Take the fish off your SUV.

It’s a flashback Tuesday and we’re going back to Christianity in the 18th Century. When some people noticed that sugar came from slavery, and that slavery killed people, and therefore chose not to use it. This is for everyone who drives around burning up gas at 8 miles per gallon with a fish and a Harvest Crusade sticker on the back of it while the blood bubbles in the sun in Iraq.

Between 1637, the date of the 1st sugar planted in Barbados, and 1808, when the last slave was legally landed in the West Indies, the value of a slave in the Caribbean varied between that of half a ton of sugar before 1700 and 2 tons in 1805. The average in the 18th century was about a ton per slave’s life, 2 tons just before abolition of the slave trade. Two tons of sugar is less than a thousand modern schoolchildren in one school might consume in a week in junk food, soft drinks, and ice cream.

For a very long time the average slave only produced one tenth of his value each year. So 1 ton represented the lifetime sugar production of 1 slave who had been captured, manacled, marched to the African coast, penned like a pig to await a buyer, sold, chained again on board ship, sold on the island market, and then naturalized to the conditions of the Caribbean (“seasoned”)18 before he showed any profit to the plantation owner. The slave, bewildered if surviving at all, would have seen the matter in rather a different light. But few slaves would know that a black was worth just about the same as 1 ton of refined sugar, not per hour, not per week, but for the whole of his life.

18. “Seasoning” (which would today be called acclimatization) involved certain severe changes in the Negroes’ life-style. The diet consisted mainly of cassava and corn–it was better than that on board ship, but not so good as in Africa. New diseases, of which the worst was yellow fever, threatened them. The work was strange, the “education” very painful, and the overseer almost certainly a brute. Curiously, men survived seasoning better than women.

Sugar is a substance which we now know that we can well do without, even today when it is cheap and freely available. Why, when its use caused so much death, cruelty, and misery, did sugar move from a luxury afforded and used by a few in 1600, to a necessity for many 200 years later? For every ton consumed in 1600, 10 tons were consumed in England in 1700 and 150 tons in 1800. In 1600, little of the sugar was slave grown and none came from the West Indies directly to England. In 1800, nearly every ton of sugar imported into England was grown and harvested by slaves, and the ratio was 1 black man’s life to 2 tons of sugar. In 1801 the population of England was about 9 million, and sugar consumption about 17 pounds per head per year. This gives a total consumption in England of over 70,000 tons of sugar in that year. That was equivalent to twice the number (35,000 plus) of black slaves consumed in the islands in the production of sugar. On average, for every 250 English men, women, and children, a black died every year.

This is the central social problem. Why did a relatively advanced society become so dependent on Sugar as to allow such a slaughterous addiction? The sugar addiction in 1801, wherever it existed, killed proportionately more people than the drug trade does today. The drug trade differs, of course, in that it kills those hooked on the product, while the sugar trade mostly killed slaves.

Sugar, then, is the most notable addiction in history that killed not the consumer but the producer. Every ton represented a life. Every teaspoonful represented 6 days of a slave’s life. Put that way, would anyone in 18th century England have touched sugar? —Henry Hobhouse, Seeds of Change

Many persons have of late left off the use of West-India sugar on account of the iniquitous manner in which it is obtained. Those families who have done so, and have not substituted anything else in its place, have not only cleansed their hands of blood, but have made a saving to their families, some of six pence, and some of a shilling a week. —William Carey, 1791

11 thoughts on “Take the fish off your SUV.

  1. Funny you should mention slavery and sugar, I just finished writing about having recently watched Marlon Brando’s Burn! Have you seen it?

      1. Yes!
        It’s from, oh, I want to say 1967, but I’m not sure. Brando plays a British agent who is sent to a Portugese sugar-producing colony in the Caribbean in the 1800s. His mission is to stir two groups to revolt: the slaves and poor black freemen, and greedy plantation owners who are guaranteed better trading prices for their sugar. I won’t spoil it for you, it twists and truns all over the place from its initial starting point, but it is a compelling, brutal and complex look at colonialism and race relations, with a few allegories relating to the Vietnam war thrown in there. The black people are all shot in an ethnographic documentary style, which gives it even more of an edge.

  2. Sugar is a drug, and we have to start thinking about it like we do other drugs. Not only is it as addictive as other drugs, it shares a colonial trade history that is very similar to that of tea, coffee, tobacco and opium. Mr. Hobhouse asks why we consume sugar today, and the answer is it is still an economic pillar of an exploitive economic system. Companies like Coke and Pepsi need addictive legal substances in their products in order to keep us consuming.

    1. Not only that, but companies that switch from using cane sugar to fructose receive huge tax breaks. cheaper for them, more unhealthy poison for us.

  3. That was also the time when the prevalent economic theory was mercantilism.
    The exponential growth of technology has afforded the world the luxury of social and moral change. If it still took one slave to produce two tons of sugar over his/her lifetime, I can bet you that slavery would still exist. There are some that would like to think that social change is inevitable, but I only believe that to be the case in a filter down effect. If the standard of living for the wealthiest classes in the world stays static, I’m betting that the drive towards moral change would also lessen. It’s the unending balance between natural greed, and conscious evolution.

  4. See Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power. Sugar was a cheap sweetener and quick energy boost for mill workers in England, thus completing the Triangle Trade of slaves, sugar, and capital in the form of ships. Great book.

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