The World of Sugar
How the Sweet Stuff Transformed Our Politics, Health, and Environment over 2,000 Years
by Ulbe Bosma
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Pub Date 09 May 2023 | Archive Date 09 May 2023
Harvard University Press, Belknap Press
The definitive 2,500-year history of sugar and its human costs, from its little-known origins as a luxury good in Asia to worldwide environmental devastation and the obesity pandemic.
For most of history, humans did without refined sugar. After all, it serves no necessary purpose in our diets, and extracting it from plants takes hard work and ingenuity. Granulated sugar was first produced in India around the sixth century BC, yet for almost 2,500 years afterward sugar remained marginal in the diets of most people. Then, suddenly, it was everywhere. How did sugar find its way into almost all the food we eat, fostering illness and ecological crisis along the way?
The World of Sugar begins with the earliest evidence of sugar production. Through the Middle Ages, traders brought small quantities of the precious white crystals to rajahs, emperors, and caliphs. But after sugar crossed the Mediterranean to Europe, where cane could not be cultivated, demand spawned a brutal quest for supply. European cravings were satisfied by enslaved labor; two-thirds of the 12.5 million Africans taken across the Atlantic were destined for sugar plantations. By the twentieth century, sugar was a major source of calories in diets across Europe and North America.
Sugar transformed life on every continent, creating and destroying whole cultures through industrialization, labor migration, and changes in diet. Sugar made fortunes, corrupted governments, and shaped the policies of technocrats. And it provoked freedom cries that rang with world-changing consequences. In Ulbe Bosma’s definitive telling, to understand sugar’s past is to glimpse the origins of our own world of corn syrup and ethanol and begin to see the threat that a not-so-simple commodity poses to our bodies, our environment, and our communities.
Ulbe Bosma is Senior Researcher at the International Institute of Social History and Professor of International Comparative Social History at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His books include The Making of a Periphery and The Sugar Plantation in India and Indonesia.
“The world history of sugar and the world history of capitalism are tightly linked to one another. Ulbe Bosma, in this first truly global account of a most crucial commodity, takes us to the fields of Indian peasants, the counting-houses of Chinese merchants, the monopolizing efforts of New York capitalists, and the rebellions of enslaved sugar workers in Cuba to chart how something as mundane as sugar came to play a crucial role in the making of the world we inhabit today. Attentive to local specificities as much as to earth-spanning connections, to culture and capital, power and poverty, this book is global history at its best.”—Sven Beckert, author of Empire of Cotton
“Sugar may play a unique role in the slow-motion tragedy that is the worldwide epidemics of obesity and diabetes. The World of Sugar is a remarkably researched, comprehensive, and indispensable book for everyone who wishes to understand how sugar and the sugar industry have shaped the world in which we live.”—Gary Taubes, author of The Case Against Sugar
“Sugar got the modern world moving in a way few other commodities did. Revealing the bitter downside of sweetness, Bosma gives us a spectacular narrative that deftly weaves in all of sugar’s stories: labor and consumption, power and trade, science and technology.”—Jürgen Osterhammel, author of The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century