Looking at a spoonful of sugar, you would never expect that is has a dark and ugly history. However, it was through the exploitation and brutality of human slavery, that sugar became a highly sought after and profitable crop. Maybe Marry Poppins had it wrong after all, as sugar’s history can be a bitter pill to swallow.

A bittersweet treat

Sugar was predominantly enjoyed by wealthier people as the ultimate status symbol, for candies, and baked goods. People would love to show off their wealth and power by displaying giant piles of sugar. A sweet tooth was indeed its weight in gold.

“The Milkmaid,” Johannes Vermeer circa 1658 / UnClogged in Amsterdam

Eventually, the increase of slave labor helped drive down the costs, making it more accessible to classes other than the ultra-rich. However, sugar was not as pure as it seemed. Production of sugar cane was dangerous, and often the blood, sweat, and tears of slaves often were unintended ingredients.

Oh sugar sugar

The sugar cane plant needed precise conditions to thrive, as the plant was a native of Southeast Asia. Brazil and countries in the Caribbean made prime real estate to grow the crop. European nations would race to scoop up land and set up colonies, all in a rush to dominate the sugar market.

 St. Nicholas Abbey

The demand for sugar surged between the years 1600 and 1650, causing the African slave population to explode from 200,000 slaves to 800,000. The love for sugary confections and rum were high, as was the production costs for growing and producing sugar. Amassing more African slave labor helped drive down the costs, in a not-so-sweet economic recipe for success at the cost of human lives.

Before the rise of banana republics

Harry Belafonte may have swayed the world with his rendition of ‘Day O.’ But, before banana republics worked their labor force on plantations from sun up to sun down, sugar plantations were the first experts at cracking the whip.

Pilot Guides

Slaves of all ages would be forced to work on sugar plantations, raising cane without a fuss, until it was time to eat or sleep. Life on sugarcane plantations was most certainly less than sweet during the 1600s. Unfortunately, today’s modern sugarcane plantations and production still enjoy a less than savory reputation, compliments of persistent labor practices.