When many of us think about a commodity that changed our society, sugar may come to mind as a symbol of globalization as well as being the reason for the boom in slavery, when millions of Africans were brought to the United States to work on sugar farms. In the modern world, so many of us indulge in sweet goods; however, it is important to remember that the history of sugar was bittersweet. In this paper, we will compare sugar with another commodity – cotton, which had a similar early history to the emergence of sugar.
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Sugar as a Source of Power
When studying the origins of sugar and discussing its role in the now-globalized society, it is useful to start with Sidney W. Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Mintz did tremendous work in tracing the role of sugar back through time, describing how it became widely cultivated, as well as how it managed to gain great importance in the evolving Western world. The author emphasized that sugar cultivation became a sign of power, which caused much suffering for those who could not escape the ‘ruling hand’ of the wealthy.
Sugar, otherwise known by British colonists as white gold, was the main reason for the spread of slavery. The history of the Caribbean Islands, the majority of South America, as well as the southern part of the United States was greatly influenced by slavery on sugar cane plantations, which were established by powerful businessmen arriving from Europe. The profit from sugar cane plantations had been so significant that it may have contributed to America gaining independence from Great Britain.
However, very soon the colonists recognized that they lacked the manpower to sufficiently sustain their plantations. The first ships full of slaves from Africa arrived at the beginning of the sixteenth century and continued to arrive for three more centuries. The rise of slavery on sugar plantations was the main component of the Trade Triangle. By the nineteenth century, up to ten million Africans were brought to the Americas and forced to work on the Brazilian and Caribbean plantations.
It may be asked why the early settlers chose such a path towards globalization and why sugar caused those involved in the trade to extend the boundaries of what is currently acceptable in current society. Mintz managed to answer this question: “because sugar is sweet, and human beings like sweetness.” Sugar had an exotic and foreign quality to it, which turned this substance into fare for even the poorest of people. It acquired a new social meaning when first used and consumed by many people. Despite its popularity as well as the tremendous role sugar plays in modern trade, it is crucial to mention that the significance of sugar will never outweigh the lives of the ten million slaves forced to work on sugar plantations.
To this day, the production of sugar remains a controversial subject. The documentary H-2 Worker, directed by Stephanie Black, shed light on one of America’s darkest secrets. For half a year, over ten thousand male workers from Jamaica and other islands in the Caribbean cut sugar cane by hand around the Okeechobee Lake in Florida. Their job was so dangerous and low-paying that American citizens refused to do it.
Black’s documentary is the first piece of filming work that managed to show the conditions in which the men lived as well as the way in which they were treated. For their temporary work, they received an “H-2” visa that allowed them to stay in US territory for a specific period. The sugar plantations that exploited H-2 workers managed to sustain themselves with help from the United States government. It authorized the import of workers from developing countries and restricted the import of cheaper sugar for the reason of ‘national security.’
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The controversy around the H-2 worker program spanned five decades and began in the 1940s when the United States Sugar Cane Corporation was suspected of enslaving Black Americans. The scandal surrounding the sugar cane plantations was kept strictly away from the public eye and, with the support from government authorities, corporations managed to grow their businesses at the same time as escaping accountability for their actions.
The H-2 worker program is an institutionalized injustice that affected the lives of men that sought a better future in the “promised land” and wanted more opportunities for themselves and their families. As seen in the documentary, the workers were treated almost in the same manner as sugar cane plantation slaves in the eighteenth century, which does make one wonder about the way sugar impacted the development of labor and society overall.
Cotton Versus Sugar
The discussion about the significance of sugar can be made more effective by comparing its effects to those of another commodity that shaped our modern society. That commodity is, of course, cotton. The history of cotton and its arrival in the United States was also associated with the exploitation of slave labor, which significantly improved the US economy in the middle of the nineteenth century. Similar to the power of sugar plantations, the power of cotton fields gave momentum to the cotton revolution, which made slave labor more profitable than it had ever been before.
For the last fifty years, cotton has become a cornerstone of global trade, similar to sugar. The majority of global cotton production nowadays occur in India, China, the United States, and Pakistan. It is important to mention that despite similarities in history and development, cotton has been used for a larger number of purposes compared with sugar due to its nature and usage. In recent decades, sugar has been attracting more and more negative publicity because of the diabetes epidemic, and the healthcare system is currently battling with global food manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar included in products.
Cotton, on the contrary, is a commodity used for a wide variety of different purposes and has no potentially dangerous impact on health. While the production of cotton does pose some threat to the environment, there is not much negative publicity surrounding cotton, so the industry continues to thrive.
Both sugar and cotton were new and exciting commodities that brought tremendous profit to private businesses as well as the government. Since nobody could deny the importance of these products, the society decided to exploit foreign labor forces to bring economic growth to the country, without thinking about the consequences or the value of human life and labor. Despite the fact that both commodities had a similar history, comparing the relatively modern history of cotton with the history of sugar is similar to comparing apples and oranges.
Because sugar has proven to have a negative impact on people’s health when consumed in large quantities, the global food market is currently struggling with coming up with new ways of selling sugar and making a profit. Cotton, on the other hand, has developed technologically and is currently in the center of global trade.
While sugar gave a start to slavery, cotton contributed to its abolition. However, as evidenced by the H-2 Worker documentary, large corporations with the help of the government managed to create loopholes in the already existing policies and continued exploiting foreign labor without trying to pay respectable wages to citizens who could have agreed to perform the job legally. It is hard to dispute the significance and the value of sugar and cotton in the modern globalized society. With consumerism higher than ever before, modern trade stands firmly on the foundation created by sugar and cotton.
Nowadays no one imagines his or her life without cotton and sugar, although the price, which so many human beings had to pay, was too big to be disregarded. There is certain symbolic importance associated with both sugar and cotton – these commodities created a closed circle of human labor exploitation in the United States. It is important to remember that many things that modern society takes for granted were acquired or developed from unfair and unjust means.
Therefore, the history of sugar is bittersweet and, as mentioned by Mintz, is intertwined with human greed and domination. Globalization, as we know it today, is associated with the abolition of limits, with the aim of improving global economies and facilitating international trading cooperation; however, it is crucial to remember that the humankind imposed and continued to impose inhumane restrictions on some so that others can enjoy living in excess.
H-2 Worker. Directed by Stephanie Black. 1990. Belle Glade, FL: New Video. DVD.
Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
Torget, Andrew. Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of Texas Borderlands. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015.