Vinoth Ramachandra

Unsweetening Histories

Posted on: August 30, 2020

Sugar, tea, cinnamon, nutmeg, cotton- behind each of these common household items there is a story of human barbarity and suffering that is rarely told in school history textbooks.

Serious histories, unlike hagiographies and polemical tracts, are always nuanced. The best historians strive to explore the complexity of human characters and their motivations, and the larger cultural, economic, political and religious contexts in which they were situated. They try to avoid judging people by the moral standards of their own day; and in this sense, there is an inevitably relativistic dimension to historical understanding.

For instance, the moral critique of slavery in the Greco-Roman world should be different from the moral critique of nineteenth-century chattel slavery in the United States or the earlier British colonies of the Caribbean. In the Roman world, slaves were mostly people taken as prisoners of war and many of them could work for and buy their freedom. The better-educated often worked in households. Economically, and in terms of social mobility, they were often better off than many free peasants. Moreover, there was no doctrine of human equality as part of a cultural worldview that applied to them or anybody else. There were also no mass shipments of slaves from Africa to serve purely as economic merchandise.

The tobacco and cotton-growing slave plantations of the southern United States, on which nineteenth-century American prosperity was founded, were pre-figured by the British sugar estates in the Caribbean which were not just the largest agricultural businesses in the world at the time but also the most destructive of human life. In this lawless universe of everyday enslavement, whites tortured, killed, raped, and mutilated black people with complete impunity. Men and women were worked to death so ruthlessly that very large numbers of fresh imports from Africa were continually needed to maintain the workforce. In contrast, by 1850, most US slaves were third-, fourth-, or fifth generation Americans even though they had no citizenship rights.

The Atlantic slave trade since the early 18th century was foundational to Britain’s rise to global power. The Caribbean islands, particularly Barbados and Jamaica, were turned into vast sugar plantations geared to an export market. In 1760 there had been about 150,000 slaves in Jamaica; by 1808 (the year after the slave trade was halted) there were over 350,000. Sugar became Britain’s single largest import, and during the eighteenth-century its consumption in Britain rose five-fold. The craze for it revolutionized national diets, spending habits, and social life- not least because of its association with that other recently fashionable commodity, tea. Even those in Britain who opposed the slave trade did not fully understand how these sugar islands were run as mega-factories: everybody from the Governor and the wealthiest white settler down to the slave labourer in the field was involved in the production of sugar for a distant market. The laws, the revenues, the communications were all created for that single economic purpose.

In a recent essay in the New York Review, the cultural historian Fara Dabhoiwalanotes that on the eve of the American Revolution, the nominal wealth of an average white person was £42 in England and £60 in North America. In Jamaica, it was £2,200. “Immense fortunes were made there and poured unceasingly back to Britain. This gigantic influx of capital funded the building of countless Palladian country houses, the transformation of major cities like London, Bristol, and Liverpool, and a prodigious increase in national wealth. Much of the growing affluence of North American ports like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia was likewise based on trade with the West Indies.”

What is most distressing is that, again unlike in the ancient Roman world or other civilizations which enslaved peoples considered “inferior” or even “sub-human”, many British and American colonial governors, lawmakers and merchants professed to be Christians, thus betraying the very core of the Christian faith. They were, with few exceptions, not publicly confronted and denounced by the Church of England. There were a few missionaries sent to evangelize slaves and white settlers, but the inhuman system as such was rarely challenged.

It was a sense of shame over British slavery and an attempt to “atone” for that which lay behind nineteenth-century Christian missions from Britain to Africa. The combination of commerce, education and evangelism was always open to criticism by anti-Christian voices in the West. But missionaries like David Livingston, for all their human foibles, were concerned to liberate Africans from returning to being economic prey at the hands of Arab slave-traders. (The current public outcry at slavery bypasses the fact that many- if not most- slaves were sold by African chiefs to Arab and European slave-traders, with Muslim Arabs controlling the East African slave trade in the nineteenth century).

At the same time, after the legal abolition of slavery in 1833, the British continued slavery in their colonies in another form: a system of “indentured immigrant labour” whereby poor unskilled labourers were exported from one part of the empire to another to work on plantations (tea, rubber, tin, etc.) which mirrored the hierarchical superstructure of the slave era: primitive barracks, no freedom of movement or association, and subsistence wages.

One new fact I learned from Dabhoiwala’s review essay was that British taxpayers have funded the largest slavery-related reparations ever paid out. “Under the provisions of the 1833 act, the government borrowed and then disbursed the staggering sum of £20 million (equal to 40 percent of its annual budget- the equivalent of £300 billion in today’s value). Not until 2015 was that debt finally paid off. This unprecedented compensation for injustice went not to those whose lives had been spent in slavery, nor even to those descended from the millions who had died in captivity. It was all given to British slaveowners, as restitution for the loss of their human property. Black lives, white rights.”

Our histories live on into the present, with terrible consequences. And our diets, clothing and consumption habits should be sites for serious historical, as well as moral, reflection.

4 Responses to "Unsweetening Histories"

Thank you for writing this. I’m an aspiring high school studies teacher in California thinking about how I want to present history to students. I appreciate how well your article so succinctly and clearly addresses histories of slavery, labor regimes, commodity trades, the enrichment of the elite and the rise of empires, and how there are direct connections to the way nations and societies operate today.

Learning about the labor conditions under which the goods we use and consume in our present world is a very complicated task. I’m trying to think of ways I might frame the big picture for students so that they can clearly see the injustices we have regarding labor exploitation and unsustainable environmental practices, so that they might begin to imagine how things could be different.

Interesting. So do you recommend consuming less sugar, tea, cotton etc?

#2 | jamesdskeating commented – September 1, 2020 at 2:04 am:
“Interesting. So do you recommend consuming less sugar, tea, cotton etc?” ……………… Is this meant to be some tongue-in-cheek passing remark or is there something else that I do not get?

Thanks Vinoth. Am currently revisiting the topic of transatlantic and Indian Ocean slavery with my Grade Grade 10s during South Africa’s heritage week this week. Asking the question with them “How has slavery in South Africa shaped our history to the present day?”

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