What is the summary for the book Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz?

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History is about the cultural and economic history of sugar. Sidney Mintz explains how the sugar industry developed with a particular focus on its role in colonial exploitation. He explains that the sugar plantations were an early form of contemporary industrial production. He also explains how cultural dietary practices and traditions involving sugar shifted throughout history but were always tied to the history of international economic exploitation.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History , Sidney Mintz explains the history of sugar in the context of cultural and economic development. Going back to sugar cane’s roots in New Guinea, Mintz explains how sugar became such a dietary staple today. One of Mintz’s main...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

In Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Sidney Mintz explains the history of sugar in the context of cultural and economic development. Going back to sugar cane’s roots in New Guinea, Mintz explains how sugar became such a dietary staple today. One of Mintz’s main focuses is sugar’s role in the history of colonial exploitation. In particular, he focuses on European colonialism and how Spain, Portugal, England, and France exploited their colonies’ resources to profit off of sugar production.

Mintz explains how Caribbean sugar plantations emerged from older forms of agricultural production. He also argues that the sugar plantations were an early form of contemporary industrial production under capitalism. Through this connection, Mintz suggests that contemporary capitalism profits off of the exploitation of labor in a similar way to slavery.

Mintz also discusses how the economic and cultural value placed on sugar in Europe shaped rituals and diets. For example, consider how the frequent consumption of tea with sugar is typically associated with England. Mintz highlights how such cultural dietary practices are actually tied to the history of politics. Or consider how sugary decorations on wedding cakes hold a great deal of cultural meaning worldwide. Mintz explains how such small cultural details are actually rooted in histories of exploitative economic development.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History is a nonfiction book originally published in 1985 by Sidney Wilfred Mintz (November 16, 1922–December 27, 2015). Mintz was a distinguished anthropologist whose scholarship focused on cultural anthropology and anthropology of food. He did extensive work on the Caribbean as a region. Throughout his career, he was particularly concerned with how slavery and forced labor in the New World differed from ancient slavery due to their relationships with the new economic system of global capitalism. His study of sugar continued this theme by showing how the conditions of the working lives of slaves in the Caribbean responded to capitalism and how they also provided sites of resistance to it. When they became freed, they exhibited creative forms of collectivism.

More importantly, though, he presents a long and complex history of sugar, examining the factors that transformed it from a rare luxury to a staple of our diets. He suggests that we must look beyond explanations focused on genetic preference for sweetness to social mechanisms such as imitation and status-seeking to understand its prevalence. He traces a cultural history of the consumption of sugar and a history of its production. He also examines how sugar plantations were among the earliest forms of what we now think of as large scale "agribusiness." 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Mintz tries to show how sugar production and consumption sparked the development of market capitalism and consumerism. In chapter 1, he discusses sugar in anthropological terms, considering how “sweetness” is a quality universally recognized by humans, although some cultures value sweetness more than others. In chapter 2, he traces the development of the sugar industry in the Caribbean in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, focusing on how a growing demand for sugar in Europe contributed to sugar's increased production and its gradual transformation from a luxury item to a household staple. Chapter 3 discusses how sugar was consumed in Europe and North America, seeking to make a connection between the economic forces that enabled its production and the social changes sugar use enabled. The final two chapters look at historical factors in the rise of sugar and reflect on the importance of studies such as this one on the field of cultural anthropology. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This book is filled with the history of sugar and how it was introduced to European countries. It also discusses how sugar used to be viewed as a luxurious item during a time when people had a starch based diet, whereas today it is definitely a daily staple for so many people around the world. Mintz illustrates for readers how a simple condiment played such a huge role throughout history among British society as it changed on an economic and social level. Political and economic power appeared between the Colonial West Indies and Britain as sugar bound these areas. The Caribbean sugar production increased an incredible amount as the number, and ability, of British factories increased.

Sugar went from a spice to a medicine in the nineteenth century. Some people who could afford it used sugar to make sculptures for decoration. The three products that were able to make sugar a part of the daily diet are tea, chocolate, and coffee. When sugar was first available it was very expensive and only wealthy people could afford it. Once sugar became more affordable, people realized that sugar can help with caloric intake and energy.

Sugar production relied heavily on the African Slave trade, or in areas where sugar cane was available. These areas were necessary for any sugar production.

Hope this helps!

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team