Tag Archives: sugar

Competition: win a copy of ‘A Dark History of Sugar’

Well my book A Dark History of Sugar has been released onto the wild, and I am very pleased to say it has been (thus far) well received. Phew!

The book is out now to buy in the UK and is published by Pen & Sword History, RRP £20.

It’s available from the Pen & Sword website, as well as any of your favourite bookshops: Waterstones, Amazon, Blackwell’s and WHSmith, to name but a few.

BUT if you like, you can order a book straight from me for £18 plus postage. This is £2.85 in the UK, but if you’re ordering from another country, it’s whatever the going rate is.* If you would like to purchase a copy, drop me an email at neil@britishfoodhistory.com. I will of course, sign it for you.

People of North America: you will have to wait until 23 June 2022 before you can lay your hands on a copy. Rest of world: I literally know nothing!

HOWEVER, here’s a chance to win a signed copy – and it is open to anyone around the world. If you fancy having a go, all you have to do is answer this multiple choice question in the comments section below. I’ll reply to the winner on Sunday 5 June 7pm, GMT, so don’t forget to look at the comments and check to see if you have won.

Here goes:

A Dark History of Sugar charts the sinister global history of sugar, but where was sugar first cultivated?

A. New Guinea

B. China

C. Hawaii

D. India

When you leave your comment, don’t forget to check back to see if I have replied to your comment!

*So far I’ve posted to the Republic of Ireland and the US and prices have varied between £9.90 and £24!

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A Dark History of Sugar – out 30 April 2022

Regular readers of the blog will know that I have been working on a book all about sugar’s dark side over the last couple of years, and I am very pleased to announce that A Dark History of Sugar will be published on 30 April 2022 by Pen & Sword History. It is – as far as I know when I write this – available in the UK and Australia from this date. North America, you’ll have to wait a little longer for it: 30 May.

Before I tell you all about the book, I thought I’d let you know that if you pre-order via Pen & Sword’s website (so there’s not long left) you can get 25% off the cover price. The book is, of course, available from other booksellers. I will be receiving some copies, which of course will be signed by Yours Truly. I’ll let you know when they are available. I’m not sure as yet how much I’ll be able to sell them for, but hopefully it’ll be under the cover price. Keep your eyes peeled here and on my social media.

In fact there’s another reason to look at my social media: I’ll be doing some competitions on here, but also on Twitter and Instagram on, or around, publishing day. If you don’t follow me already I am @neilbuttery on Twitter and dr_neil_buttery on Instagram.

Okay, let’s talk about the book.

Writing it was very involving and sometimes even distressing and upsetting; unfortunately the history of this everyday and all-too-common commodity contains possibly the darkest in human history. But why is its history so bad? Well, it’s because it’s so good.

Botanical plate (c.1880) of sugarcane, Saccharum officinarum

I begin the book looking at the lengths early man went to just to get its hands on honey – the purest natural source of sugar. You see, Homo sapiens adapted to spend a great deal of its time thinking about sugar and how to get hold of it. We evolved bigger brains with the ability to problem solve that feed on glucose only – no other sugar will do – and we evolved pleasure centres that are never sated and stomachs we can stuff with sweet foods well after we are full.

This evolved adaptation is advantageous if there is little sugar about, but when it’s available any time we want in any amount we want, our brains go into overdrive and out pleasure centres spin like Catherine wheels, reinforcing our behaviours, training us up to eat more and more of it. At any cost. As I say in the book:

We take sugar for granted, but now we are paying the price, and have been for some time. With cheap and plentiful sugar came centuries of exploitation, slavery, racism, diabetes, obesity, rotten teeth, and mistreatment of an exhausted planet.

But sugar and sweetness are seen as pretty favourable: sugar is good, heavenly even; little girls are made of ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ Somebody who is described as ‘sweet’ is cute, friendly, kind, and your romantic partner is your ‘sweetheart’. We look at sugar with dewy-eyed nostalgia: baking cakes with Grandma, chocolate coins at Christmas, buying sweets in the corner shop.

Detail from A compleat map of the West Indies (1774). The tiny islands of the Lesser Antilles are dwarfed by the greater islands, Cuba and Hispaniola.

The reality is different, for we are a world of sugar junkies, and as consumers we have had the wool pulled over our eyes for centuries. Of course, sugar manufacturers, confectioners and fizzy drinks companies much preferred it when we knew nothing about how sugar was made and what its effects are upon the human body.

Just how did we in Europe go from returning crusading knights bringing back a few sugar samples to pass around at court, to a transatlantic trade in African slaves that displaced 12 million African men, women and children to the sugar colonies via the horrific Middle Passage?1 The slave and sugar trade made many people rich; not just investors and merchants, but also those in Britain selling fancy goods, food, tools and furniture to the colonies. This intricate web of commerce reached into almost every aspect of trade is called the ‘sugar-slave complex’.2

Iron mask, collar, leg shackles and spurs used to restrict slaves on the sugar colonies. From the 1807 book The Penitential Tyrant by Thomas Branagan.

When the slave trade, and then slavery itself, was abolished, one might think that working conditions might have improved. Sadly they did not: new World sugar plantation owners simply swapped one type of exploitation for another, making it nigh-on impossible for freed slaves to leave them.

As the British Empire grew, so did the British sugar manufacturing industry, with sugar plantations cropping up wherever it was viable to do so. At this point, the association of sugar manufacture with exploitation could have been decoupled, but sadly this was not the case, and the indigenous people who had become suddenly, and usually violently, subjects of the empire were worked to death, and many were displaced to work on plantations thousands of miles away from home. Indian workers, for example, were forced to work on the West Indies, South Africa and Mauritius as well as India itself.

A political cartoon from 1791 titled Barbarities of the West Indias showing a cruel overseer plunge a slave into a kettleful of boiling sugar syrup to ‘warm’ them up.

And it still goes on today: people across the world are still being exploited to make sugar, even children.

There is not enough space on the blog to go through everything discussed in the book: sugar as (useless) medicine, the Coca Cola Company, Cadbury and Queen Victoria, environmental disasters, the horrors of the sugar making processes and squalor of the slaves, rotting teeth, diabetes, Big Sugar, Christopher Columbus, the Haitian Revolution and the fact that every English monarch from Elizabeth I to George III had a stake in the sugar-slave trade. The list goes on…

An 1890s Coca Cola advertisement. Coca Cola managed to keep its price set at five cents a bottle until the close of the Second World War.

I hope you find A Dark History of Sugar interesting and informative, and that I achieve my aim: to connect the dots between the first time sugar was made in Asia to the mess we are in now…and some thoughts upon how we can get out of it.

References

  1. Curtin, P. D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census. (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1969).
  2. Abbot, E. Sugar: a Bittersweet History. (Penguin, 2008).

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The Treacle Mines of England


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Recently I wrote a post on the history and invention of golden syrup and black treacle in the 19th and 20th centuries. Prior to the mass production and refining of sugar cane in the West Indies, the only way to get hold of treacle was to mine ‘natural molasses’ in treacle mines. As far as I know treacle is the only mined foodstuff though I could be wrong there (I often am).

Natural treacle is very viscous

Treacle mines are rare and appear in just five regions of England: Yorkshire, Lancashire, Kent, the West Country, with the most significant mine being in Wymsey, Cumbria. Having a treacle mine in your town was a huge benefit to the inhabitants. The folk living in these areas were particularly healthy, especially the miners themselves. It was noted by William Cobbet in 1816 when visiting the Cumbrian village:

This place I found to be a fair and healthy place, the women and children well fed and happy. Most menfolk were at work upon the Land but that evening in the excellent Crown and Thorns Inn I was surpassingly surprised to see many men brown of hue. On enquiry I determined that these were miners of Treacle and what a jolly crew they turned out to be. That night I repaired to my bed thanking our maker that there was at least one happy parish in the land.

Black unrefined treacle forms from fossilised beds of sugar cane rather like oil or peat and has a tendancy to seep and rise to the surface of the ground. This run-off is useless, but what makes the regions mentioned above unique is that the treacle is surrounded by a layer of non-porous rock that keeps it contained.

Treacle mining goes back to pre-Roman times, in fact there was a healthy trade between England and Rome via Roman-occupied Gaul. In fact it was the main reason why the Romans wanted to conquer the unbearably cold and harsh British Isles. Why else would they want to take over an island that was inhabitable to them?  A floor mosaic from AD 77 was unearthed depicting treacle mining and refining.

Demand was so high, that any new sites had to be kept secret. The site of the mine in Pudsey (my home town, nestled between Leeds and Bradford in West Yorkshire) is so closely-guarded that only a very few individuals know the location and those that are told have to have been born and bred within the boundaries of Pudsey.  The site of the famous abbey at Kirkstall was chosen by the monks that built it because it was thought a tributary ran from the Pudsey mines through Kirkstall. Unfortunately it seems they were wrong – no treacle had ever been found there.

Pudsey Parish Church

There has been no significant treacle mining in Britain since the nineteenth century because industry had made sugar and its by-products cheap and accessible. However, it was on its last-legs already; most of the mines were completely dry and no new sites were found. The last working mine eventually closed in the 1930s during the Great Depression. There are no plans to excavate any of mines and it is a shame; it would be great if we could draw attention to this almost forgotten part of our food history.

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