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YALSA Nonfiction, part last: Sugar Changed the World

Over the last month, I’ve been taking a closer look at the five finalists for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction. Check out part one, part two, part three and part four. Today I’ll wrap up this series by looking at the last of the finalists, Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos.

I’ve saved this book for last, despite having read it first (more than a year ago) because I have very mixed feelings about it. I think in a lot of ways it is a tremendous book, and yet for a long time, I was stuck on a couple problems I had with the book. As I reread it and mulled over it, though, I realized that the problems I had were less flaws than important issues to discuss and analyze.  

First, the good. Most importantly, this is a eminently readable book. Aronson and Budhos have an excellent feel for prose, and they are able to convey huge, sometimes very complex or delicate subjects in poised, everyday language. Beyond basic readability, this boo”s breadth of scope is amazing. Aronson and Budhos take us from the first cultivation of sugar cane into the twentieth century without ever sacrificing comprehension.  

As the title says, this is a book about how sugar changed the world. Growing up in America, we think of slavery as being about harvesting cotton or tobacco, but Aronson and Budhos correct this view by showing that something like 80% of the slaves Europeans brought from Africa were taken to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean and South America. Thus, the authors show how the quest for sugar was inextricably linked to the development of plantations, the international slave trade, the Industrial Revolution, and much more. This ability to show the links across these varied topics is a huge achievement for any book, let alone a young adult book.

But here is where I get to the first place I stumbled. Aronson and Budhos claim:

Sugar turned human beings into property, yet sugar led people to reject the idea that any person could be owned by another. Sugar murdered millions, and yet it gave the voiceless a way to speak. […] Only sugar–the sweetness we all crave–could drive people to be so cruel, and to combat all forms of cruelty.

Essentially, they are making two separate claims: that sugar was the driving force in creating slavery, and that it was also the driving force in abolishing slavery. My problem was that while they do an exemplary job of proving the first of these propositions, I had a lot of trouble with the second claim. Just on a logical level, the argument seemed faulty to me: sugar caused slavery, slavery was ended for a variety of reasons, therefore sugar caused abolition. To me, this doesn’t follow. Once slavery existed, the abolition of it has nothing to do with the specific reasons for it having formed. Abolition was based on the principled objections of Europeans and the violent and nonviolent insurrections of slaves, not on some principle that sugar requires freedom. As I said, though, I now think this is a more complex issue than simply agreeing or disagreeing with Aronson and Budhos’s claim, and I would love to hear from other readers of the book about what they thought of this section.

The second issue I had with the book, I realized, was based on my expectations of what I thought it was going to be about. I thought that the authors could have gone into much more detail about other ways in which sugar changed the world. Slavery is not the only aspect to the world-changing nature of sugar. The authors do mention several times the exponentially increasing demand for sugar in Europe, but these references are always couched in terms of how that affected the slave trade. I would have loved to see them spend a little more time on the scientific basis for the human urge for sugar, and how and why the demand increased so rapidly–to the point where today humans have to create sugar without calories. In other words I wish they had showed the ways in which the drive for sugar has been one of the most important urges in human history from the beginning to the present, not merely during the years of exploration and colonization. As I said, though, this is all based on my expectations of a different book from the one Aronson and Budhos wrote. Again, I’d welcome comments from anyone who’s read it.

So, in some ways, this was the most thought-provoking of the YALSA Nonfiction finalists. I had a very visceral first reaction and it made me really think about my reactions. At the same time, it has a rich wealth of information and anecdotes about sugar and its connection to slavery.  

— Mark Flowers, currently reading Demi-Monde: Winter by Rod Rees

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Mark Flowers

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  1. Mark: Thank you for such an engaged and thoughtful reading. On the first point — sugar and abolition — I have to direct your attention to a recent debate in the letters pages of the January 12, 2012 issue of the New York Review of Books — about the reasons for abolition in the UK. Of course there are different arguments and points of view, but the contention that the use of sugar, the boycotts of sugar, the link made between consumers and slaves by sugar, was central to the abolitionists’ success is favored by many leading historians — some of whom we cite. So I would urge you and other readers not just to think about abolition broadly but about the UK, which, despite being the country that made the most money in sugar slavery, was the first to abolish slavery. The example of the UK, the UK! whom we had seen as the enemy of democracy, then influenced abolition here. To weigh the debates about abolition in the UK you cannot use general knowledge, you have read the academic books. Slavery existed long before sugar, and abolition did have many mothers. But sugar radically expanded slavery, and sugar was crucial to the abolitionsts’ first great success.

    • Mark Flowers Mark Flowers

      Marc – thanks for the comment. I am very fascinated by the UK abolition movement, but I have it admit that I’m always several weeks behind in my NY Review reading, so I haven’t gotten to that issue yet — I’ll be sure to take a look. As you say, the fact that the UK was both the greatest benificiary of sugar slavery and the first to abolish slavery is a crucial piece of information in the discussion.

      I guess my remaining qualm is this: let’s say the primary slavery crop had been something else, say tobacco. Do you think the boycotts, etc could have been equally effective surrounding tobacco? Or are you saying that the fact that sugar was such a enormous staple of British life was what (at least in part) allowed the abolitionists to be so successful?

      • marc aronson marc aronson

        Yes I do think that the ubiquity of sugar gave the abolitionists a pressure point. Read adam hochschild’ book Bury the Chains or semour drescher, the Mighty Experiment for more.

        • Mark Flowers Mark Flowers

          Thanks Marc – that clarifies things for me a lot. I’ll definitely check those out.

  2. Susan Schab Susan Schab

    I recently read the book and I have been recommending it to patrons. One of the wonderful things about the book is it’s world view. It is interesting to see how through one product, the history of the world was effected. It is a good way to get teens to see a global perspective.

  3. […] my reaction to Sugar Changed the World, which Aronson co-wrote with his wife, Marina Budhos.  In a review I wrote for The Hub I said at one point: “Essentially, [Aronson and Budhos] are making two separate claims: that […]

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