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The Bittersweet History of Sugar – How the Global Sugar Trade was Built on the Backs of Slavery and Indentured Labor

Our country is one of the earliest countries in the world to produce sugar, dating back to the Western Zhou Dynasty.
However, sugar during this period was made from grains such as rice and wheat. In ancient times, when starch freedom had not yet been achieved, sugar production was destined to be low. Therefore, maltose was only circulated among princes and generals, and ordinary people did not have this “blessing”. “shared” to enjoy.
The advent of sucrose changed everything.
During the Warring States Period in the fourth century BC, primitive and crude processing of sugar cane was possible.
By the 10th century AD, there were four major sugar-producing areas in the world. In addition to India and China, the other two were located in the Mesopotamia and the Nile Valley.
In the mid-Tang Dynasty, due to the emergence of dripping sugar making method, large and small sugar mills appeared among the people, and the large-scale production of native sugar gradually became popular throughout the country.
Although the price of sugar is still high and it is one of the luxury goods, the people at the bottom finally have the opportunity to eat sugar.
At the same time, Europeans were still far away from sugar.
It is hard to imagine that Western countries, which are now extremely dependent on sugar, did not come into contact with white sugar for the first time until the 10th century.
Until the moment the Romans set foot on the plains of Tripoli and tasted sugar, the whole world changed.
Some smart businessmen continued to transport the scarce sugar from Islamic regions to Western Europe by land and sea, and began to introduce sugar cane cultivation on a large scale.
Even so, due to issues such as production and transportation, only a very small number of people in Europe could enjoy it at this time.
In Europe before the 16th century, sucrose, like spices from distant Asia, was an extremely valuable and rare item that could only be circulated among the powerful and upper-class society, and was not available to ordinary people.
What really made sucrose popular was its soul mate, tea.
In 1610, the Dutch East India Company set off a craze after reselling tea from China and Japan to Europe. The sky-high shipping costs made the price of tea very high, even comparable to gold.
Especially when black tea is paired with white sugar, it successfully stimulates the hidden attribute of British people who are addicted to tea, and they can’t stop it no matter what.
Why do British people add sugar to black tea?
Quite simply, just to show off your wealth.
In the eyes of the upper class, combining two expensive treasures, tea and cane sugar, can achieve a dual purpose of showing off wealth. In an era without supercars and designer handbags, it was enough to make the general public envious.

What’s more, adding white sugar to steaming black tea does have a sweet taste of power and wealth, which can make people head over.
Cozy and elegant, British afternoon tea has become a symbol of the quality of life of the aristocracy, but behind the sweetness are the bones and blood and tears of millions of black slaves.
When Columbus embarked on his second voyage in 1493, he was the first to bring sugar to the “New World” and cultivated the first sugar cane plantation in the West on the Madeira Islands on the east coast of the Atlantic Ocean.
Starting in 1525, large amounts of sugar were shipped back to Spain from there.
At the end of the 16th century, sugar exports from Brazil to Europe exceeded 10,000 pounds per year.
Britain, which had been coveted for a long time, did not want Spain and Portugal to monopolize the sugar cake, so it opened a large number of plantations in Jamaica, Cuba and other places in the Caribbean.

The place is available, but to achieve large-scale production of sugar cane, a large amount of labor is needed.
One-third of the white people who first came to work on Caribbean plantations were prisoners, and most of the rest were young people who had been deceived. Because the white laborers were arrogant and not very cooperative in their work, and for the sake of international reputation, these colonists could not beat or scold the white people too much, so the sucrose production could not increase.
The cake was clearly right in front of them, whether they could see or eat it made the planters anxious.
They suddenly remembered that as early as the 7th century, the Arabs used a large number of slaves to plant sugar cane. These slaves were obedient and honest, and they did not need to pay wages. They only needed to be fed some coarse grains and could complete the cycle of cattle and horses.
As a result, European colonists opened the most notorious chapter in human history, the slave trade.
Historian Eric Williams put it this way: “Where there is sugar, there are slaves.”
On the island of Barbados, which has an area of ​​only 430 square kilometers, the British have opened more than 900 sugarcane plantations, and sugarcane is densely planted everywhere.
This pattern was quickly replicated on various islands throughout the Caribbean, where thousands of black slaves were brought here and then used as pioneer cattle.
As time went by, a “triangular trade chain” gradually formed——
Slave traders used European industrial products such as salt, cloth, rum, and guns to obtain large numbers of black slaves from African chiefs, and then sold them to American planters by sea. Finally, they took away the raw sugar from the plantations and sold them to American planters. Europe refined it and sold it at a high price, then exchanged it for European industrial products.

By the 1830s, more than 12 million Africans had been transported to the New World as slaves, and most of them were used for farming and refining sugar.
The seemingly flawless white cane sugar has an entirely red background.
After the colonies implemented large-scale cultivation as hoped, the production of sugar and tea increased significantly, and their prices also dropped.
Between 1630 and 1680, the retail price of sugar dropped by half.
After the 18th century, the prices of sugar and tea had dropped to a level acceptable to the middle class. Even starting in 1805, sugar gradually became a daily consumer product for the British people.

The lower class people in Britain have become more addicted to sugar than the nobles, and three meals a day are indispensable.
Throughout the 18th century, British cane sugar consumption increased more than 10 times, and the cheapness of cane sugar also opened up another source of heat supply for Europeans besides food.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the British consumed about 9 kilograms of sugar per year, averaging 25 grams per day. As history books say: “Most British people feel that tea without sugar is like wine, which is bland and tasteless.”
This change in consumption patterns is called the “sugar revolution” by historians.
The significance of the sucrose revolution was not only to help Europeans develop the habit of “sugar addiction”, it even promoted the arrival of the Industrial Revolution.
First of all, the widespread popularization of cheap sugar will drive down food prices. This will make farmers who rely on food feel that there is no profit in farming, so they move to cities to make a living. This will lead to a rapid increase in the British urban population and greatly reduce labor costs.
When labor becomes cheap, workshop owners will spontaneously expand the scale of production in the hope of making more money; and the expansion of production scale will create a need for technological innovation.
So the industrial revolution came into being.
This is the essence of the “Sugar Revolution”, which liberates humans from large-scale farming and then invests them in industrial development.
Although large-scale cultivation has made cane sugar no longer “precious”, it has also made it a “unique commodity” with strategic value.
Commodities such as sugar, rubber, and tobacco produced in the colonies were important sources of income for many European powers at that time.
From the 17th to the 19th century, sugar’s economic and political status was almost equal to that of oil in the 20th century, so sugar also had the title of “white gold.”
In order to compete for control of world trade and colonies, starting in the 18th century, Britain and France started the “Second Hundred Years War” centered on the struggle for colonies.
An important reason why Britain and France were fighting fiercely was because they aimed at Spain’s right to supply slaves.
You know, Spain, with its vast territory in South America, has always been ready to get involved in the sugar business, but it lacked enough labor. After all, Spain had no colonies in Africa and had no way to personally obtain slaves to use as cattle and horses. It could only rely on slave trading countries such as Britain, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands to provide them.
During this period, Spain, as a major benefactor, had become a favorite of various countries. Under the continuous promotion of Britain’s “continental balance of power policy”, Europe in the 18th century saw frequent wars and became a mess.
Whether it was the early War of Spanish Succession, the subsequent War of Austrian Succession, or the Anglo-Dutch War, Seven Years War and Franco-Dutch War that broke out in the mid-eighteenth century, almost all were related to this “Sugar Contract”.

When Britain became the biggest winner of the Seven Years’ War, it meant that it finally took control of world trade. Wealth from various colonies continued to flow into Britain, and Great Britain officially became rich.
The war was over, but Britain did not want to settle the bill. Instead, it threw the huge expenses of the Seven Years’ War on the raging North American colonies.
Before the North American people could get angry, the British began to tax the syrup produced in North America, and passed many laws in the following ten years, such as prohibiting the North American colonies from issuing currency, prohibiting the import of rum from other countries, and increasing the crackdown on smuggling. A strict stamp duty policy was also enacted to cut off the local colonists’ financial paths.
The residents of the North American colonies could no longer bear it. They settled all their old and new grudges. Then with the sound of Lexington, the American Revolutionary War broke out.
John Adams, the second president of the United States, wrote in 1775: “We should not be ashamed to admit that the problem of molasses was an important factor in the American Revolution. Many big events were caused by small factors.”
After independence, the United States, after more than a hundred years of rest and recuperation, became stronger and stronger, and by the way pulled Britain from its position as the leader.
Because of sugar, Britain opened up the vast territory of the empire on which the sun never sets; and because of sugar, Great Britain was pulled down by its former younger brother in one fell swoop, achieving overtaking in corners.
By 1833, due to internal factional struggles, Britain was forced to abolish slavery in all colonies.
European countries originally did not want to follow suit, and even secretly rejoiced that they lost a strong enemy. However, after the full-scale independence war broke out in Latin America, due to the “international pressure” led by Britain, everyone had no choice but to abolish the slave trade and slavery.
The slave trade was abolished, but the cane sugar business was still booming, and supply exceeded demand, resulting in an inevitable labor shortage around the world, and the problem of labor sources returned to before liberation.
Driven by interests, capitalists will always have all kinds of “ingenious ideas”.
Since slaves can no longer be used, then recruit cheap labor from poor and backward countries.
As a result, an invisible, suffocating black hand stretched out to the land of China.
In 1846, British capitalists opened Deji Foreign Trade Co., Ltd. in Xiamen. At that time, it was commonly known as the selling company, which specialized in selling indentured Chinese laborers.
They used deception, inducement, kidnapping and other means to force Chinese people to sign contracts for overseas labor, and then sold large numbers of Chinese laborers to plantations and sugar factories in Hawaii, Peru and Cuba, commonly known as “selling piglets.”

At that time, the price of a black slave was 1,000 yuan, while an indentured Chinese laborer only cost 400 yuan.
The low selling price and high productivity made Chinese workers a perfect substitute for black slaves.
Although these Chinese workers who were sold abroad were not slaves, they were treated no differently than slaves:
During the long sea journey, hundreds of Chinese workers huddled in the bottom of the ship like sardines. Coupled with the hot climate and rough winds and waves, the living conditions were extremely harsh. The mortality rate was once as high as 45%. It was a veritable “hell at sea”.
After arriving at their destination, the Chinese workers ate pig food every day and could not bear the high-intensity labor. Coupled with various abuses by the plantation owners, countless people eventually died of starvation, exhaustion, and illness.

According to historical estimates, in the thirty years since 1845, more than 500,000 indentured Chinese laborers were sold to Latin America and Oceania, including 260,000 in Cuba and Peru combined.
By 1880, the number of Chinese workers in Cuba was less than 40,000, and the mortality rate among Chinese workers reached 75%.

It can be said that every grain of sugar at that time was soaked with the blood of the people of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Today, sugar production has long been replaced by industrial assembly lines, and the cruel scenes that slaves and indentured laborers once suffered on plantations are gone forever.
And many European histories we see today, including some published books, always put a hazy and beautiful filter on Europe when referring to it, talking about art and culture, introducing various customs and magnificent ancient buildings, but they It cleverly conceals the huge chain of sin behind it, and gradually dilutes and forgets it.
But the sufferings that the Chinese nation has endured cannot be brushed aside so easily . One must never forget the past and the future. This is the purpose of writing this article .

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