Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History
Some of the most brilliant minds have made many unorthodox suggestions. This is the case with Sidney Mintz’s thesis in Sweetness and Power: The Place of Modern History. Mintz’s suggestions that industrial capitalism originated in the Caribbean sugar plantations may seem to contradict the European version of world history fed to most of the Western world, but is nevertheless supported by substantial evidence. In general, Western education has conditioned students to believe that everything productive originated in Europe.
Mintz begins by explaining the process of obtaining granular sugar from the liquid extracted from the sugar cane. There was very significant sense of discipline on sugar plantations. Each stage of the process required a certain amount of “expertise”, just as each worker in a factory has a specific “skill”. This is where Mintz’s theory that plantations were a “synthesis of field and factory” is best explained; “The specialization by skill and jobs, and the division of labor by age, gender, and condition into crews, shifts and ‘gangs,’ together with the stress upon punctuality and discipline, are features associated more with industry than agriculture – at least in the sixteenth century” (Mintz 47). Plantations required a “combination farmer-manufacturer”. Workers on plantations worked assiduously with a definite sense of time. They worked continuous shifts, resting only form Saturday to Monday morning.
Mintz goes on to explain that “as the production of sugar became significant economically, so that it could affect political and military (as well as economic) decisions, its consumption by the powerful [people] came of matter less; at the same time, the production of sugar acquired that importance precisely because the masses of English people were now steadily consuming more of it, and desiring more than they could afford” (Mintz 45). Similar to factory workers, cheap labor was used for mass production of commodities to meet the growing demand.
As a result, Mintz completely transformed my ideas on industrial capitalism. As a consumer and lover of sugar, I have now given a considerable amount of thought to the sugar that I consumed so often. The extent to which the Caribbean people and land were exploited is unfathomable. When speaking of a “plantation”, Americans usually think and refer to the cotton plantations in the South. Even those Americans with roots in the Caribbean are completely unaware of the exploitation of their land and people. The long-term effects of this exploitation led to the underdevelopment of these Caribbean countries. These effects are still evident today as most of the Caribbean islands are labeled as “Third World Countries”.
In addition, Mintz mentions the separation of the production from consumption. The Major consumers of sugar were not the hard workers on the plantation, but the far removed citizens of England. The plantation workers were not able to profit from the fruit of their land. They were forced to work under harsh conditions. Even after slavery ended, the workers were over-worked and under-appreciated just as factory workers were in the documented and “established” industrial societies Americans have been trained to visualize.
Industrial capitalism involves an organization involving ownership, control and direction of production. This was what took place on sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Every worker had set duties and a unified goal of mass production of sugar at the most efficient rate. Mintz does an excellent job of contradicting the European version of world history fed to most of the Western world by proving that industrial capitalism originated in the Caribbean sugar plantations.
Mintz, Sidney. 1985. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History.
New York: Viking Penguin.
Word Count: 587