This exhibit examines sugar from two angles: as a commodity and as a consumable. The first part, focusing on the British sugar colonies, tells the story of the sugar trade in the West Indies: production, business, and politics. The second focuses on the culinary and gustatory story of sugar in order to explore the basis of the consumption that drove the trade, and considers sugar as an ingredient and as a foodstuff, examining how it was consumed as its availability grew.
Sugar was originally known to Europe as a rare and costly spice, but the growth of sugarcane production, first in the Mediterranean and then in the Atlantic, made sugar ever more available. Between the middle of the seventeenth century and the middle of the nineteenth, sugar was transformed from a luxury to a widely consumed commodity in Great Britain and the United States. By the late nineteenth century it was a thoroughly common article of diet, even a necessity, for all classes.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, European powers established sugar colonies in the West Indies and along the Atlantic coast of South America. The first British sugar island was Barbados, followed by St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua and Jamaica. In the nineteenth century, Grenada and Trinidad were added to the empire. Sugar dominated production on the islands: there were always some other crops grown, but after the plantation system was in full swing the planters frequently preferred importing provisions to producing them locally so as to have the maximum amount of land planted with sugar cane.
The trade in sugar was important to Britain’s development as a trading nation and as an empire. Throughout the eighteenth century, sugar from the colonies was England’s most important import. It was the driving force in a network of trade that spanned the Atlantic, touching three continents. Historians debate whether and how much the capital accumulation made possible by the sugar industry was instrumental in financing the industrial revolution. However, expanded networks of trade, such as those in which sugar was a force, certainly played a role in stimulating industrialization.
Sugar was an exorbitantly successful commodity. Although the market was extremely volatile, with regular swings from scarcity to glut throughout the plantation era, production and consumption increased steadily throughout the period this exhibit covers.