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