In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sugar in the Atlantic World

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Primary Sources
  • The Origins of the Sugar Complex and the Rise of Sugar in the Americas
  • Sugar and Technology
  • Gender and Sugar
  • Sugar Work and Workers
  • Demographics of Sugar Slavery
  • Merchants and Planters
  • Consumption and Consumer Culture
  • Sugar Production, Profitability, and the Atlantic Economy
  • Abolition, Emancipation, and Sugar Production

Atlantic History Sugar in the Atlantic World
Justin Roberts
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0140


Sugar drove the expansion of European empires in the Atlantic world. From its cultivation in the Atlantic Islands in the 15th century to its production in Cuba and Louisiana after British and French emancipation in the 19th century, sugar was always the dominant crop in the Atlantic. Wherever sugar was grown, the crop brought with it the same significant transformations, including a majority population of enslaved peoples of African descent, higher rates of mortality, lower rates of fertility, the concentration of capital on large plantations, and sweeping ecological changes such as the elimination of timber and the erosion of soils. Sugar profits made the circum-Caribbean world, in particular, a site of intense imperial rivalry. The sugar-growing regions of the Americas always imported more African slaves than did any other regions in the Americas. Cultivating sugar was deadly work. The decline of the slave population was the norm in the sugar-producing regions of the Americas. It was also a particularly lucrative crop. Sugar planters were among the wealthiest producers in the New World. The 19th-century abolitions of the slave trade destroyed the sugar industry in the Atlantic world by choking the industry’s labor supply. After abolition, East Indian and Chinese laborers were imported to try to sustain the sugar industry; but without enslaved African labor, it was no longer lucrative enough to compete with beet sugar production. The consumption of sugar expanded rapidly throughout the early modern era. The escalating demand drove the expansion of the sugar-producing regions. The sugar producers of the Caribbean struggled to find sufficient labor in the era of abolition and emancipation and shifted to various forms of coerced labor to continue producing the crop. This involved an ethnic shift as well: African slaves were replaced by Asian indentured laborers. The abolition of slavery and the rise of beet sugar finally halted the expansion of the sugar plantation complex in the Atlantic. This bibliography will address some of the major works on sugar in the Atlantic world. It will examine both the production and consumption of sugar and examine some of the most significant debates in the historiography on sugar slavery. It will contrast and compare sugar production and consumption by the various national and imperial groups, but it will focus largely on Anglo-American sugar production, reflecting a bias in the scholarly literature.

General Overviews

Sugar was the most significant agricultural crop in the Atlantic economy. There have been several commodity studies of sugar. Mintz 1985 is by far the most sophisticated and carefully researched of these, but there are other useful general studies. Abbot 2008 is a good example of a fairly recent publication. Aykroyd 1967 is an older overview from the unique perspective of a scientist. Most of the work on sugar, both general and specialist, has focused on sugar slavery in the British Caribbean. Most generalist works pay particular attention to the brutal conditions of sugar labor. Thus far, production studies have overshadowed consumption studies. Deerr 1949–1950, a two-volume work, exemplifies how thoroughly production can be explored. It is still often cited for its detail. Sugar as a commodity touched many aspects of the Atlantic economy, brought millions of Africans to the Caribbean and to Brazil to cultivate the crop, and created a class of fabulously wealthy merchants and planters and a political interest group with significant power in European government. Eltis 2000 offers an overview of the trajectory of sugar slavery in the New World. There were also cultures of consumption, addressed in Mintz 1985, that grew out of the use of sugar as a food, and the calories consumed from slave-grown sugar imported from the Americas might have enabled workers in industrializing Europe to work longer hours. The sugar boom fueled dietary changes and racialized consumption. Many aspects of both the production and consumption of sugar, particularly outside of the British Atlantic, cry for scholarly attention. Stinchcombe 1995, an overview of the subject, offers a nonspecialist perspective based on a general literature review of many of the debates about sugar slavery. Galloway 1989 and Moore 2000 demonstrate the possibilities for a geographical and environmental perspective on the historical geography of the sugar plantation complex.

  • Abbot, Elizabeth. Sugar: A Bittersweet History. Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2008.

    A vignette-driven popular history. Focuses on sugar production in the Caribbean, the destruction of indigenous people, and the suffering of the Africans who grew the crop.

  • Aykroyd, W. R. Sweet Malefactor: Sugar, Slavery, and Human Society. London: Heinemann, 1967.

    An overview of sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Written by a noted nutritionist later in his career. Offers a unique and intelligent perspective on sugar production from someone not trained as a historian.

  • Deerr, Noël. The History of Sugar. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1949–1950.

    Dated but still essential work for beginning any study of sugar. Focused on economics and production. Antiquarian in approach. Rich in evidence and detail but not very analytical.

  • Eltis, David. The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    A thoroughly researched overview of the rise of slavery in the Americas and the slave trade by one of the preeminent slavery specialists. A chapter on the English Caribbean offers the most accurate overview available of the movement of sugar through the English sugar islands and the reasons for its prominence on certain islands.

  • Galloway, J. H. The Sugar Cane Industry: An Historical Geography from Its Origins to 1914. Cambridge Studies in Historical Geography 12. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Written by a historical geographer. Based on deep archival research and particularly sensitive to the environmental impact of sugar and the landscape of sugar societies. Traces the movement of sugar throughout the world but focuses on the Caribbean. Written in a direct and lucid style.

  • Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985.

    This book, by one of the leading scholars of sugar production and slavery in the Caribbean, is the most important work for understanding the place of sugar in modern world history. Eloquent and fascinating. Global in its scope, it is divided into separate sections on production and consumption and serves as a stellar example of what can be done with a commodity study.

  • Moore, Jason W. “Sugar and the Expansion of the Early Modern World-Economy: Commodity Frontiers, Ecological Transformation, and Industrialization.” Review: A Journal of the Fernand Braudel Center 23.3 (2000): 409–433.

    Explores the ecological destruction that accompanied the expansion of the sugar frontiers in the early modern world. Posits sugar planting as the archetype of early modern capitalism.

  • Stinchcombe, Arthur L. Sugar Island Slavery in the Age of Enlightenment: The Political Economy of the Caribbean World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781400822003

    An overview by a sociologist and a nonspecialist. Scholarly but draws entirely on secondary literature. Offers little that is new to specialists but summarizes some of the literature well.

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