Dark Stories

The dark side of sweet sugar

Table of Contents


This post tries to provide a glimpse of the sugar industry’s dark history and the exploitation of enslaved and indentured laborers by European governments – specifically the British, French, Portuguese and the Dutch. It raises important questions about the responsibilities of european corporations and governments’ legacies of historical injustices.

The post describes how the sugar industry relied on slave labor, particularly in the Caribbean and the Americas, and how the lives of enslaved people were brutalized and dehumanized by the demands of sugar production.

The post also discusses how indentured laborers were brought in from India and other parts of Asia by the British to work on sugar plantations, and how they too were subjected to harsh conditions and exploitation and how they benefited from the profits of this exploitative system – along with the other European powers.

A brief look at the origins of sugar

Sugar has been a part of human diets for thousands of years. The first recorded use of sugar dates back to 500 BC in the Indian subcontinent, where sugarcane was used to produce a sweetener called “gur” or “jaggery.”

Gur, Gud or Jaggery
Gur, Gud or Jaggery

Gud or Gur or Jaggery – a course sugar made from sugarcane juice

From India, the use of sugarcane spread to the Middle East and then to the Mediterranean region. In the 8th century, the Moors introduced sugar to Spain, and from there it spread to other parts of Europe.

During the Age of Exploration in the 15th century, European colonizers established sugarcane plantations in the New World, particularly in Brazil and the Caribbean. The expansion of sugar production was driven by the high demand for sugar in Europe and the availability of cheap labor in the colonies.

The widespread use of sugar as a sweetener and preservative in food and drink continued to grow throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. With the rise of industrialization and technological advancements, sugar production became more efficient and cheaper. This led to increased consumption of sugar in processed foods and beverages, and a rise in health concerns related to excessive sugar intake.

Sugarcane field
Sugarcane Field in Asia

Today, sugar is a major commodity crop and is produced in large quantities in countries such as Brazil, India, China, and Thailand. Its use and production continue to have significant economic and social impacts worldwide.

When the demand for sugar was growing faster than it’s availability – it presented a huge opportunity for anyone who could produce it in bulk.

Labor and land was needed to meet the growing demand around the world.

The production of sugar for worldwide usage was a huge undertaking and very profitable for a lot of colonial powers which captured the majority of the supply of sugar which still has a never ending demand.

But there is more to the supply of sugar…

How did sugar production increase?

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish sugarcane plantations in the Atlantic islands and later in Brazil. In the 16th century, sugar became a major industry in Brazil, with the Portuguese importing African slaves to work the plantations.

What is the historical impact of the popularity of sugar?

The cultivation of sugarcane and the production of sugar had a profound impact on the economies of many countries, including Brazil, Cuba, and other parts of the Caribbean. The plantation system that developed to cultivate sugarcane was based on the exploitation of slaves and led to the widespread use of slave labor in the New World.

Before Indian indentured servants were brought to the Caribbean, there were already established sugar plantations in the region, primarily operated by African slaves who were forcibly brought over during the transatlantic slave trade. These plantations were owned by European colonial powers such as Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands.

The production of rum from molasses began in the Caribbean in the 17th century and quickly became a profitable industry for the colonial powers

The sugar produced in these plantations was in the form of raw, unrefined sugar. Molasses, a byproduct of sugar production, was often discarded or used as animal feed. The production of rum from molasses began in the Caribbean in the 17th century and quickly became a profitable industry.

The life expectancy of a slave working in the sugar fields was often less than 10 years due to the grueling nature of the work and poor living conditions.

The labor conditions for African slaves in these plantations were brutal, with long hours, harsh punishments, and widespread abuse. The life expectancy of a slave working in the sugar fields was often less than 10 years due to the grueling nature of the work and poor living conditions.

After the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, colonial powers turned to indentured laborers from India, China, and other parts of the world to continue sugar production. These laborers faced similarly harsh conditions, with long hours and low pay. Many were also subjected to discriminatory laws and social hierarchies that favored Europeans over other ethnic groups.

The slave trade and the exploitation of workers on sugarcane plantations had far-reaching social and economic consequences, including the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few, and the impoverishment of many.

In modern times, sugar is produced in many countries around the world, including Brazil, India, China, Thailand, and the United States. The modern form of crystalline white sugar was developed in the 18th century in Europe, and the refinement process has been improved over time to produce highly refined and processed sugar.

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How does sugar impact our health?
Source – Also learn more about classifications and types of sugar

The consumption of sugar has been linked to various health problems, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. In recent years, there has been growing concern over the health effects of consuming too much sugar, leading to increased interest in alternative sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit extract.

Learn more here

How did the spread of sugar impact India?

During the colonial period, India was one of the world’s largest producers of sugar, but the production was almost entirely controlled by British planters.

They established large sugarcane plantations and mills in areas like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu, and relied heavily on indentured labor to work on these plantations.

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What are indentured laborers?

Indentured laborers were typically recruited from impoverished villages in India and promised better wages and living conditions on the plantations.
Learn more about the Indian Indenture System – Wikipedia

However, once they arrived, they were often subjected to harsh working conditions and had little freedom or mobility. The indentured labor system was abolished in India in the early 20th century, but many plantations continued to rely on coerced labor and other exploitative practices.

After India gained independence, the government sought to nationalize the sugar industry and reduce the control of foreign planters. However, this process was slow and met with resistance from powerful plantation owners.

The exploitation of Indian labor and resources in the sugar industry is not unique to India, as similar patterns of exploitation have occurred in other sugar-producing regions of the world, such as the Caribbean and Brazil.

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Where were these indentured Indians taken to?

Learn more about the Indo-Caribbeans – Wikipedia

Indians were taken to the Caribbean in the 19th century to work on sugar plantations as indentured laborers. They were brought over by the British to replace African slaves who had been emancipated.

They were promised free passage to different countries, a place to live, and a return passage to India after five years.

However, these promises were rarely fulfilled, and laborers were subjected to long hours of work, low wages, and poor living conditions.

They faced discrimination and racism from the white plantation owners, were subject to physical abuse and were not allowed to practice their religion or speak their native languages. Many laborers died from diseases, and life expectancy was low.

The majority of Indian laborers went to Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, and Jamaica. The descendants of these laborers, known as Indo-Caribbeans, make up a significant portion of the population in these countries.

Indian indentured laborers were brought to work on sugar plantations by the British in:

Mauritius: starting in 1834.

Guyana: starting in 1838.

Trinidad and Tobago: starting in 1845.

Suriname: starting in 1873.

Fiji: starting in 1879.

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How did this indentured laborer system come by?

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the British East India Company was involved in the trade of Indian slaves to various parts of the world, including to British colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean.

These slaves were often labeled as “coolies” and were subject to brutal working conditions on plantations, mines, and other labor-intensive industries.

While the Indian slave trade was not as extensive as the transatlantic slave trade, it nonetheless affected hundreds of thousands of Indians and had a significant impact on Indian society.
Learn more about Indian diaspora in Southeast Africa – Wikipedia

Moreover, after slavery was officially abolished in the British Empire in the mid-19th century, Indian laborers were still brought to various British colonies under different guises, such as indentured labor or contract labor.
Learn more about the Indo-Seychellois – Wikipedia

In addition to these forms of indentured labor, there were also cases of Indian people being labeled as “African” slaves and sold in the transatlantic slave trade. For example, in the late 18th century, a British slave trader named John Newton purchased Indian slaves in West Africa and brought them to the Americas, where they were sold into slavery.

These laborers were often subject to exploitative working conditions and were sometimes treated as virtual slaves. In fact, many historians argue that the indentured labor system that replaced slavery in the British Empire was not substantially different from slavery itself.

The British Empire’s involvement in the Indian slave trade and the subsequent indentured labor system had long-lasting effects till the modern day, both in India and in the countries where Indian indentured laborers were brought.

It is important to note that the experiences of Indian people as “African” slaves were not identical to those of African slaves, and the historical and social contexts of these forms of exploitation were different.

However, the fact that Indian people were subjected to forced labor and exploitation by the British Empire is a part of the complex and often troubling history of colonialism and imperialism.

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What were the conditions in other countries where sugar was produced?

The sugar industry relied heavily on the use of enslaved Africans, who were brought over to work on the sugarcane plantations.

Conditions for enslaved workers were brutal, and mortality rates were high.

Brazil became a major producer of sugar in the early 16th century, after the Portuguese colonized the country.

Many enslaved Africans rebelled against their conditions, leading to uprisings and revolts throughout Brazil’s history.

Brazil’s sugar industry later transitioned to the production of ethanol, a biofuel made from sugarcane, which is still an important industry in the country today.

Haiti was a major producer of sugar during the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was a French colony known as Saint-Domingue.

The Haitian Revolution, a slave rebellion that began in 1791, ultimately led to Haiti’s independence in 1804.

Haiti was also forced to pay reparations to France in order to secure diplomatic recognition, which placed a significant burden on the country’s finances and contributed to its economic difficulties.

The sugar industry in Haiti declined after independence, due to a combination of factors including political instability, soil depletion, and competition from other sugar-producing countries.

Jamaica was a major producer of sugar during the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was a British colony.

The British abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1833 had a significant impact on the sugar industry, as labor became more expensive and difficult to secure.

The British did not skip a beat and started getting indentured laborers to work the fields.

Jamaica’s sugar industry declined in the 20th century due to a combination of factors, including competition from other sugar-producing countries and the transition to other agricultural crops.

Other nearby sugarcane plantations:
Other countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America, such as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago, also had significant sugar industries that relied on enslaved labor in the past.

These industries declined after the abolition of slavery and indentured labor, but sugarcane production remains an important industry in many of these countries today.