A book with the title of Sweetness and Power suggests a belated attempt to solve the riddle of Samson. The riddle, it will be recalled, ran as follows: “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.” For a great British public that has ceased to read its Bible, the answer has for many years been thoughtfully provided by Messrs. Tate and Lyle on their tins of golden syrup. In this measured and intelligent book, however, Sidney Mintz is posing a riddle of his own, which turns out on inspection to be a great deal more interesting than that posed by Samson.

Mintz’s riddle is concerned with the meaning of sugar in the life of the Western world. He starts with one of those pieces of information that tend to make the eyes glaze over when heard at a dinner party: “World sugar production shows the most remarkable upward production curve of any major food on the world market over the course of several centuries, and it is continuing upward still.” So what? we may well ask, as we decide on this occasion to forgo that extra lump in our coffee. Ah, but listen to the facts, replies the dinner party bore as he thrusts the sugar bowl into our hands.

The facts are undeniably impressive, not least because sugar seems to have been a slow starter. Sugar cane was first domesticated in New Guinea around 8000 BC, and in India in the fourth century BC there are literary references to the use of sugar in food preparation. Yet it was only after the eighth century AD that sugar came to be known and consumed in Mediterranean Europe, and it remained virtually unknown in northern Europe for another four centuries after that. Right through the European Middle Ages sugar continued to be a luxury, although cultivation of the sugar cane, introduced by the Arabs, was spreading through the Mediterranean basin. From here it was to be carried across the Atlantic by the Spaniards and the Portuguese (with more help from the Genoese than Dr. Mintz allows) during the great age of overseas discovery.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, large-scale commercial production, based to a great extent on the heavy import of slave labor, developed in Brazil, Spanish America, and the islands of the Caribbean. As production shot up, prices tumbled; and in eighteenth-century Britain (with which Dr. Mintz is almost entirely concerned) a mass market came into being, and a luxury commodity was turned with surprising speed into an everyday necessity. The figures tell their own story. British per capita annual consumption of sugar, estimated at four pounds in 1700, stood at eighteen pounds in 1800. Looking back on the nineteenth century, Lord Boyd Orr argued that the single most important nutritional fact about the British people was their five-fold increase in sugar consumption. The British had become a sweet-toothed people, and where Britain led, the Western world (and not least the United States) was soon to follow.

The history of the sugar industry has been written a number of times, and these and other such facts are readily accessible. Why, then, has Sidney Mintz decided to retell a well-known story? The idea behind his book, he tells us, was inspired by direct personal experience. Working as an anthropologist in Puerto Rico, and spending a year in a small shack with a young cane worker, he found himself in a world where sugar was king. But with his interest concentrated on production, it was only as an after-thought that he came to see that he was taking demand for granted. Once he realized this, interesting questions began to arise. Why do some people like sweet things more than others? What makes a particular people—in this instance the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British—become habituated to a large, regular, and dependable supply of sweetness? And why should the need for this sweetness have been met by sugar? In other words he saw, with the eyes of an anthropologist, that sugar should not simply be regarded as a commercial commodity, but had to be viewed in its “multiple functions,” and examined as a “culturally defined good.”

His point of departure found, he was off in all directions. In this book he reexamines the process and history of production; he reviews (with fascinating details) the nature and development of sugar consumption; and—in what proves to be the trickiest part of the enterprise—he relates both production and consumption to the question of power in society. The result is a book that is neither exactly traditional history nor traditional anthropology, but an interweaving of the two disciplines that speaks directly to the practitioners of both.

This is an ambitious undertaking, but one carried through with a modesty and open-mindedness that immediately earn the reader’s confidence and respect. If it is not entirely successful, this is perhaps because the scope of the inquiry is simply too large for a book of this relatively modest size. In addressing a variety of constituencies there are times when Dr. Mintz is bound, as he hurries on, to leave one or another of them dissatisfied. But there is something here for everybody, and not least for the general reader who is likely to find that the author is opening a whole series of doors onto rich and unsuspected worlds.


Dr. Mintz is perhaps least successful in his chapter on sugar production, where he takes his readers at a trot down a well-worn highway, occasionally halting to point out some aspect of the view. The role of slavery in plantation economies, the degree to which they can be described as capitalist forms of organization, and the question of whether the West Indian colonies represented an asset or a liability for the mother country, have been the subject of long and heated historical debate. Here Mintz can do little more than summarize and recapitulate, sometimes verbatim, the views of eminent historical authorities, although adding the occasional judicious comment of his own. In the process, the story loses some of its richness and variety, and important questions are liable to be given short shrift.

The unwary reader, for instance, could well come away with the impression that New World sugar production was exclusively geared to the demands of the European market, whereas much of the sugar produced in colonial Mexico and Peru was consumed on the spot. What Mintz sees as a rapid stagnation of the Hispanic sugar industry after a promising start may therefore not be stagnation, but rather a diversion of output for the satisfaction of needs in the colonies themselves, not least for the creation of those sugar death’s-heads so beloved of the Mexicans. Mexican experience, too, raises questions about his assertion that, in the absence of major technological change, the enlarged market for sugar was satisfied by a steady expansion of production, rather than by sharp increases in yield per acre or in worker productivity. Research on the Cuernavaca estate of the Cortés family between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries indicates a fourfold increase in the amount of sugar produced per unit of labor without any significant technological change.1

“Without sugar, no colonies,” wrote Paul Daubrée in 1841. Dr. Mintz has no difficulty in showing the nexus of sweetness and power in the context of production. The sugar colonies, their production organized on the basis of a brutal system of forced labor, were integrated into a commercial and economic network carefully regulated by the power of the state. Sugar, slavery, and imperialism, as Dr. Eric Williams taught us long ago, proved themselves boon companions. But there is another, less obvious aspect of the nexus that could do with some attention. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, a settler in the first of the Caribbean sugar islands, Santo Domingo, wrote with pride in his Natural History of the Indies: “We found no sugar mills when we arrived in these Indies, and all these we have built with out own hands and industry in so short a time.” To those who made the hazardous Atlantic crossing in the sixteenth century, the new sugar plantations were spectacular symbols both of the superiority of Europeans to the indigenous population and of their mastery over the forces of nature. The sense of power conveyed by the sight of “improvement” was an important element in the growing self-confidence displayed by early modern Europe.

As he moves from production to consumption, Dr. Mintz’s discussion grows notably in richness and range. He identifies five principal uses or “functions” of sucrose—as medicine, spice-condiment, decorative material, sweetener, and preservative—and examines each in turn with much illustrative detail. Especially enjoyable is his account of “subtleties”—those sculpture forms that encouraged confectioners to become mini-Michelangelos, working not in marble but in sugar. It is good to see that this necessarily ephemeral art form has not been entirely neglected by later scholarship, and that “sugar sculpture for grand ducal weddings from the Giambologna workshop” has been accorded the dignity of an article in Connoisseur.

But at the heart of Mintz’s discussion of consumption lies his teasing question of how and why the British were transformed in the course of the eighteenth century into a sweet-toothed people. He is in fact addressing himself to the phenomenon of historical change, and possibly the most significant aspect of this book is that he should do so as a trained anthropologist and not as a trained historian. His awareness of this (which at times makes him too deferential to his historical authorities) pervades the entire book, and turns it at once into a manifesto and an appeal to his fellow anthropologists. “We anthropologists,” he writes at the end, “for too long have paradoxically denied the way the world has changed and continues changing, as well as our ability—responsibility, even—to contribute to a broad understanding of the changes.” Anthropology, in other words, cannot afford to turn its back on history.


Nor, for that matter, can history afford to turn its back on anthropology. The awareness of this has informed some of the best historical writing of recent decades, opening up new vistas as historians explore changing tastes and attitudes. One field currently being transformed is precisely that relating to changing patterns of consumption in eighteenth-century England, with economic, social, and political historians combining to trace the outlines of a “consumer revolution” as the prelude to the birth of the modern world.2 With Dr. Mintz’s entry, the consumer revolution now acquires its card-carrying anthropologist. What, we may reasonably ask, does he bring with him that is new?

There are, first, the insights into why people behave as they do. Historians preoccupied with cost, for example, may well overlook the significance of time. Yet time, as Mintz shows for nineteenth-century England, can count for at least as much in consumer choice. After 1870 jam became an important ally of the hardpressed working mother. Without time to prepare cooked meals, she fed her children bread and jam.

A still more important contribution is Dr. Mintz’s attempt to use sugar as a clue to the distribution of power in society. Put crudely, his thesis is that until around 1700 the men who have the power have the sugar, but increasingly thereafter the men who have the sugar have the power. England moves from being a society in which only the rich and privileged are sugar consumers to being one in which a generalized consumption of sugar is fomented, sustained, and exploited by a privileged elite, which accumulates new wealth in the process. The new wealth was all too visible, not least to George III, who—as Mintz tells us—turned irritably to his prime minister on a visit to Weymouth when he saw a West Indian planter with his opulant equipage: “Sugar, sugar, eh?—all that sugar! How are the duties, eh, Pitt, how are the duties?”

The rich West Indian and his fellow planters were, as described by Mintz, participants in a power structure that turned Britain into a society of sugar consumers. But in discussing this power structure and its methods of control, his arguments, like sugar, could do with some refining. The power structure as he describes it is at once too nebulous and too monolithic, and a closer historical analysis is required of its constituent parts and their mutual relationships. Planters and merchants, grocers, refiners, and speculators, and—not least—the government itself, all had their own particular interests and concerns. While each possessed a vested interest in the consumer revolution, their own distinctive approaches were always liable to cut across one another.

All these interested parties were dependent on a continuing growth in demand. As in other parts of the eighteenth-century British economy, demand could be promoted by publicity and advertisement, about which Dr. Mintz is regrettably uninformative. But prices remained critical for the expansion of demand, and it is significant that in the 1760s and 1770s the price of sugar in Britain seems to have compared unfavorably with its price in France. Sugar, as Mintz points out, was an eminently taxable commodity and one that was easily controlled. George III in his own bluff way was quick to seize the point. “How are the duties, eh, Pitt, how are the duties?” The duties were high, and in this sense government fiscal policy may have placed some brake on the consumer revolution.

But the story as told by Dr. Mintz has a last, ironic, twist. In the long run the consumers carry all before them, with consumer power becoming one more element in the power equation. “It might not be too much to say,” he writes, “that the fate of the British West Indies was sealed, once it became cheaper for the British masses to have their sugar from elsewhere, and more profitable for the British bourgeoisie to sell more sugar at lower prices.” But this triumph of consumer power which he chronicles so well needs to be explained in a variety of different ways. Availability of supply and creation of demand are both crucial to the story. But so, too, is taste, and it is in his analysis of consumer response that Dr. Mintz is at his most subtle.

Why, for instance, were French sugar interests, unlike those in Britain, “unable to push French consumption to the point where it would deeply affect the nature of French cuisine or the forms of French meal taking”? His attempts to answer this question take us back to national patterns of eating and drinking, to the relative properties of ale and wine, and to the role of tea in national life. But all the time the questions multiply; for if the tea revolution helped to create the sugar revolution, why did the English—unlike the Chinese—insist on sugar in their tea? Going further, Dr. Mintz might also have asked why the Scots, who shared the enthusiasm of the English for sugar in their tea, balked when it came to porridge, and continued to season it with salt. Poverty, parsimony, or tribal ritual?

There are riddles here which, like Samson’s, defy solution. But Dr. Mintz, unlike Samson, plays entirely fair. He never claims to possess the full answer, but patiently and lucidly lays out the various options. In so doing, he reveals all the layers of complexity surrounding what at first sight might appear the most straight-forward of subjects. Best of all he shows how the intelligent analysis of the history of a single commodity can be used to pry open the history of an entire world of social relationships and human behavior. As he describes it, the consumption of refined sugar becomes an integral element in the process of modernization, as the two pursue together their inexorable march across the globe. It is a bittersweet conclusion, and one well worth reflecting on as we take another lump.

This Issue

October 24, 1985