A Dark History of Sugar is essential reading, maybe not for the squeamish

I’ve been contemplating cruelty a lot lately. No, not inflicting it personally. There are already enough despots and apparatchiks around showing no remorse for what they do to their fellow man. I’m more interested in how we can all turn a blind eye to the suffering that may underpin our simplest pleasures. Easy to write off a legacy of organised humiliation and torture of entire races. War? No, Sugar.

Penning The Dark History of Sugar obviously disturbed food historian Dr Neil Buttery. At our meeting in a cafe near his Levenshulme home he came across as a gentle, civilised soul, slightly regretful of his own sweet tooth (we disagreed on the necessity for Bake-off) after putting our centuries-old sugar rush in often gruesome context. 

Gung-ho apologists may rage against the dumping of a slave master’s statue by trumpeting what a glorious boon the British Empire was for those under its yoke. But, in the crowded field of global exploitation between the 16th and 19th centuries, British  explorers, slave traders and plantation owners certainly ‘refined’ levels of cruelty exceeding those of colonialist rivals.

That 1791 political cartoon above, called Barbarities of the West Indias shows a cruel overseer plunge a slave, claiming to be ill, into a kettleful of boiling sugar syrup to ‘warm’ him up. Nailed to the wall behind are a dismembered arm and amputated ears (British Museum).

You survive the hellish boat journey from Africa and all that awaits you is the tyrannic treadmill of working in the cane fields and dangerous factories. Black lives didn’t matter.

Across the Caribbean as slaves heavily outnumbered masters and their downtrodden British servants there was always a fear of rebellions, so every savage means was used to break their spirit as much as their bodies.

From 1807’s The Penitential Tyrant below shudder at the iron mask, collar and spurs used to restrain slaves.The masks were often fitted with tongue depressors, preventing swallowing; collars had long spurs so they could not lie down or sleep.

Such revelations were all grist to the anti-slavery mill slowly grinding along towards Abolition in 1834, when vast amounts of compensation allowed slave owners to retire in luxury back to Blighty, country houses, statues and all. They left behind chaos as ‘freed’ slaves discovered they weren’t entirely free and sugar operations found all kinds of back door ways to continue to exploit a captive workforce. Production would shift across the globe with all kinds of political and social consequences.

Meanwhile, back across the Atlantic, from the mid 18th century onwards sugar had become an essential part of the middle class diet alongside fashionable coffee and tea, seen as healthy alternatives to booze. A far cry from the luxury spice it had been at the court of the extravagant Richard II as supplies filtered in from the East. Dr Buttery has done a terrific job in crushing a vast web of historical detail into barely 200 pages.

Our americano and latte have just been brought over. Neither of us takes sugar with them. Our chat has now moved onto the sugary legacy of ill health. A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down but it’s the catalyst for billions of dental cavities.

The patron saint of tooth decay appears to be Queen Elizabeth I, whose licensing of what was essentially piracy opened up the New World to sugar cultivation and slavery. Her sugar kick addiction was fuelled by whole banquets given over to the stuff, shaped into dolphins, elephants mermaids and the like. Result her legendary rotten black ‘tushy pegs’.

After extraction of many of these and the consequent collapse of her lower face she constantly covered it up or stuffed her mouth with rags. A later monarch, Sun King Louis XIV, did the same after losing all of his teeth to sugar by the age of 40. He also banned smiling at court in Versailles. It was likely he suffered from Type 2 diabetes, a consequence of a sugary diet that has snowballed ever since. A dark history indeed.

Ironic that the day Neil and I meet up – and I put a face to the evolutionary biologist turned chef behind the podcasts – our bedevilled government backtracks on cracking down on the obesity epidemic. 

Delayed for at least a year is the proposed ban on “buy one get one free” deals on junk food and a pre-9pm watershed for TV advertising, Continuing to encourage cheap food and drinks high in sugar, salt and fat is apparently a measure to alleviate the cost of living crisis. Let them eat cake!

The Dark History puts our sugar-dependent diet in historical context, charting the rise of breakfast cereals (“by 1921 there 60 brands, most liberally laced with sugar”) and commercial cakes and biscuits. Then there’s jam, not the kitchen garden preserve of yore but, aimed at the working city dweller, an industrialised product – “made from fruit of inferior quality or even the left-over pulp from some other food manufacturing process and only made up around a third of jam by weight.” 

And, of course, it was advertised as good value and nourishing, a fitting partner for the white bread and strong tea which in the 20th century remained a working class staple meal. All not so far removed from today’s fast food conglomerates who disguise the amount of sugar and salt (and all sorts of unhealthy shelf-live extending additives) in their products. And don’t get me started on the diet advice scapegoating of healthy fats to get sugar off the hook.

Neil Buttery insists he didn’t set out to write a political book, but his hugely readable and recommendable Dark History chimes with so many current preoccupations about food poverty, obesity and, of course, Black Lives Matter. 

Another coincidence on the day we met: a Home Office deportation flight took off to Jamaica, carrying British-raised Afro-Caribbeans guilty of various previous offences. Any excuse and an absence of compassion. Previous flights, to fix immigration loopholes, had strong Windrush generation connections. The legacy of slavery is not easily sugar-coated. 

A Dark History of Sugar by Neil Buttery is published by Pen & Sword in hardback at £20. Check out his blog British Food: A History. and the allied podcast. He has a further website, Neil Cooks Grigson, where he works his way through the great cookery writer Jane Grigson’s 1974 classic, English Food. 

A chilling brush with slave heritage

As a travel writer I’ve been lucky enough to visit Caribbean islands – Jamaica, St Lucia, Antigua, St Vincent, Mustique… and Barbados. On that latter island, after severing ties with Britain, there are plans to build a new heritage site next to a burial ground where the bodies of 570 West African victims of British transatlantic slavery were discovered. 

It will complement the existing Barbados Museum and Historical Society in Bridgetown. For a more vivid echo of a turbulent colonial past I was recommended St Nicholas Abbey. One of only three Jacobean mansions left in the whole Americas, the gabled old house set among mahogany trees summons up the ghosts of those early plantation owners.

At first encounter it’s a serene spot. Current owners the Warren family have been in situ for under two decades and lovingly preserve the old rum-making methods in a boutique distillery. So you get a steam-powered cane crush and a traditional pot still, using cane for the syrup that’s unique to the 400 acre estate, half of which is under sugar cultivation.

Tucked way behind the gorgeous old house is a museum addressing the tribulations of slavery on the estate and in the passage to the barrel rooms, easy to miss, are seven yellowing pieces of paper scribbled with lists of names, numbers, and pounds sterling, dating back to 1834.

Apparently in anticipation of freeing slaves, owners had to document the numbers and estimated worth of their slaves for the government to pay them out. £150 was the going rate for the most valuable male with farming skills with fertile women also valuable commodities. Tradable flesh. All this so that sugar could be on every table back home.