Chocolate and sugar have always been about politics. Especially that sweet sugar.
It was the ancient Persians ,closely followed by the Greeks who initially discovered the real delights of sugar. I should say they discovered the amazing grassy reeds which produced a sweet- tasting honey, without the aid of honeybees. That was in India sometime before Jesus Christ was born ; possibly some four to six hundred years before his birth.The growing of sugar cane on a large scale began around this time and spread out of India to spread across the world.Sugar was traded as some rare ,sweet exotic spice , sold only to the very rich and powerful, like frankincense.
You think it might be your imagination but then you realise that things never stay the same as you remember them . There are always background machinations involved , manipulating every little thing you do in your day- to- day life….even the sweets you might be partial to . You know you are being conned in some way already. They might have have reduced the size of the sweets we like to eat and if they can squeeze more money out of us by reducing the size of the box or tin that the sweets come in they’ll already have done that too and we will roll over and let them do it. Maybe it’s an age thing …. You’ll ask yourself…. Were “Wagon Wheel” biscuits always this size or did they only seem bigger in childhood? Did Cadbury’s Creme Eggs always taste so teeth -numbingly sweet as they seem to do at present? You’ll already have an inkling that they simply couldn’t have . The chocolate doesn’t even seem the same anymore. I have to admit to having rather enjoyed these tasty egg-shaped comestible treats in the past but I couldn’t unwrap one now. I used to harden them up to almost freezing- point , in the fridge, in much the way you’d also ripen up a tomato or an avocado pear o the window- sill. These little tricks helped to improve flavour but now there appears to be no flavour to improve any more.
What does it say now that a sweet snack is simply too sweet to enjoy anymore.? We’ve obviously tipped over the edge.Is this symptomatic of how sugar has insidiously crept back into our diet in so many manifestations since the 1950s when food rationing ended? Has the sugar content been ramped up by small increments decade -by- decade or have those Creme Eggs always tasted so sweet? I’m thinking about this at a time when obesity seems to be a modern plague and everything on the supermarket shelves is suspect as the bete noir in our diets. Everything is full of excessive sugar, from the huge bottles of cola to the unassuming jar of Dolmio tomato sauce for pasta.This conversation is even entering politics, news stories and talk shows.
Well the truth is that behind the scenes everything has changed .For example the huge American conglomerate “Kraft”, of processed- cheese fame , have taken over the Cadbury brand some six years ago ,in much the same way that Disney has bought over Marvel Comics. With the buyover has come changes in the recipes of well-known products.What we used to know as Creme Chocolate, made from what we knew as Dairy Milk ,is now something else entirely ,more akin to that junk the Americans make Hershey Bars out of and the Cadbury’s Creme Egg is now a masquerade of the real deal.
There’s nothing new with any of this.Sugar itself has always had a huge political profile which stretches back centuries and had great importance at the height of the British Empire.The Caribbean islands were once known as the Sugar Isles .Coffee, tea and rice were significant crops and were widely grown there ,as was indigo, but when the British ,as a nation , developed a wholly new sweet tooth ,in relation to sweetening their tea and coffee the demand for sugar was such that it became the most important cash -crop. It was grown mostly in coastal regions throughout these areas in the most fertile coastal land.The Dutch first introduced it in the 1600’s from Brazil into what later became known as the British West Indies when the British added them to their trophy cabinet.As you can see by the current popularity of the “Bake-Off” Television programmes, the British and probably the Irish too, have developed into a nation that really loves to bake sweet cakes , so sugar was, and is , much in demand. Growers changed from growing tobacco and cotton which were being produced cheaper in the colonies of North America.
All of this had a massive effect on the trading of slaves and the economy of the Caribbean. Many workers were required to bring in an economic crop ,so slave importation increased and black men and women were forcibly stolen from Africa and traded as livestock to work on the caribbean plantations.Subsequently the population of these isles by the end of the 17th Century was seventy per cent black to twenty five per cent white.and each white-controlled plantation worked an average of sixty black slaves until within another forty years each plantatation in Jamaica worked some one hundred and fifty slaves.Sugar cane became what “King Cotton” was in the southern American states. It was used in the production of rum and molasses.
In the mid 1700’s British merchant interests who had made fortunes importing sugar for home use joined in an alliance with the plantation owners to share the profits and finally wielded substantial power in the parliament at Westminster.
“Britons never, never shall be slaves…”
Of course britons at home would never consider the idea of slavery for themselves or their neighbours.It was fine for the most part for Johnny Foreigner in far-off lands , whom they regarded as lesser beings , or for the British abroad and the Liverpool “blackbirding” slavers of the time , but as a nation at home there was a general religious abhorrence to the idea and crude reality of enslavement and the brute business of ships abrim with stolen people being traded and treated as so much cattle. William Wilberforce was tilling fertile enough ground in his quest for abolition. Britons didn’t need slaves for the most part.They already had the poorly -paid Irish to work cheaply and throw scorn and calumny upon. The very Irish who had been forced to live peripatetic lives, eventually labouring cheaply to build their country and their roads for them.
By the mid 1700s Jamaica and the French colony ,Saint Domingue, which became Haiti, were the biggest sugar producers on the planet.Then when slavery was eventually abolished as the 19th century got under way there was a revolution on Haiti, allowing Cuba to outdo everyone else in sugar production and leaving those islands controlled by the British Empire in their wake.Growing sugar cane and milling it became the mainstay crop for many islands that had been conquered by the British , the French and the Spaniards. Places such as Barbados, Saint Dominique and Martinique relied on the politics and revenue from sugar production for their economic sustenance.Puerto Rico, having been a colony of Spain and later the United States of America was dominated by the human need for the taste of the sweet grass and its by-products throughout the 19th century.When slavery became anathama in “Society” and the Abolitionists succeeded in banning it, as the superior British and Christian thing to do , the plantation owners subsequently imported indentured workers from India and production continued into the 20th century when plantations were sustained in sugar production by using paid labour.Indentured workers were actually forced by British law to contract for periods of up to eight years to work off a debt abroad. The practice continued right up until 1920.
Now in the 21st century sugar cane is mostly grown in Cuba and Jamaica but has largely died out in the Caribbean islands leaving behind its mixed- race legacy.Other sources of sweetness such as the humble beet are now used more locally too.
You can see that our quest for sweetness has already been the root cause in its history for slavery, economic wars and power-brokering. Now the assault is on is on our health, our teeth and our taste-buds too.
The sweet grass’s revenge on humanity continues unabated .