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The Relationship Between Sugar And Slavery In The Early Modern Period.

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"No commodity on the face of the Earth has been wrested from the soil or the seas, from the skies or the bowels of the earth with such misery and human blood as sugar" ...(Anon)

Sugar in its many forms is as old as the Earth itself. It is a sweet tasting thing for which humans have a natural desire. However there is more to sugar than its sweet taste, rather cane sugar has been shown historically to have generated a complex process of cultural change altering the lives of all those it has touched, both the people who grew the commodity and those for whom it was grown. Suprisingly, for something so desireable knowledge of sugar cane spread vey slow. First found in Guinea and first farmed in India (sources vary on this), knowledge of it would only arrive in Europe thousands of years later. However, there is more to the history of sugar cane than a simple story of how something was adopted piecemeal into various cultures. Rather the history of sugar , with regards to this question, really only takes off with its introduction to Europe. First exposed to the delights of sugar cane during the crusades, Europeans quickly acquired a taste for this sweet substance. This essay is really a legacy of that introduction, as it is this event which foreshadowed the sugar related explosion of trade in slaves. Indeed Henry Hobhouse in 'Seeds of Change' goes so far as to say that "Sugar was the first dependance upon which led Europeans to establish tropical mono cultures to satisfy their own addiction". I wish, then, to show the repurcussions of sugar's introduction into Europe and consequently into the New World, and outline especially that parallel between the sugar trade and the trade in slaves. It is my stated aim in this essay to explore and make explicable such a correlation.

During the middle ages European entrepreneurs like the Venetians, imported sugar from parts of the Levant such as Alexandria. However, such sugar producing areas were in Islamic hands or were threatened by Islamic expansion and this near monopoly drove the prices upwards. Even in the face of such high prices and limited supply the sweet phenomenon caught on very quickly. Initially little more than an exotic good consumed in noble circles, the novelty soon caught on across all of society, and seeing the ample demand and inherent profits in the trade of sugar European merchants began, on a large scale, to trade in the stuff finding that they could grow rich merely on the profits of its export and import. Nonetheless, aware of the advantages of controlling sources of production as well as transport, many eventually began looking for land on which to grow their own cane. They began doing this in Iberia and elsewhere but because of the large tracts of land and the large labour force required for the production of sugar and the lack of these requisites in Iberia, experiments were undertaken to grow sugar overseas. During the thirteenth century, enterprising Portuguese and Spanish merchants sought to enhance their share of the lucrative sugar market by producing cane on plantations they established in conquered Mediterranean islands. In the late 1300's and 1400's the Portuguese colonised Madeira and the Azores for the same purpose as the Spanish absorbed the Canary islands. Indeed it was the profits which made themselves available from sugar production that provided the impetus for the development of the plantation system that matured in the Mediterranean, spreading to the Atlantic and later the Americas on the back of the sugar trade, it was also such a concern which made the institution of slavery so handsome. The world, history shows us, was these early Europeans oyster. I hope, in this essay, to explain what sugar reveals about a wider world, entailing as it does a lengthy history of colonization, subjugation and slavery.

A liking for sweetness became established in European taste preferences at a time when European power, military might and economic initiative were transforming the world. In 1452 sugar production began on Madeira, an uninhabited island off the Northwest coast of Africa. Growing sugar cane is brutal hard work, performed in hot humid climates, work that Europeans were not inclined to willingly persue and as such guanches, the indigenous peoples of the Canary Islands, as well as European convicts, were among the first workers brought to Madeira to work on the sugar mills. However the need for labour was so great, and these original workers so fragile, that an alternative source of labour was sought after. Instead nearby Africans became the main labour force in the island's sugar industry, a demand for whom in conjunction with sugar would rise inexorably over the coming centuries. It was these Black African's skills as agricultural labourers and their adaptability to tropical climates that were sorely needed in the agricultural economies of European colonies, and they were enslaved accordingly.

The capitalist plantation system, then, as it was first introduced in Madeira and the Canaries, was an economic system driven to producing a highly commercialised crop using slavery. The inherent success of such a system in Madeira (by 1500 Madeira sported eighty sugar mills, for a time, the largest sugar exporter in the world), in the Canaries and in the other Atlantic islands ensured it as a system which would oft repeat itself in history. The European discovery and colonization of Madeira and the Canary islands would prove fateful precedents for the New World as the plantation system and colonial governments instituted on these islands became models for the great sugar plantations in the New World which I will be discussing shortly. By 1675 over ninety five per cent of the natives were dead and today none of them survive. What happened on the Canary islands illustrates a dark side to cultural contact that has been repeated in many cultural settings, in many different times and places. The process of annihilation through coercion and assimilation and the consequent need for slave labour that unfolded in this isolated borderland was a harbinger of things to come. Since sugar cane had been introduced to Madeira and the Canaries after their colonization during the second part of the fifteenth century, the techniques of sugar production, economic organization but most especially the exploitation of labour developed on these islands were easily transported to the New World.

Prince Henry the navigator, son of the King of Portugal was pivtol to such early Portuguese expansion as the discovery of the Atlantic sugar islands discussed above. He helped finance and organise many expeditions in the Atlantic such as that of 1415 to the North and West coasts of Africa and it was for he that the first slaves were brought to Portugal in the 1440's. For European expansion overseas



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