- Beyond Sweetness: New Histories of Sugar in the Early Atlantic World
Both sweet and deadly, capital and commodity, sugar has long played an important role in the early Atlantic imaginary. The story of [End Page 611]Atlantic-world sugar production has traditionally—and necessarily—been told in terms of its rising influence on market capitalism and metropolitan tastes. As plant and product, sugar was the foundational ingredient for an Atlantic world appetite, a raw material for alcohol production, and the basis of dessert and tea rituals. It realigned aesthetic values, changed cultural appetites, shaped commodity relations, and became part of transnational culinary-commodity identity formations. Organizers of “Beyond Sweetness: New Histories of Sugar in the Early Atlantic World” asked participants to think “beyond” the traditional narrative of the sugar revolution to consider these far-reaching cultural, political, economic, and personal resonances of the sugarcane plant. Neil Safier spoke in his opening remarks of the creative possibilities that might emerge from a multivocal history of sugar and its agents. In particular, this would include recognition of sugar production’s dependence on the transatlantic slave trade, making visible a violent history as well as a bittersweet legacy.
Moving away from a linear trajectory from crop to coffee cup, scholars from across the disciplines spent two days examining how sugar traversed territories, created bodies, developed new technologies, and reimagined knowledge. Speakers invited conference participants to consider themes of ecocriticism, the creation of new geographies, the (in)visibility of an enslaved labor force, and the technological advancements that sugar engendered. From Stuart B. Schwartz’s refiguring of Caribbean geographies in his keynote address to the accompanying exhibit at the John Carter Brown Library to plenary sessions that covered means of production and consumption, agricultural dynamics, the science of sugar, and more, the conference sought to reconnect disparate pieces of sugar history and culture while speaking across disciplines and theoretical frameworks. The first full day focused on competing colonial models of production and the development of sugar production technologies. Day two moved from a consideration of sugar’s economic position within imperial models of colonial production to issues of resistance and contemporary legacies.
Organized around key plenary session themes such as mapping sugar, natural history, cannibalism, and aesthetics, the exhibit “Sugar and the Visual Imagination in the Atlantic World, circa 1600–1860” displayed sugar as sweetener, commodity, and a plant that had the power to produce race, slave labor, capital, communities, and individual bodies. Exhibit curator K. Dian Kriz, assisted by Susan Danforth and Elena Daniele, [End Page 612]worked with the John Carter Brown Library’s archival resources to digitize and present maps, books, and prints of the Caribbean (the online exhibit can be found at http://www.jcbl.org/sugar/). Kriz spoke of two goals for the exhibit: to make the images comprehensible to contemporary viewers and to emphasize their strangeness. Sucrerie, a particularly compelling image from the exhibition, is an engraving of a sugar plantation from Jean Baptiste Du Tertre’s Histoire général des Antilles habitées par les François(1667–71). It situates sugar plantation slavery within an island landscape that is both Edenic and carefully controlled. Plants, harvested sugarcane, and slave huts are numerically labeled for unfamiliar viewers. This apparent harmony conflicts with the mechanized and forced labor featured in the center of the image. Multiple agents do the work of sugar production: enslaved men and women carry sugarcane in their arms, work outside the boiling hut, and attend to the animals that drive a sugar-making mill. A white overseer stands in the foreground of the image, brandishing a stick. Sucrerieis striking in its depiction of both the landscape and the laborers, who, as many of the panelists emphasized, are typically made invisible in discussions of the sugar revolution.
The ecocritical lens of the conference invited participants to read such images as testament to how the technologies of colonial sugar production affected the land and the enslaved human labor force interdependently. Jennifer Anderson and Kim Hall underscored the...