How did a simple commodity, once the prized monopoly of kings and princes, become an essential ingredient in the lives of millions, before mutating yet again into the cause of a global health epidemic?
Prior to 1600, sugar was a costly luxury, the preserve of the rich. But with the rise of the European sugar colonies in the Americas in the 17th century, sugar became cheap, ubiquitous and hugely popular - an everyday necessity.
As recently as the 1970s, very few people suggested that sugar posed a global health problem; yet today, sugar is regularly denounced as a dangerous addiction, on a par with tobacco, and the cause of a global obesity epidemic. While sugar consumption remains higher than ever - in some countries as high as 50kg per head per year - some advertisements proudly proclaim that their product contains no sugar. Sugar, while still clearly much loved, has taken on a pariah status.
Sugar grown by enslaved workers - people who had been uprooted and shipped vast distances to undertake the gruelling, intensive labour on plantations - brought about revolutionary changes in the landscape of the sugar colonies while transforming the tastes of the Western world.
Only now is the extensive ecological harm caused by sugar plantations being fully recognised, but it is the brutal human cost, from the first slave gangs in 16th-century Brazil, through to indentured Indian labourers in Fiji, the Japanese in Hawaii or the 'South Sea Islanders' shipped to Australia in the late 19th century, that has struck us most forcibly in the recent past.
We can only fully understand our contemporary dietary concerns with regard to sugar by coming to terms with the relationship between society and sweetness over a long historical span dating back two centuries to a time when sugar was vital to the burgeoning European domestic and colonial economies. This is exactly what Walvin helps us to do.
©2017 James Walvin (P)2017 Little Brown Book Group