Sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar…

Today is the birthday of Franz Carl Achard (28th April 1753 – 1821) German experimental biologist, physicist and chemist who established the first ever production plant for the extraction of sucrose (that’s sugar!) from beets. The presence of extractable quantities of sugar in certain types of beets had been proven by Achard’s predecessor as head of the physical section of the Berlin Academy, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf (1709 – 1782), in 1747 but it was only in 1801 that Achard set up the first beet sugar production plant. Due to the difficulties involved and the low yield the production was not commercially viable despite the very high price of sugar in the 18th century and the commercial production of beet sugar first took off as a result of the Napoleonic war. Starting in 1807 the British Navy blockaded France preventing the import of cane sugar from the Caribbean leading Napoleon to introduce a programme to improve the efficiency of sugar beet extraction and thereby establishing the European beet sugar industry. In 1885 beet sugar overtook cane sugar as the worlds major sugar source. Great Britain, which controlled the Caribbean cane sugar industry, the world’s major source for refined sugar in the 18th and 19th centuries did not seriously invest in beet sugar production until the two world wars of the 20th century and the U-boat war had demonstrated the vulnerability of its sugar supply.

What is fascinating about this brief food chemistry excursus is that refined sugar is a totally useless and utterly unnecessary product. However at the end of the 18th century there was an unbelievably European market for refined sugar that was the major driving force behind the African slave trade. In 1700 Britain was importing 10 000 tons of refined sugar a year by 1800 this had become 150 000 tons per year. Sugar came to Europe from Asia via the Arabs in the High Middle Ages and sugar cane cultivation, which requires a sub tropical climate, was introduced into Madeira in 1402. In 1493, on his second voyage, Columbus introduced sugar cultivation into Haiti. In the 18th century the British introduced large-scale sugar cane production into their Caribbean possessions starting in Barbados. For the extreme hard and tedious cultivation the white British farmers used black African slave labour, establishing the so-called Triangular Trade. Ships would sail from Britain loaded with cheap goods, cloth, guns and gunpowder to West Africa where their cargo was traded for black slaves who they then shipped to the Caribbean and exchanged for a cargo of sugar cane and raw sugar. At the end of the 18th century the life of one black slave was economically equivalent to one ton of sugar in Barbados a very efficient sugar producer and half a ton on Jamaica a less efficient producer. An estimated 550 000 slaves lived and died on Barbados between 1637, the start of British rule, and the emancipation of the slaves in 1834. In 1790 the Triangular Trade was the most important trading activity of the British Empire but would soon go into decline. As the price of slaves rose and the price of sugar fell the Triangular Trade became no longer viable and this was the real reason for the abolition of the slave trade. In fact the naval blockade of 1807 and the need for the shipping provided the necessary excuse for the abolition of the commercial slaving activity.

If you want to know more about the connections between the black African slave trade and the Caribbean cane sugar production then I recommend Henry Hobhouse’s, truly excellent, Seeds of Change: Six plants that transformed mankind.


Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Odds and Ends

10 responses to “Sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar…

  1. Thomas Lennartsson


    I’ve been quite fascinated by sugar and sugar beets ever since I moved to the most southern parts of Sweden a decade ago. This part is one of Sweden’s most fertile agricultural regions and, oh boy, there are a lot of beets here. You can also see quite a few old sugar production plants, or I should perhaps say ex-plants, since most of them are closed now. They are beautiful, big brick buildings.

    Apparently, after 1890 Sweden was self-sufficient when it came to sugar, due to high import tolls and subsidies to the Swedish beet industry. This lead to a huge overproduction of sugar, which of course had to be used somehow. I haven’t checked these numbers, but it has been claimed that by the end of the 19th century, Sweden had about 100 candy factories, in comparison with our neighbours Norway and Denmark, which had 3 each. It has also been claimed by a Swedish historian in economics that the overproduction of beets led to a subsequent overproduction of sweet bread: Since no one knew what to do with all the sugar, they started making syrup out of it, of which a lot was simply being poured into the bread dough. Still, it is hard to find decent bread in this country which doesn’t contain syrup. And apparently, swedes eat more candy than any other EU nation: 17 kg per person and year, which should be compared to the EU average of 7. It is interesting how the interaction between technology, politics and economics can lead to such significant changes of the behaviour of people.

    But sorry, now I’m just rambling…

  2. Ian H Spedding FCD

    I agree entirely with Thomas. Placing the slave trade and its abolition in an economic context is illuminating.

    It reminds me of a comment in a TV miniseries called Son of the Morning Star about General Custer who has long been in interest of mine. The narration is based on the memoirs of two women, Custer’s wife Libby and an Indian woman called Kate Bighead. At one point Libby mentions that the western expansion at this time was driven in part by an economic recession in the east which had left a third of the workforce unemployed.

    • I’m not a Marxist but I’m to some extent a Marxist historian and I believe that in any historical situation it pays to examine the prevailing economic situation; it almost always plays a significant role.

      BTW, your polymath pun is delicious!

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  4. Simplicio

    The slave trade ended because slaves were worth too much? That seems fairly counter-intuitive.

    • The purchase price of slaves in Africa rose to the point where the traders could no longer buy a ship’s load of slaves for a ship load of cheap rubbish shipped from England making that leg of the triangle no longer financially viable.

      • Secondly, the raising price of the slaves and the falling price of the sugar meant that the sugar trade was no longer profitable.

  5. Pingback: Sugar day « Rturpin's Blog

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