Shakar. Chini. Gur. Khandsari. Ganna.

India has a dizzying variety of names and forms for sugary substances. This is no accident: the global sugar trade originated in India, no doubt one reason for why subcontinental cuisines possess such a staggering range of sweetened dishes, desserts, and beverages. Ulbe Bosma’s new book, The World of Sugar, chronicles the history of the global sugar industry, demonstrating how it emerged out of India to conquer the world.

This is a story which has some bitter truths. Sugar added a much-loved sweetness to global diets but it left a trail of social and ecological destruction in its wake. Soaring worldwide demand for the sweet stuff created international networks of wealth and power while subjecting millions of laborers to brutal work and impoverishment. Our collective sweet tooth has, over time, legitimated violence, imperial conquest, and slavery.

In this episode of Past Imperfect, Bosma discusses how sugar has helped create the modern world. Sugar industries in premodern India and China demonstrated a distinct capitalistic dynamic, something which upends our understanding of how (and where) global capitalism developed. Sugar has, furthermore, facilitated remarkable transnational links: Egyptian refining techniques employed in Ming-era China, for example, or Dutch capitalists’ attempts in the seventeenth century to simultaneously open new sugarcane frontiers in Brazil and Taiwan.

As Bosma tells us in this episode, the global sugar industry sustained itself through a mix of innovation on some fronts and, on others, a dogged unwillingness to innovate. Scientists made pathbreaking discoveries which led to new sources for the sweet stuff, like beet roots. Planters and industrialists patronised engineers, skilled botanists, and professional managers from the nineteenth century onwards.

But they ultimately relied on the manual labor of millions of poor people and saw little incentive to mechanise harvesting and production. The most tragic consequence was sugar’s utter reliance on slavery. In plantations in Louisiana, the Caribbean, Demerara, and Brazil, African slaves were overworked so brutally that as many as two in five died within their first year of enslavement. Others chose to end their suffering by immolating themselves in boiling vats of sugarcane juice.

Today, nearly two centuries after the British Empire officially ended slavery, global sugar is still sustained by brutal labour regimes stretching from Maharashtra to Florida. National governments, meanwhile, spend billions of dollars every year to sustain an industry which is in the throes of chronic overproduction, contributing to a worldwide epidemic of diabetes and other diseases.

Bosma believes that consumers have a responsibility to change this pitiful scenario. Will they put pressure upon global sugar corporations for fairer labour practices and more transparency about sugar’s health effects? Or will global sugar capitalists continue to grow fat from government subsidies and worsening dietary habits?

It is something to ponder the next time that you reach for your sugary morning tea or post-dinner dessert.

Dinyar Patel is an assistant professor of history at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Researchin Mumbai. His award-winning biography of Dadabhai Naoroji, Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, was published by Harvard University Press in May 2020.

Past Imperfect is sponsored and produced by the Centre for Wisdom and Leadership at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research.