World Sugar History Newsletter 39(12/09)

World Sugar History Newsletter

World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 39, December 2009

In this issue:

  1. Review
  2. Recent Publications
  3. Sugar-Related Literature On-line


Elizabeth Abbott, Sugar: A Bittersweet History (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008), Pp. x + 453. $24.00 (Paper), ISBN 978-0-1430-1713-4.

Elizabeth Abbott, the best-selling author of A History of Celibacy and A History of Mistresses, sets herself an ambitious task in her latest book, Sugar: A Bittersweet History. Abbott tries to tell the story of sugar from the seventh century to what she claims to be “the state of the industry today” (p. 7). Her book is broad in its chronological and geographical sweep, but gives greatest attention to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Abbott relies overwhelmingly on secondary sources, although occasionally she does refer to primary material. The listing of references in the select bibliography appears exhaustive, but on closer examination some seminal sugar-related works are not mentioned. J. Carlyle Sitterson’s monumental work on the history of the cane sugar industry in the southern United States of America is not mentioned; Roger Knight’s publications on the Javanese sugar industry have been overlooked (more on this topic shortly); and Crisis and Change in the International Sugar Economy 1860-1914 by Bill Albert and Adrian Graves is absent.

The book is extremely well written, easy to read, and kept this reviewer’s attention; this is an engaging work. The emphasis in the narrative is on exploring the depredations associated with the production of sugar: the destruction of the Arawak-speaking Taino and Carib during the sixteenth century; slavery, plantation society, and its inequalities; slave resistance and the abolition of slavery; the evils of indenture, especially the ill-treatment of ‘coolies’ or Indian workers, in the Caribbean; and the ways that the cultivation of sugar cane have irreversibly altered the environment. However, so much attention is devoted to slavery that I began to wonder if this book was about the history of sugar as a product (as suggested by the book’s title) or the grave historical injustices associated with its production. Herein lies the problem with this book – what was the author’s real aim?

The title of the book suggests that readers will be presented with information on the history of sugar as a product. Chapter 2: The Proletarianisation of Sugar, fulfils this goal admirably, containing interesting details about the rise of sugar as a delicacy, its use as a medicine, and “sugar’s bitter mates: tea, coffee, and chocolate”. This theme is picked up again in Chapter 11: Meet and Eat Me in St. Louis. Sugar and its use in ice cream, sodas, candy, and chocolate are explored in this section. Fragments of information are presented about sugar consumption in different countries: the British consumed 0.2 kilograms per head per week in the mid-nineteenth century or ten kilograms per year, while sugar consumption in the United States went from 8.4 pounds (3.8 kilograms) per person in 1801 to 70.6 pounds (32 kilograms) per person in 1905. But this information is not an accurate or coherent account of the rise of sugar consumption amongst western countries during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the growth of sugar consumption in less developed countries since 1945. The detail overlooks that a survey in 1882 of sugar growing and refining across the globe found that colonial Australians used 35.7 kilograms (78.7 pounds) of sugar annually, more than any other country (Lock, Wigner, and Harland, p. 611). Moreover, this trend persisted, with Australians during the 1920s still consuming around 60 kilograms per capita annually, the most sugar per capita consumed anywhere in the world (Robertson, pp. 107 & 111). Just who is consuming sugar in the post-1945 period and how much is not considered at all, although the link between sugar, obesity, dental decay, and diabetes is mentioned.

The account is also unbalanced by its lack of attention to some of the major developments associated with the production of sugar. The sugar diasporas of the nineteenth century – the establishment of commercial sugar cane industries in Peru, Mauritius, Natal, Mozambique, Fiji, Hawaii, and Australia – are covered. However, nothing is mentioned about the emergence of commercial sugar production during the nineteenth century in Argentina, Java, the Philippines, British Malaya, and Taiwan. The omission of Java in any account of the history of sugar is a serious oversight, as the Dutch-controlled island between c. 1870 and the 1930s was consistently the world’s second largest producer-exporter of cane sugar after Cuba. This skimpy treatment of the producers of sugar is continued when Abbott deals with the twentieth century. In fact, the post-1900 treatment of sugar production globally is one of the least satisfactory parts of the book. Details about Australian sugar production, for example, cease in 1906, yet Australia after 1945 emerged as one of the world’s top four exporters of unrefined cane sugar. Readers are not told that Thailand is now a major exporter of cane sugar, and that commercial sugar production was established in several sub-Saharan African countries during the twentieth century (e.g., Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, and Kenya). Global prices of sugar and their fluctuations are also barely mentioned. The operation of a highly regulated global sugar production system, governed by successive International Sugar Agreements for much of the period between 1930 and 1985, is not given any attention, yet such commodity agreements aimed to avoid the over-production of sugar, a feature which is prominent in the history of the product, but not acknowledged in this account.

The book contains a selection of interesting photographs which help illustrate some of the points being made in the discussion. A difficult-to-read map of the Caribbean and Mexico appears on page 38, although its purpose is not clear. The geographer in me wanted to see more maps, like the fantastic plantation maps that appear in Barry Higman’s Jamaica Surveyed: Plantation Maps and Plans of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. A reproduction of one of those maps would have enhanced the section on sugar cane plantations. Some tables of data or graphs would have also added to the discussion. Nowhere in this book can a reader find details on the amount of sugar produced and consumed globally, especially during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, or which countries were the major producers and consumers of sugar.

As an Australian, I cannot avoid mentioning the errors that I picked up in the small amount of material that is included in this book on the Australian sugar industry. Abbott claims that “Australia also exported refined sugar” (p. 348). This is not correct. Australia during the nineteenth century never produced refined sugar for export, and had to rely on imports of raw and refined sugar until its own industry produced enough sugar in the 1920s to meet domestic demand. Even today, Australia exports little refined sugar, despite an ongoing debate amongst the country’s refiners and mill-owners about the merits of the practice. Abbott is correct in her assertion that many foreign species were introduced into the countries where sugar was produced and that these invaders have been responsible for the extinction of numerous local animals, birds, and reptiles. However, cane toads were not introduced into Australia in 1934; they were collected in Hawaii and brought to Australia in June 1935.

I wish I could recommend this very readable book unreservedly. However, in my opinion the book is an incomplete and unbalanced account of the history of sugar as a product and its production. Perhaps its author was just too ambitious in her goal.

Higman, Barry, Jamaica Surveyed: Plantation Maps and Plans of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (San Francisco: Institute of Jamaica Publications Ltd., 1988).
Lock, Charles, George Wigner, and Robert Harland, Sugar Growing and Refining (London: E & F. N. Spon, 1882).
Robertson, Charles, World Sugar Production and Consumption: An Economic and Geographical Survey (London: John Bale, Sons & Danielsson, 1934).

Peter Griggs
James Cook University – Cairns Campus

Ruins of Sugar Plantation, St. Martin


Daniela Ciccolella, “‘Un genere pressocché necessario’: Consumo, politica e industria dello zucchero nel regno di Napoli in età rivoluzionaria e napoleonica,” Storia Economica 2-3 (2004), pp. 263-314.

Gillian McGillivray, Blazing Cane: Sugar Communities, Class, and State Formation in Cuba, 1868-1959 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009). Pp. 416. Cloth $89.95 ISBN 13 978-0-8223-4524-4. Paper $24.95. ISBN13 978-0-8223-4542-8.

Antonio Santamaria Garcia & Consuelo Naranjo Orovio (eds.), Más allá del azúcar. Política, diversificación y prácticas económicas en Cuba, 1878-1930 (Madrid: Ediciones Doce Calles, 2009). Pp. 314, índex, bibliography, picture, & tables. ISBN 978-84-9744-047-1.

Hernán Venegas Delgado, Trinidad de Cuba: Corsarios, azúcar, y revolución en el Caribe (Trinidad, Cuba: Oficina del Conservador de la Ciudad de Trinidad, 2006), Pp. 150.

Fritz Georg von Graevenitz, “Changing vision of the world sugar market in the Great Depression,” European Review of History: Revue europeenne d’histoire 15:6 (2008), pp. 727-747.


Norman Rozeff has provided the following:

Project Gutenberg is an organization dedicated to placing copyright expired classics and other literature online. It has over 20,000 documents online and links to other sites having over 100,000 documents online. Unfortunately its documents are not searchable by subject matter, only by author and/or title. However if one goes to the Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts, one may search by subject. Once found one can return to the Gutenberg site and write in the desired author/title information. This is desirable because the screen graphics on the Alex site are poor.

Here are some of the sugar-related documents from Scientific American that can be found in Gutenberg:
“Sugar making in Louisiana,” Vol. 22 No. 1, January 1, 1870;
“Consumption of sugar, coffee, and tea,” Vol. 24 No. 12, March 18, 1871;
“Domestic sugar production,” Supplement No. 312, December 24, 1881;
“Detection of starch sugar syrup mixed with sugar-house molasses,” Supplement No. 315, January 14, 1882;
“Faure’s machine for decorticating sugar cane, Supplement No. 441, June 14, 1884;
“Progress of the sorghum sugar industry,” February 18, 1888;
“Standards and methods for the polarimetric estimation of sugars,” October 13, 1891[this followed the establishment of a 2 cents per pound sugar bounty];
“Molasses, how made, Supplement No. 561, October 2, 1886;
“Notes on saccharin,” November 10, 1887;
“New sugar items,” December 12, 1891.

The World Sugar History Newsletter is compiled by Jock Galloway and Peter Blanchard. Correspondence may be sent to Peter Blanchard, Victoria College, University of Toronto, 73 Queen’s Park Crescent, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1K7, or: or