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“Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History” by Sidney Wilfred Mintz


In his famous book, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Mintz studies where and how the goods that were produced on the islands since colonial times were consumed. Spices (ginger, allspice, and nutmeg), beverages (coffee, chocolate), rum, and sugar were exported from the Caribbean region to Europe, and sugar was the most important and most desirable product. Much of this book is about the evolution of British nutrition. England was the leader in establishing a system of plantations, and the production, number of consumers, and width of use of sugar prevailed over all other products of colonial origin. According to Tompkins, “Mintz’s work is still the single most important and foundational text to take up the history of food in the context of the Americas” (849). In his work, Mintz suggests that industrial capitalism originated in the Caribbean sugar cane plantations.

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Economic interdependence between Europe and its colonies and economic integration of various territories was not achieved through mutually beneficial and equal cooperation. On the opposite, it was based on oppression, enslavement, and subordination of people. The colonizing countries, where industrialization was gaining momentum, revised the strategy of trade with the colonial world. They used to see this world as a source of colonial goods, although they could not always pay for them as they lacked their industrial products. However, now they became a source themselves – they supplied their colonies with products manufactured by machinery in rapidly growing volumes; these goods had to be sold somewhere (Mintz 48). Mintz demonstrated how the formation of European consumption habits was associated with the desire of planters to expand markets for their products. He also described the European culture of consumption that required an increasingly intensive organization of labor on the plantations.

Summary of the Book

Sidney Mintz looks at the transformation of the sugar industry in the past centuries. Sugar is a second substance after tobacco, accompanying colonial history, turned from a luxury to a product of widespread consumption (Mintz 19). Domesticated in New Guinea, sugar cane production originated in India, spread through the Arabs to Europe, and reached the American shores on the ships of Columbus.

In the eleventh century, few Europeans knew about sugar and sugar cane. Sugar production in the Mediterranean was primarily associated with the Arab conquests, and already in the fifteenth century, Spain and Portugal had sugar plantations on their Islands in the Atlantic Ocean (Mintz 32). During the seventeenth century, British higher society became fascinated with sugar, even though it was mostly used as a seasoning ingredient, and sometimes as a medicine (Mintz 37). By the early nineteenth century, middle-class and lower-class British families started including sugar in their dietary habits. Noteworthy, by the early twentieth century, people got one-fifth of their daily calories from sugar (Mintz 67). The popularity of the product increased with the creation of more and more plantations on conquered lands of the British Empire. It also meant that sugar became finally ingrained into the national dietary tradition.

In general, mercantilism damaged the British economy, but it benefited the planters and the British crown. Plantations have become places of profitable investment and rapid enrichment, and it was an essential step towards capitalism. Farms in the Caribbean, unlike agriculture in Europe, were from the very beginning synthesis of fields and factories (Mintz 47). The sugar cane collected in the area had to be quickly converted, and therefore mills, sugar factories, dryers, distilleries, and warehouses were built on the site. The planters of the British Caribbean were the great entrepreneurs of their time: they had an average of 100 employees, 80 acres of land, 1-2 mills, a sugar mill, a dryer, a distillery, a barn, and produced 80 tons of sugar a year (Mintz 49). However, the wealth invested in plantations did not serve for significant capital accumulation, and the relationship between land, labor, and technology did not change over the centuries.

For Mintz, therefore, the plantation mode of production is not capitalist in the sense of the nineteenth-century industry. Besides, this production was based mainly on slave labor due to the protectionist policy of mercantilism. On the other hand, Mintz emphasizes that they fueled certain capitalist classes and also fueled a young proletariat that saw sugar and related products as solace in their mines and factories. The author also mentions that “the seventeenth century was preindustrial, and the idea that there might have been “industry” on the colonial plantation before it existed in the homeland may seem heretical” (Mintz 48). The commercial revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was, therefore, a condition of initial accumulation based on the state, protectionism, and slavery.

Industrialization and mechanized production became structural conditions for sugar consumption among the lower class. It was no longer just a habit or an imitation of the upper classes. Industrialists benefited from both the higher productivity associated with cheap calories and the widespread consumption of goods on the market (Mintz 125). In the late mid-nineteenth century, the feminization movements resulted in women’s newly asserted right to work. Hence they had less time for cooking, while sugar became cheaper. Therefore, proletarian families began to eat more jam, sugar, molasses, and ready-made bread, and tea replaced milk and beer (Mintz 127). A quick meal freed the female worker from one or two cooking activities for the day while simultaneously providing a large number of calories for the family. However, men still consumed almost all available meat, while sugar remained for children and women.

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Mintz describes the unity of capitalism in the sphere of exchange-international trade. He notes that, by the time, production and agriculture resided under single ownership. At the same time, a well-established approach to the organization of work that implied strict discipline contributed to the creation of the agro-industrial system (Mintz 51). Nonetheless, although Caribbean manufacturing was using forced labor until the mid-late nineteenth century, Puerto Rico could not be called a feudal society. Mintz states that:

There were at least two other regards in which these plantation enterprises were industrial: the separation of production from consumption, and the separation of the worker from his tools. Such features help us to define the lives of the working people, mostly unfree, who powered plantation enterprises between the sixteenth and the late nineteenth centuries in the New World. (52)

Even though slaves were not proletarians in the understanding of the nineteenth century, Mintz still considers this fact not just as a capitalist phenomenon, but as a product of capitalism.

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History is an excellent work in which Mintz traces the evolution of sugar production and consumption and then focuses on its role in the socio-political and economic history of the British Empire. The author was convincing in his point that goods produced in colonies contributed significantly to the capital growth throughout the world (Mintz 38). From my point of view, throughout the narration, Mintz provided a sufficient amount of facts to prove his thesis. Nowadays, the anthropology of technology and globalization had become established trends in the academic world. For anthropology, it is already quite acceptable to study history and collect material using not primary, but secondary sources. In his book, Mintz utilized both primary and secondary sources; the bibliographic list, which contains more than 200 works, is quite impressive. As for the primary sources, the author supplies his book with anthropological field researches from three Caribbean regions: Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Haiti.

The author presented a detailed and consistent analysis of the environment of trade relations between England and America. Nonetheless, there are some biases in his text – in particular, the author hints that British tea consumers were responsible for the violent relationship between planters and workers (Mintz 39). Nonetheless, the lion’s share of responsibility lies in the local American executive power and British imperialistic longing for the accumulation of power and capital. The narrative is comprehensive; it is especially impressive that the author integrated global topics of capitalism, feudalism, and imperialism into the context of a narrower problem – inhuman working conditions for sugar cane pickers in colonies.


Mintz showed how intellectual analysis of the history of a single product could be used to reveal the history of the entire world of social relations and human behavior. Tracing the life of a product, we see the relationship between modes of production and consumption, which may be located on different sides of the ocean and have their national history. A hot cup of sweet tea in the UK is directly linked to cruelty on slave plantations in the Caribbean region.

Therefore, slave labor contributed significantly to capital accumulation throughout the world. The policy of enslavement and ruthless exploitation of the population of the colonies became an integral part of the history of capitalism, from the era of initial accumulation to its last stage – imperialism. The need to create markets and the ever-increasing demand for new materials and food led to new colonial priorities and changed the world’s social system beyond recognition.

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Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin, 1986.

Tompkins, Kyla Wazana. “Sweetness, Capacity, Energy.” American Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 3, 2019, pp. 849-856.

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