March 23, 2017


Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science. By Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $10.99.

     Essentially yet another anti-slavery screed, though disguised as a book on history and economics, Sugar Changed the World – originally published in 2010 and now available in paperback – touches on the families of the husband-and-wife authors to try to personalize a story dating back to thousands of years before the Greeks. It was in those times, in New Guinea, that sugar was first cultivated – a laborious process that was largely responsible for pretty much every evil in the world thereafter.

     Well, the authors do not say exactly that – not quite – but they make and remake their points about sugar and slavery to such an extent that readers will quickly find they are being lectured, indeed hectored to, rather than informed. This is a real shame, because the photos and illustrations enliven the story and do a great deal to show that history is as much about everyday life, about things we now take for granted, as it is about great battles and famous figures. But the book is so busy portraying slave owners as horrible, bloodthirsty murderers – every single one of them, without a single exception through all the ages in which slavery existed – that they lose track of narrative style (the book is sometimes in third person, sometimes in second person) and lapse frequently into hyperbole: “The punishing work [of cane planting] had just one aim: to plant a crop that would end up taking the life of every worker how touched it.” Really? Sugar cane killed 100% of the people who touched it? The business owners of cane plantations had as their aim the death of every single slave who worked their plantations? That is quite a way to run a business – kill all your workers.

     The problem with Sugar Changed the World is that it, like many other books about things that changed the world – guns, oil, birth control pills, Henry Ford’s assembly lines, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and many, many more – never stops insisting that its topic is the matter of importance. The only one. The Louisiana Purchase, for example, should be called the Sugar Purchase, Aronson and Budhos argue, because Napoleon only offered the land to Thomas Jefferson (who, by the way, was evil because he was a slaveholder) because sugar-producing Haiti had recently gained independence. The whole notion that Napoleon needed the money and was stretched too thin on numerous fronts in and beyond Europe, with Haiti and the Americas being of relatively little importance, gets not even a mention here – it is, or was, all about sugar. Only sugar.

     Incidentally, Haiti, celebrated in this book as a republic founded by former slaves, has been an economic basket case since its independence and remains the poorest nation in its region. The authors go out of their way to celebrate the country: “Haiti was born free; human rights won over property rights.” But they have to acknowledge, in some small way, that the new nation was a failure and remains one, since denying that really would fly in the face of fact. Their answer is to say that “Haiti floundered. In part that was because of internal conflicts in which outsiders had no role.” That is it – the sole reference to 200 years of internal warfare, tribal loyalties, corruption, dictatorship, mismanagement, and suppression of the rights of former slaves and their descendants by other former slaves and their descendants. Admitting all that would fly in the face of the authors’ nobility-vs.-evil narrative, so they allow the one brief reference and then never bring up the subject again.

     Actually, the whole Haiti story brushes anything negative about slaves and former slaves under the rug. Writing of the Haitians’ fight against crack British troops, Aronson and Budhos downplay the role of weather and disease in Haitian victories – although they do acknowledge, in another of their quick mentions, “malaria and yellow fever.” Their emphasis, though, is elsewhere, as they say that “the Haitians were disciplined, smart fighters. …Many of the Haitian soldiers were recently arrived Africans, warriors in their home countries.” Even young readers – the book’s target audience – may pause here to wonder how these excellent and disciplined warriors, scourge of well-trained British fighters, ended up as slaves in the first place. Wouldn’t their fighting and tactical abilities have kept them free in Africa? The answer – that a great many African slaves were enslaved by other Africans, from competing tribes, and not by the prototypical ultra-evil white plantation owner – would grate on the authors and undermine their carefully crafted, simplistic narrative, so they deliberately avoid mentioning it.

     Certainly all authors of histories choose what to put in and what to leave out. But here, the skewed nature of much of the writing undermines the fascinating elements and the sort of behind-the-scenes flavor, so to speak, of a book about a sweet substance with an anything-but-sweet background. Aronson and Budhos go so far as to assert, “Only sugar – the sweetness we all crave – could drive people to be so cruel…” So extreme is this viewpoint that it makes it seem there have never been wars and other forms of violence over land, over gold and other raw materials, over religious beliefs, but only over sugar. Sugar Changed the World is far too limited and one-sided in its presentation to be as useful as it could have been in exploring an important element of history that is rarely covered in students’ history classes. There is a great deal in the book that is genuinely interesting, and students who focus on the illustrative material will by and large have a better experience than those who follow the skewed presentation of events and facts, and perhaps swallow the biased arguments. A spoonful of sugar will do little to help these limited viewpoints go down.

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