though these effects are profoundly political, they may not always be seen as such by either the subjects to whom the discourse applies or those who converse through those discourses. Language itself shapes the domination, submission, resistance, or any other conceivable stance adopted by those who directly experience or wish to understand power differentials in society. Analytical discourses are therefore also at issue. Often framed in the inherited language of empire, analytical discourses of the North tend not to take as their point of departure the notion that a cultural unity persists between colony and metropolis, colonized and colonizer; that the existence of one is predicated upon the existence of the other. Post-colonial studies, by contrast, dwell on these cultural ties. Hybridism is championed while dualism is challenged, whether it serves to perpetuate colonial subjugation or to oppose it. Thus not only eurocentricism but also the dualistic notions of Third Worldism and dependency are targeted. Taken to their practical limit, post-colonial studies should reveal the implications of discursive practices to the historically dominated subjects of former colonies and inspire a cultural reassessment. This then is one way of quickly describing post-colonial studies. Nothing is quite so cut-and-dried, however, and controversy abounds.

This book’s editors espouse a post-colonial approach that is holistic in its grasp of culture, economy, and political strategy; wary of discursive binaries and conflations; and distinct from but not necessarily antithetical towards political economy. Their concern with sugar stems from seeing it “. . . as one of the meta-narratives of colonialism” (p. 14), that “. . . focuses the dynamic reality of post-colonial strategies as no other single product has ever done” (p. 20).

James Walvin is first off after the introduction. His chapter amounts to a synopsis of the books that have won him acclaim as a social historian of race, slavery, plantations, and sugar. By connecting system and individual, global power and personal senses, he identifies the economic and cultural centrality of sugar in imperial history. Bill Ashcroft follows with an extension of the introductory editorial argument for a post-colonial approach to the “fatal sweetness”. Ambitious and wide-ranging, Ashcroft’s chapter weighs the promise of a post-colonial study of sugar against existing histories. On balance he has more success in advancing ideas about the significance of culture than in showing why a social historical or cultural studies approach might be incapable of dealing with culture from the perspective of the colonized. Pal Ahluwalia then uses the ascent of Uganda’s “white highlands” by a pair of settler Asians to demonstrate how the sugar plantation survived as a universal institution in the face of colonial state policy. Next is Roger Knight’s account of the use of the term “coolie” in colonial Java’s sugar industry, and how it failed to capture the diversity of labourers, who themselves disowned the label and retaliated as industrial workers. Kate Flint follows with a literary offering on the importance of “exorcising” the spectres that haunt the history of sugar. Working through nineteenth-century and more recent fictional writing, she strives for a liberating and therapeutic literary response to the lasting traumas of slavery and colonization. John Kelly then writes on the role of capital, more specifically the joint stock company, in establishing Fiji as a sugar colony, an essay that revisits theoretical classics to emphasize its empirical points. Peter Griggs follows with a study of Melanesian, Chinese, and other small-scale farmers of Asian descent in Australia’s nascent sugar industry. They were discriminated against commercially and legally, and that they have since disappeared belies their significance to the industry during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. John Perkins and Roger Munting complete the book with their chapter on the growth of beet sugar production in eighteenth- and mainly nineteenth-century Europe in competition with colonial cane sugar imports. They conclude that this protected growth had an impact on European class relations and culture that has been “consistently underestimated” (p. 170).

This is all fascinating material, but the editorial objective has not been quite met, a condition that’s clarified below. That said, very few minor slips have escaped the editorial eye. Where empirical accuracy is concerned, eyebrows will be raised by the statement that commercial cane sugar production in Africa “was (and is) largely confined to Natal and Uganda . . .” (p. 6), and by the intimation – probably quite unintended – that slaves had no part in the history of sugar production in Mauritius (pp. 135-6). Another remark on matters editorial is that one of the chapters is twice as long as the next longest in the book, a conspicuous privilege without obvious justification.

Readers who are drawn to the book by its post-colonial claims will be rewarded by some fine chapters, but they are not given a fair measure of the extent of the literature on sugar and society. To be sure, Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power is held high and there are references to the works of other notables, but readers who are unacquainted with this literature are not offered a clear sense of the historiographical achievements and the debates concerning sugar production and related social institutions.

Established historians of sugar will agree that the book’s major contribution is, ironically, its empirical content rather than the post-colonial prism that it offers. Some of the chapters could quite comfortably and without modification be placed in editions that do not belong to the field of post-colonial studies. And, as so many sugar histories have done in the past, some chapters achieve the ends of post-colonial studies without conscious reference to the perspective at all. These aspects of the book do not detract from the value of the individual chapters by familiar stalwarts as well as one or two relative newcomers to the domain of sugar history. Its further value lies in the way the book functions as an almanac of sorts, with several chapters serving as portals to the respective author’s more substantial works.

David Lincoln
University of Cape Town

John C. Rodrigue, Reconstruction in the Cane Fields: From Slavery to Free Labor in Louisiana’s Sugar Parishes 1862-1880 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001). Pp. 256. $49.95 (cloth), $19.95 (paper).

John C. Rodrigue’s new book is a much needed and long-expected treatise on labour issues in the production of plantation sugar cane in late nineteenth-century Louisiana. In the history of sugar cane, labour has always played a key role in the success or failure of the sugar business at any point in its evolution and at any place in the world. With regard to Louisiana, Rodrigue thoroughly examines three major labour trends for the period 1862 to 1880: (1) labour under slavery prior to the Civil War; (2) the beginnings of wage labour during the Civil War and the use of military regulatory processes to set the pattern in motion; and (3) free but wage labour on post-Civil War sugar plantations with Reconstruction issues.

In my book, Delta Sugar, that focuses on contemporary plantations over the past thirty-five years, I briefly explored the subtle changes between nineteenth-century slavery and free labour on Louisiana’s sugar plantations. Much still needed to be said, but at no time did I think that this essential story would ever be told so thoroughly and so eloquently as the story told by John C. Rodrigue. The labour history of Louisiana’s sugar plantations is both significant and unique, unique because in the post Civil-War era, Louisiana’s sugar plantations retained gang labour while the cotton plantations elsewhere in the South did not. This meant that there were major differences in the transitions from slave labour to free among the planter groups, and the resulting landscapes would have very different appearances.

Much is known about plantation labour under slavery, and Rodrigue covers this topic more than adequately. Until this book, we knew little about the transitional period in southern Louisiana between slavery and Reconstruction. A number of questions come to mind. How was plantation labour organized during the Civil War? What role did the military have in enforcing martial law leading to plantation labour regulations? What effect did this have on the development of wage labour during and after the Civil War? How did freedom manifest itself in the lives of wage labourers in term of suffrage, land ownership, and other elements of life afforded to freed men? How did planters react and adjust to the dynamics of labour changes before the Civil War, during the War, and during Reconstruction? Rodrigue answers these and other vital questions in moving and direct ways. Armed with quotes from the “actors” – planters and freed men – he weaves his own interpretations of the events of this significant period in Louisiana labour history.

Rodrigue’s study relies heavily on archival sources that he acknowledges in detailed, useful footnotes. He has also used government documents, newspapers, and secondary sources. There is an extensive bibliography that would be even better if it contained the publishers of the books. The index, too, could be improved by making it more specific. The illustrations include eighteen historic engravings and some early photographs. There are twenty tables but just one map.

Reconstruction in the Cane Fields is a very strong and welcome addition to the body of knowledge on the history of sugar. While it is no “page turner” (but what scholarly book is?), it contains much of the data that one needs to flesh out the story of labour on nineteenth-century sugar plantations in Louisiana. It is a “must-read” for the scholar interested in the history of Louisiana sugar.

John Rehder
University of Tennessee

Adela Fábregas García, Producción y comercio de azúcar en el Mediterráneo medieval. El ejemplo del Reino de Granada (Granada: Editorial Universidad de Granada, 2000). ISBN 84-338-2710-3.

The cultivation of sugar cane in southern Spain has a long history, dating from the time of the Islamic conquest. The mountainous terrain and long summer drought so characteristic of the region make a far from ideal environment for the crop, yet it has endured, and today there are still a few irrigated hectares of sugar cane along the Mediterranean coast. Adela Fábregas García is concerned with sugar production in the Kingdom of Granada when it was ruled by its last Islamic dynasty, the Nazarí, from 1246 to 1492. These were years when the cultivation of sugar cane flourished, Granada becoming a significant source of sugar for markets in Italy and northern Europe. Fábregas García is interested in examining this success, but she also uses Granada as a case study to comment more generally on the historiography of the medieval Mediterranean sugar industry.

The first three chapters of the book set the context for the case study. Fábregas García reviews the introduction of sugar cane to the Mediterranean, its early cultivation in Islamic Spain, the state of agriculture in Granada at the time of the Nazarí, and the growing role of Genoa in Granadan trade. These chapters are largely based on secondary sources: readers familiar with the history of Mediterranean sugar may find little new in them.

The main contributions come in the second half of the book. In the fourth chapter, which is really the core of the book, Fábregas García draws on archival sources – mainly those of Granada, Genoa, and the commercial house of Datini – to record the exports of Granadan sugar. They began in a significant way in the second half of the 14th century and were directed to the markets of Barcelona, Genoa, Montpellier, and Avignon from where they were carried further afield. In a later phase, Bruges became the centre for the distribution of Granadan sugar in northern Europe. Fábregas García is able to record the importance of Granadan sugar in these markets, trace the routes along which Granadan sugar moved, and note those who organized the trade. These same sources show that Granada’s role as an important exporter of sugar to Europe was brief, lasting barely a hundred years. Fortified with this Granadan research, Fábregas García, in her fifth and final chapter, takes issue with two points in the literature on the transfer of sugar production from the Mediterranean to the Americas. The arrival of the “new sugars” from Madeira and the other Atlantic islands did not cause a decline in sugar cultivation in Granada. Rather, producers adapted, re-oriented themselves, and found new markets in Spain. Second, she argues that medieval Mediterranean agriculture and the American plantations were very different systems of production, that indeed there was not one continuous line of development reaching over the centuries from the Levant and Cyprus through the western Mediterranean and the Atlantic islands to Brazil and Barbados. The archival work and final interesting debate make this book a very welcome contribution to the literature on the Mediterranean phase of the history of sugar.

J. H. Galloway
University of Toronto


La industria azucarera nacional y el mercado internacional, 1992-98 (Lima: Ministerio de Agricultura del Perú). Pp. 195.

R.K. Fleischman and T.N. Tyson, “The interface of race and accounting: the case of Hawaiian sugar plantations, 1835-1920,” Accounting History, NS 5, No. 1 (2000), pp. 7-32.

J.H. Galloway, “Sugar,” pp. 437-449, in Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Conée Ornelas (eds.), The Cambridge World History of Food, Vol. 1, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Robert Goddard, “The fall of the Barbados planter class: an interpretation of the 1980s crisis in the Barbados sugar industry,” Agricultural History, 75 (2001), pp. 329-345.

Peter Griggs, “The decline of competition: the emergence of a state duopoly in the Australian sugar refining sector, 1841-1915,” Australian Geographer, 32 (2001), pp. 359-376.

Peter Griggs, “Sugar plantations in Queensland, 1864-1912: origins, characteristics, distribution, and decline,” Agricultural History, 74:3 (2000), pp. 609-647.

Ian Mackintosh, Broken Dreams and Broken Promise – the Cane Conspiracy. Plantation Agriculture in the Northern Territory, 1878-1889 (Darwin: Northern Territory University Press, 2000). Pp. 128. Aus$38.50. ISBN 1 876248 483.

Eduardo Rosenzvaig, La Cepa. Arqueología de una cultura, Vol. III, (Tucumán: Universidad Nacional de Tucumán, Ediciones Letra Buena, 1999). Pp. 606. ISBN 950-777-115-8. This is the third volume in an encyclopedia of the popular culture of the sugar-growing region of Tucumán, Argentina.

Keith A. Sandiford, The Cultural Politics of Sugar. Caribbean Slavery and the Narratives of Colonialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Pp. 212. $59.95. ISBN 0 521 64233 7.

Christopher Schmidt-Nowara, Empire and Antislavery: Spain, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, 1833-1874 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999). Pp. vii + 324. $50.00 (cloth), $22.95 (paperback). ISBN 0-8229-4089-2 and 0-8229-5690-X.

M. Elisabetta Tonizzi, L’industria dello zucchero. La produzione saccarifera in Italia e in Europa 1800-2000 (Milano: 2001). Pp. 201. €17.56. ISBN 88-464-3234-7.


The Centre for the History of the Atlantic in Funchal, Madeira, is hosting a conference entitled “Rotas e Mercados do Açucar”, April 14-19, 2002. The organizer is Alberto Vieira of CEHA, Rua dos Ferreiros, 165, 9004-520, Funchal, Madeira, Portugal. There will be a report on the conference in the next issue of the Newsletter.

The World Sugar History Newsletter is compiled by Jock Galloway and Peter Blanchard. The subscription rate is $15 for four issues. The issue number listed on the address sticker indicates when the subscription expires. Personal cheques made out to World Sugar History Newsletter and drawn on Canadian or American banks are acceptable. Correspondence and subscriptions should be sent to Jock Galloway or Peter Blanchard, Victoria College, University of Toronto, 73 Queen’s Park Crescent, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1K7. E-mail: or Back issues of the WSHN can be found on its website at