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March 11, 2019

The sweet tooth: a history

Opinion

March 11, 2019

Every society has its own peculiar sweet tooth and sweets have become an important ingredient of our food a well. There are different sweets like cake, biscuit, halwa, jam and syrups of different flavours. Special sweets are served during festivals and celebrations. In the Indian sub-continent it is customary to offer sweets on happy occasions. It is also a tradition that visitors bring sweets as a goodwill gesture.

Before the introduction of sugar honey was used as a sweetener. But it was not easily accessible to the majority of people and only the privileged could afford it. The use of sugar then became widespread. But making it was laborious and consisted of many difficult stages culminating in crystal formations which were then used for making sweet dishes.

Sidney W Mintz in his book ‘Sweetness and Power: The place of sugar in modern history’ points out that the first cultivation of sugarcane originated in New Guinea. It was brought to Indonesia and then to the Indian subcontinent. Arab traders took it to North Africa where it was widely cultivated in Morocco. Then it reached Muslim Spain under the Arabs who also introduced it to the rest of Spain and Portugal. In 1492, following the discovery of America, Portugal started its cultivation in its colony Brazil and Spain established great sugarcane plantations in Puerto Rico and Cuba.

Seeing the benefits the practice brought, England selected Barbados and Jamaica for plantation while France began to do the same in Saint Domingue. The production of sugarcane saw a great change when England and France colonised the Caribbean Islands and found the soil there very suitable for sugarcane cultivation. The English trading class in particular invested in sugar. Poor people and prisoners were brought from England to work on plantations.

Local people too were forced to work there. Unaccustomed to such labour they contacted diseases which led to a decrease in their numbers and eventually wiped them out. The resultant scarcity of labour necessitated importation of African slaves.

In the beginning, primitive methods were used to produce sugar but later on the introduction of machinery and new technology made the task easier. In the earlier period sugar was seen like other spices that made food tasty and its juices were used to preserve edibles. Doctors stressed its medicinal quality. It was first used in coffee but when tea came to England from China and India sugar became part and parcel of it.

In the early period, its production was limited and only the elite could afford it. However, with greater production it became available to people at large. In Scotland, the poor would take use sweet tea with bread for breakfast. Similarly, in the Indian subcontinent sweet tea and bread are usual in the morning.

During the time of Napoleon England banned the export of sugar to France on account of political and military conflict. The French also suffered when, in 1791, the slaves in the Saint Domingue plantations revolted. Sugar had to be extracted from beetroots for the French to overcome the shortage of sugar. In 1838 England abolished slavery, which affected sugar production because former slaves were not willing to work hard without payment. This caused a sugar crisis in the European markets. However, the colony of Brazil was able to produce more sugar to meet the crisis.

In history we see that inventions and innovations do not remain confined to any one country and gradually reach others. The same happened in the case of sugar when it became popular not only in Europe but also in Asia and Africa.

The late Eric Williams – who was a Caribbean historian and prime minster of Trinidad and Tobago (1962-81) – argued in “Capitalism and Slavery” that slaves on the Caribbean Islands produced sugar which brought huge profits to investors.

After the development of technology, slave labour became costly for capitalists and there was a campaign to abolish slavery and replace it with wage labour. Slavery was abolished not for religious and moral reasons but on economic grounds. According to Williams, the slaves first produced capital and then capital produced their liberation.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.

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