the french, the english, and sugar -- 1/10/23

Today's selection -- from Sugar: The World Corrupted by James Walvin. The battle for possession of sugar-growing colonies, though far from the only factor, was at the heart of what became known as the Second Hundred Years' War between Great Britain and France. It was an intermittent global war that lasted from 1688 to 1815, and included the French and Indian War and the American Revolution in North America. At stake were the enormous profits derived from sugar:

"From the seventeenth century onwards, sugar was a source of controversy in domestic politics, a contentious issue in fiscal matters and even the cause of strategic, diplomatic and military conflicts. Sugar taxes were a bone of contention in the eighteenth century and, above all, a source of conflict between Britain and her American colonies. For the best part of two centuries, sugar-producing islands were also the source of conflict between feuding colonial powers. Indeed, Europeans shaped their foreign policies around their determination to acquire sugar colonies -- or to prevent their rivals from doing so. In the process, major conflicts were launched, sometimes with disastrous effects, and global power tilted one way and then the other. The European struggle for sugar-based power in the Caribbean reached its extraordinary climax in the years of the French Revolution.

"The value of the Caribbean to the Europeans was enormous.

"On the eve of the French Revolution, Britain's islands exported produce worth £4.5 million to Britain, and this at a time when Britain's own exports totalled £14 million. The French case was even more striking. France exported £11.5 million of goods, while their Caribbean colonies exported goods to the value of £8.25 million. This involved, of course, a range of tropical goods (cotton and coffee, for example), but sugar dominated in bulk and value.

"France's Caribbean colonies were supremely important by the late eighteenth century. St Domingue (Haiti) had become the world largest sugar producer by 1770. And although the French loved their sugar, they re-exported 70 per cent of the Caribbean sugar, mainly to Holland and Germany. To this day, the impact of France's sugar economy can still be seen in the city that became the beating heart of France's Caribbean trade -- Bordeaux -- with its lavish buildings and elegant streets, and its industrial and commercial activity stretching along the Garonne and deep into the wine-producing hinterland. A similar story can be told of Nantes, the centre of the French slave trade, and Le Havre. Even in distant Marseille, one fifth of that city's trade was with the Caribbean. In 1791, Rochefoucauld calculated that more than 700,000 French families owed their livelihoods to sugar. Unlike the British trade, however, the French sugar trade was fragmented and, like the sugar islands themselves, individual French ports viewed other sugar ports as rivals. And all of them viewed the French state -- with its taxes and restrictions -- as an obstacle to be overcome, not as a co-operative partner. Much the same was also true of French sugar refineries; they, too, were pitched one against another. The end result was that the French sugar industry did not develop, as the British did, into a power­ful and influential lobby able to influence For all that, the French domestic demand for sugar was wide­spread and growing, with sugar widely used as a basic ingredient in French cooking, in beverages, as a preservative, in brewing, in medicine and alcohol. The centre of French sugar consumption was in and around Paris, and Parisians consumed anywhere between 30 lb and 50 lb of sugar each year. More refined sugars were favoured by the rich, cruder sugars by the poor. On the eve of the French Revolution, in both France and in Britain, commentators were united in feeling that there was an untapped demand for yet more sugar. The market seemed boundless. With sugar firmly at the heart of both British and French life and politics, any conflict between the two nations in the Caribbean had complex ramifications. Threats to each nation's sugar trade, disruption of shipping - of goods and African slaves -- attacks on opponent's sugar colonies or, worst of all, from everyone's viewpoint, revolt by the slaves, was much more than a colonial issue. Interruption of the sugar supply meant serious damage to colonial power, domestic prosperity and well-being, and neither France not Britain could afford, nor even contem­plate, disruption to their sugar economies.

"French colonial power was thrown into turmoil by the Revolution in 1789 and by the subsequent slave uprisings in the French islands. A trail of destruction swept through the French Caribbean, but what happened in St Domingue was the stuff of nightmares for slaveholders everywhere. Insurgent slaves destroyed hundreds of sugar and coffee plantations and 10,000 slave-holders and refugees fled, mainly to Jamaica and the USA. The end result was the devastation of the French sugar industry. In 1791, St Domingue, at that time the world's largest producer of coffee, had also produced 80,000 tons of sugar. Within a decade, all that had. collapsed, with sugar down to 10,000 tons, while Jamaica's had risen to 100,000 tons. France's booming sugar industry and its major source of trop­ical trade had disintegrated."



James Walvin


Sugar: The World Corrupted


Pegasus Books, Inc.


Copyright 2018 by James Walvin


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