Sunday, August 6, 2017
Sugar by James Walvin Hardcover, Pegasus Books
A history of the commodity dwells on body horror and morality, but fails to grasp how capitalism and racism reinforce one another
In 1792, a popular pamphlet urged Britons to boycott sugar and rum manufactured by enslaved labourers in Britain’s Caribbean colonies. A boycott, the pamphlet insisted, would hamstring the “West India interest” in parliament, and hasten the abolition of the slave trade. West Indian sugar was protected by high tariffs; by buying it, Britons subsidised slavery. Protected prices had made slave owners brutal and imprudent. Rather than improving conditions for the people they claimed to own, sugar planters could rely on the slave trade to replace anyone they worked to death. The circuit of slavery, money and power needed to be broken. “The wealth derived from this horrid traffic,” the pamphlet concluded, “has created an influence that secures its continuance.”
Many of its readers recognised that eating sugar made them complicit in slavery, and that slavery’s roots were as much British as they were colonial. The problem of our relationship as consumers to the suffering inflicted by our desires is not just a question of morality. Greed for sugar, and sugar money, was a point of origin for slavery in the Americas. But slavery embodied that greed in institutions – plantations, shipping, insurance, capital – that were harder to abolish than slavery itself.
And yet, James Walvin writes in the opening of his new history of the commodity, “sugar is bad … sugar has been bad for centuries”. The book is an informative history of sugar’s rise from a luxury to a staple, and its ubiquity in modern diets. But in connecting the history of slavery and sugar to the history of sugar’s effect on global health in the 21st century, Walvin relies on the idea of “corruption” to carry his argument. He has fallen hard for juxtaposing dead teeth and abscessed gums rotted by sugar with the moral corruption of slavery and corporate influence on public life. In the process, he becomes so distracted by bodies – toothless bodies, whipped bodies, fat bodies – that he cannot keep pace with the increasing complexity and deepening inequality of the world sugar helped to make.
Sugar began its career in Europe as a symbol of social prestige – only the wealthiest could afford it
Sugar began its career in Europe as a symbol of social prestige. Only the wealthiest could afford sugar, and they consumed it in conspicuous quantities. Atlantic slavery made fortunes for sugar planters and made sugar widely available. In Britain, the Palladian mansions and urbane conversation pieces of the Augustan age were underwritten by slavery. As enclosure forced people out of farms and into growing cities, it became a cheap comfort. By the industrial revolution, it provided nearly a fifth of British factory workers’ calories. Britons rich and poor paid the price of sugar in putrid cavities and wooden dentures.
To Walvin, the consolidation of slavery in the Americas was also a “march of decay”. And yet, ideologies were made by slavery. Capitalism and racism were made in symbiosis with one another. By the time white Britons began to question slavery, most had internalised
the idea of black inferiority. In 1823, in a major speech, George Canning – a leading parliamentary advocate for emancipation – compared black freed people to Frankenstein’s monster, creatures “possessing the form and strength of a man, but the intellect only of a child”.
Walvin, by grounding his account of slavery in body horror, echoes the arguments of early British abolitionists. William Blake’s engravings of mutilated runaway enslaved people and images of slave ships in cross-section – which showed captives stacked like lumber – brought home the physical pain of the slave trade to 18th-century Britons. But revulsion at the “sin” of slavery did not entail belief in equality. Decay isn’t a satisfying explanation for the complicated relationship between slavery and antislavery, or for Britain’s empire in the Atlantic world.
After his account of the rise of the sugar empire, Walvin’s focus shifts from British to American gluttony. He shows how demand for sugar in the US exploded in the late 19th century. American food and beverage companies developed new ways of preserving and packaging food, and heaped sugar into many of their products. At the same time, American imperial ambitions extended to Hawaii, Cuba and other potential sugar bowls.
Once again, corruption and malignant appetite aren’t enough. It is true that American imperial and corporate power changed the way the world eats. But if in the British empire sugar was king, in the US cotton wore the crown. Cotton cultivation was the primary industry in which enslaved African Americans worked. Cotton drove British industrialisation and pulled British capital worth billions of pounds to the US. Sugar can’t explain everything that Walvin requires of it. If any single commodity can tell the story of the US, it is cotton.
FacebookTwitterPinterest American food and beverage companies developed new ways of preserving food and heaped sugar into many of their products. Photograph: Alamy
Walvin uses “America” to bridge sugar and obesity. His tone shifts as he moves away from Britain, and he indulges in a stereotype of the US as a nation of the fat, the stupid and the vulgar. In the final third of the book, corporations remain the villain, but Walvin’s focus on corrupting appetites causes him to lose the plot.
“Who,” he asks, quoting a litany of schoolyard abuse from the 1950s, “would enjoy being called … balloon, barrel, bouncer, Falstaff, fat belly, glutton, jelly-wobble, lardy, piggy, porker, plum pudding, steamroller, Tubs?” Childhood bullies reflect, he writes, “a much deeper, almost ageless, culture of poking fun at fat people”. Human beings are primates, and instinctively like sweet things, but we do not instinctively abuse the obese – nothing is ageless in human cultures. Later, Walvin scolds parents who buy sweet treats “to quieten the babble of children’s noise”. His sense that parents are to blame for fat children, that a lack of self-control is to blame for fat adults, and that fat people of all ages are gross and deserve to be mocked is a substantial part of his argument. Here his study of corruption finally becomes the literary equivalent of evening news stock footage of fat people walking in shorts and T-shirts, their faces cut out of the frame.
In addition to being unsightly, the obese strain healthcare systems, argues Walvin. He often reminds readers that poorer people are more likely to be obese, but does not draw the obvious line between inequalities of access to a living wage, a decent quality of life, leisure time and nutritious food and health outcomes. Obesity is a multi-dimensional social phenomenon, not just a case of unchecked appetite. Walvin also ignores the way racism and capitalism overlap and reinforce one another. He points out that African Americans are more likely to be obese – but not that they are more likely to be incarcerated, denied the franchise, denied health coverage or murdered by police. Atlantic slavery made powerful and mutually reinforcing structures of white supremacy – in Britain, as well as the US.
Walvin suggests that impulsiveness and widely available snacks make the poor fatter. Supermarkets are to blame; television is to blame; feminism is to blame. He praises matrons who stayed in the kitchen despite being “surrounded by younger women who found the labour-saving food products easier and more convenient”. Exhausted, Walvin slumps into his armchair and speaks to his imagined audience: “Any observant middle-aged or older Briton need only cast their mind back to their own childhood to realise how differently they studied, played, worked, travelled, dined and enjoyed themselves.”
He allows that people might have a right to eat as they please, to take what pleasures rising rents, brutal commutes, zero-hour contracts and the like afford. But, he scolds, “the consequences are not their responsibility alone – they are foisted upon everyone”. The book ends, then, with an account of social and economic forces, but invoked not to explain how sugar helped to make global capitalism, but to scold its most vulnerable victims.