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Eighteenth Century Slavery and Sugar

By Peter Boysen

Learn more about the sugar end of the "triangle trade" -- slaves, sugar and molasses cycling from Africa to North America to Europe, in a vicious cycle of inhuman treatment of African slaves.

How Sugar Became Crucial

Even in the early 1700's, there were many people who opposed the practice of slavery in the eighteenth century on the sugar plantation. However, the advent of the eighteenth century was also a transformative time for one of the central agricultural products of the Enlightenment era: sugar. For centuries, the wealthy had used sugar to preserve food (sugar-curing), and to spice and sweeten food. Sugar can also come in handy in some medicines. However, unless you were in the upper crust, you'd never heard of sugar. You couldn't afford it.

An Imported Crop

Sugar cane was one of the agricultural products of Spain and Portugal, and in the colonial era, cultivation spread to South America and the Caribbean. The colonial plantations would produce the raw cane, which was then bundled onto ships for refining back in Europe. In that time period, the idea of humane labor laws was still centuries off, and so the colonial authorities permitted the use of native slaves, and imported slaves from Africa, in sugar cultivation. Because the cost of using slaves was significantly less than that of using laborers, the cost of production went down, and the sugar trade exploded.

The reason for this is that the cost of sugar went down as the cost of producing it dropped. With costs lowered, production went up, sugar became more accessible, and people in the middle classes were now able to buy it. In the eighteenth century alone, the consumption of sugar rose more quickly than the consumption of dairy, bread or meat products. In Wales and England, sugar consumption increased 2000% during the 1700's!

It wasn't just a lower price that made sugar more of an attractive product -- marketing was a powerful force even then. Middle class shoppers heard about the wonderful effects sugar could give them, and it tasted wonderful in tea. Since it had once been only accessible to the very wealthy, sugar was something that the middle classes just had to have, once they could. Whereas in our own time things like cars or handbags are status symbols, in those days it was the ability to purchase sugar.

With Sugar Came the Slaves

While the influx of slaves from Africa initially meant low labor costs and increased sugar production, slavery in the eighteenth century on the sugar plantation had other profound effects in the Caribbean too. It wasn't long before the largest group in the Caribbean population was these very slaves.

While the working conditions on the sugar plantations make the sweatshops that lurk in that part of the world in our own time seem gentle in comparison, there were always plenty of Africans to bring in to take the places of those who had worn out -- or died. In 1700, there was an annual average influx of 17,000 slaves from Africa to North and South America and the Caribbean; by 1810, that rate had more than tripled. During the 1800's, three out of every five Africans who came to the Caribbean were brought as slaves for sugar plantations. By the time the slave trade fizzled out, following its abolition in England in 1807 and in the United States in 1863, about 4.5 million Africans had ended up as slaves in the Caribbean. This led to an extremely complex social structure, in which skin color and ancestry had a great deal to do with personal power.

This information is just an introduction to this significant issue. Read more about it through the links in the reference section.