The definitive 2,500-year history of sugar and its human costs, from its little-known origins as a luxury good in Asia to worldwide environmental devastation and the obesity pandemic.
For most of history, humans did without refined sugar. After all, it serves no necessary purpose in our diets, and extracting it from plants takes hard work and ingenuity. Granulated sugar was first produced in India around the sixth century BC, yet for almost 2,500 years afterwards sugar remained marginal in the diets of most people. Then, suddenly, it was everywhere. How did sugar find its way into almost all the food we eat, fostering illness and ecological crisis along the way?
The World of Sugar begins with the earliest evidence of sugar production. Through the Middle Ages, traders brought small quantities of the precious white crystals to rajahs, emperors, and caliphs. But after sugar crossed the Mediterranean to Europe, where cane could not be cultivated, demand spawned a brutal quest for supply. European cravings were satisfied by enslaved labour; two-thirds of the 12.5 million Africans taken across the Atlantic were destined for sugar plantations. By the twentieth century, sugar was a major source of calories in diets across Europe and North America.
Sugar transformed life on every continent, creating and destroying whole cultures through industrialization, labour migration, and changes in diet. Sugar made fortunes, corrupted governments, and shaped the policies of technocrats. And it provoked freedom cries that rang with world-changing consequences. In Ulbe Bosma's definitive telling, to understand sugar's past is to glimpse the origins of our own world of corn syrup and ethanol and begin to see the threat that a not-so-simple commodity poses to our bodies, our environment, and our communities.
1. Asia’s World of Sugar
2. Sugar Going West
3. War and Slavery
4. Science and Steam
5. State and Industry
6. Slavery Stays
7. Crisis and Wonder Cane
8. Global Sugar, National Identities
9. American Sugar Kingdom
10. Rising Protectionism
11. The Proletariat
12. Failed Decolonization
13. Corporate Sugar
14. Sweeter Than Nature
Ulbe Bosma is a Senior Researcher at the International Institute of Social History and Professor of International Comparative Social History at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His books include The Making of a Periphery and The Sugar Plantation in India and Indonesia.
"A tour de force of global history [...] Bosma has turned the humble sugar crystal into a mighty prism for understanding aspects of global history and the world in which we live."
– Dinyar Patel, Los Angeles Review of Books
"The World of Sugar shows the globalized tangle of interests that capitalism creates among consumers, producers, investors, labor, national governments, and transnational organizations [...] Sugar offers a bitter reminder of the enduring tensions between the complexity of national interests and the interests of capital."
– Bronwen Everill, Foreign Policy
"Bosma lucidly depicts how a commodity that is challenging to cultivate and devoid of nutritional value was central to the development of European imperialism, transatlantic slavery, the Industrial Revolution, economic protectionism, and the postcolonial politics and environmental degradation of the Global South. Bosma's wide-ranging accounting is full of eye-opening insights [...] This is a comprehensive and alarming look at how one commodity changed the world."
– Publishers Weekly
"The world history of sugar and the world history of capitalism are tightly linked to one another. Ulbe Bosma, in this first truly global account of a most crucial commodity, takes us to the fields of Indian peasants, the countinghouses of Chinese merchants, the monopolizing efforts of New York industrialists, and the rebellions of enslaved sugar workers in Cuba to chart how something as mundane as sugar came to play a crucial role in the making of the world we inhabit today. Attentive to local specificities as much as to Earth-spanning connections, to culture and capital, power and poverty, this book is global history at its best."
– Sven Beckert, author of Empire of Cotton: A Global History
"Sugar may play a unique role in the slow-motion tragedy that is the worldwide epidemic of obesity and diabetes. The World of Sugar is a remarkably researched, comprehensive, and indispensable book for everyone who wishes to understand how sugar and the sugar industry have shaped the world in which we live."
– Gary Taubes, author of The Case Against Sugar
"How is it that a chemical that has no nutritional value, that is inherently poisonous, that is responsible for morbidity and mortality, and that is breaking the health care budget of every developed and developing country is the seminal thread running through human history for the last 3,000 years? The World of Sugar narrates the critical events that made sugar the dominant force in world politics from antiquity to our own era. In this magisterial history, Bosma offers a much-needed cautionary tale about how addiction leads to societal downfall. As we watch newer addictions destroy the climate and Earth's inhabitants, we would all do well to learn the hard lessons of sugar."
– Robert Lustig, author of Metabolical: The Lure and the Lies of Processed Food, Nutrition, and Modern Medicine
"The World of Sugar is compelling, deeply researched, and globe-spanning. Bosma puts sugar at the heart of global capitalism; he shows how the quest for sweetness has driven slavery, violence, and massive ecological destruction. This is a timely and impressive book that illuminates some of our most urgent contemporary debates."
– Sunil Amrith, author of Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons Have Shaped South Asia's History
"Sugar got the modern world moving in a way few other commodities did. Revealing the bitter downside of sweetness, Bosma gives us a spectacular narrative that deftly weaves in all of sugar's stories: labor and consumption, power and trade, science and technology."
– Jurgen Osterhammel, author of The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century