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Author: Steve Pile

Another spoonful? Understanding the Place of Sugar - Part Two

Updated Friday, 15 September 2017
Steve Pile looks at the changing geographies of sugar.

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The old Domino Sugar factory as seen from the Williamsburg Bridge. New York, NY. The geography of sugar is a geography of globalisation. Sugarcane was probably first domesticated in the Polynesian region, around about 10,000 years ago. Its cultivation spread rapidly throughout Southeast Asia and, significantly, into India. Through conquest, sugar and sugar refining techniques spread west to Persia; and later east, through trade, to China. Throughout the so-called Ancient World, sugar competes with honey as a source of sweetness. It finds other uses, too. Honey and sugar are mixed with salt by the Greeks and Romans, mainly for medicinal purposes. Yet, it is in India that sugarcane juice is first used to produce granulated sugar crystals, around about 350 CE.

By the 1200s, sugar (known as "sweet salt") begins to supplant honey in Christian Europe, partly as Crusaders bring it back from the Middle East. Despite improvements in sugar growing and refining techniques over many centuries, production remains highly labour intensive and back-breaking work. Consequently, sugar is very expensive and few can afford it. Because of its rarity and high cost, sugar is even considered a fine spice akin to cinnamon, ginger and saffron. Ideas about sugar are embedded in its luxury status: as the nursery rhyme says, "sugar and spice and all things nice". This legacy even includes its association with medicine: as the song goes, "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down".

The early geography of sugar is a geography of globalisation in which the epicentre is India. However, the growth of European empires dramatically transforms the geography of sugar and change sugar for good – and for ill. In C15th CE, the expansion of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires carries sugar and sugar production to the so-called New World. Sugar quickly followed colonial conquest. Indeed, in 1493, on only his second voyage, Christopher Columbus took sugarcane seedlings to Hispaniola (now, the Dominican Republic). It is sugar production in the Caribbean and the New World that will launch not only a new form of production, and also intensify a deathly slave trade that will come to scar history and geography. At the heart of this new contradictory geography is the sugar plantation. It is geography that enables the sugar plantation to exist, by placing its horrors at a remove from the refined societies of Europe and America. It is the geography of plantations that allows sugar to be both cheap and a luxury.

The sugar plantation anchors the transatlantic slave trade. Sugar production expands across the Caribbean and into Latin American. Ever increasing consumption of sugar in Europe and America fuels an ever increasing demand for slaves to do the gruelling, punishing labour that sugar production requires. The cheapening of sugar is paid with the lives of Africans. Yet, the horror of the transatlantic slave trade and the appalling treatment of slaves on sugar plantations rarely touches the lives of European and American consumers. Geography cleanses sugar of its association with vicious exploitation and demeaning death, enabling it to epitomise refinement, luxury and all things nice. Here, we can draw a parallel with the geography of sweatshops that enable consumers to "forget" how their fashion wear can be sold so cheaply.

So, sugar is a contradiction because it contains two geographies: one geography associated with globalisation, in which sugar is intimately connected to the idea of sweetness and luxury; the other geography associated with the plantation, slavery and Empire, which makes sugar cheap. This latter geography haunts sugar, still. Indeed, considering my previous article [hyperlink] on Tom Hardy and the contemporary advertising of sugar, it is ironic that Tom Hardy's last major role was in the TV series Taboo (2017). In the show, the main protagonist (played by Tom Hardy) conducts a violent, vengeful war against the East India Company. In 1793, it is the East India Company that is tasked, by the British Government, with finding a cheaper way to produce sugar. Its chosen alternative to American plantations? India.

For the first part in this series head over to One Lump or Two? Understanding the Place of Sugar - Part One

Further Reading

More on the history of sugar can be found in Andrew Smith's Sugar: a global history (2015). Sidney Mintz provides a critical assessment of the relationship between diet, sugar and colonialism in two superb books: Sweetness and Power (1985) and Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (1996).

Current students should look at DTS206's block on food, which addresses the question of affluent diets and its effects on the environment.

Steve Pile is Professor of Human Geography. He is currently writing about electricity for the new Environment and Society module, D213, which you will be able to study from 2018 onwards.


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