THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Sugar, we are sometimes advised, is dangerous for us. In response to current well being recommendation, adults ought to limit their sugar consumption to between six and 9 teaspoons each day. However what’s extra upsetting about sugar is its atrocious historical past.
Western Europe’s urge for food for “sweetness” helped gasoline the horrific transatlantic commerce of enslaved peoples, through which a minimum of 15 million enslaved folks from Africa have been pressured to work on plantations within the Americas. To at the present time, working situations in sugar are among the many world’s worst.
Given its heinous human rights report, the query turns into: why will we proceed to eat sugar? The reply is sophisticated. Essential, nevertheless, are the numerous income that sugar represents, along with the low costs that sugar instructions.
Historical past of sugar
For practically 5 centuries, European planters made dizzying fortunes in sugar, made attainable by enslaving staff in colonized lands. Sugar grew to become so integral to European profiteering that it began being produced on a world scale. Canadian buyers, too, have reaped large sugar income.
Through the 1700s and 1800s, most Europeans, in what’s now Canada, have been implicated within the transatlantic sugar and slave trades. Not solely did many devour the fruits of the enslaved sugar trade — together with molasses and rum, along with sugar, as historian Afua Cooper writes — however some additionally invested in Caribbean commerce, itself powered by enslaved sugar work.
A number of Canadian banks — together with the Imperial Financial institution of Commerce and the Financial institution of Nova Scotia (now generally known as Scotiabank) — have their origins within the West Indies, the place their forerunners established themselves early within the nineteenth century. In response to Cooper, the Financial institution of Nova Scotia exists “within the shadow of West Indian slavery.”
Western Canadians have additionally profited from unfree sugar labour. The famed western Canadian model, Rogers Sugar, was established by American Benjamin Tingley Rogers who moved to Canada in 1889. Having grown up within the sugar trade, Rogers had each sugar connections and experience.
(Metropolis of Vancouver Archives)
Constructing a refinery in Vancouver, a metropolis newly constructed on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, Rogers created a western Canadian sugar empire — one which sourced uncooked sugar cane via the Pacific, refined it in British Columbia and offered it all through the Canadian West.
Railway magnate William Cornelius Van Horne, along with famous buyers corresponding to Richard Bladworth Angus, Edmund Boyd Osler and Donald Alexander Smith, have been among the many ventures’ early shareholders. By the point of his demise in 1918, Rogers had develop into “fairly rich.”
Now owned by Lantic Inc., Rogers Sugar stays a acknowledged Canadian model. Much less well-known, although, is Rogers Sugar’s violent previous.
To make the refined sugar that’s so acquainted to Canadians right now, B.C. Sugar (the title of the corporate that owned Rogers Sugar) sourced each beet and cane sugars. Canadian beet sugar has its personal atrocious labour historical past, as College of Saskatchewan professor Ron Laliberté, York College professor Mona Oikawa and different consultants have demonstrated.
Refined predominantly in Vancouver, Rogers Sugar was made principally from uncooked cane sugar. Since sugar cane can not develop in Canada, B.C. Sugar sourced internationally from locations together with Mauritius, Java, Peru, Hawaii, Cuba, Fiji and the Dominican Republic.
B.C. Sugar additionally ventured into sugar cane plantation possession: in Fiji between 1905 and 1922, and within the Dominican Republic between 1944 and 1955. Notably, it bought the latter from the Financial institution of Nova Scotia.
In each circumstances, staff reported horrendous situations. The pay was so low and the work was so menial within the Dominican Republic that, as historian Catherine C. Legrand factors out, staff left the plantation every time they may.
In Fiji between 1905 and 1920, B.C. Sugar employed indentured staff from India who migrated to the colony on five-year contracts. As on different Fiji plantations, staff have been topic to quite a few atrocities and handled in methods just like how enslaved and indentured folks have been handled on plantations globally.
(Metropolis of Vancouver Archives)
Compelled into laborious bodily labour with little time for sleep, indentured staff at B.C. Sugar’s Fiji plantation endured illness, confinement, starvation, abuse, accidents, whippings, beatings and extra, all for under subsistence pay and the eventual probability to maneuver out of indentured work.
Circumstances have been so dire that some staff tragically perished in B.C. Sugar’s cane fields. When Fiji de-criminalized the desertion of indenture contracts in 1916, it’s little marvel that lots of of staff left the colony’s sugar plantations. These included plantations operated by B.C. Sugar.
Understanding Canadian historical past
Refined sugar is now so frequent it’s tough to think about life with out it. However, by reflecting on its origins, we will hint the pathways which have made this commodity so ample. Canadian sugar was constructed upon violence, together with upon enslaved and indentured labour.
By constructing upon present analysis into Canadian sugar, and by persevering with to probe Canadian sugar firms’ native and international histories, we will achieve a clearer image of how sugar grew to become central to the Canadian weight loss plan.
And we will additionally work towards larger recognition for individuals who have laboured within the native and international Canadian sugar trade.
Donica Belisle presently holds an Perception Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Analysis Council of Canada for the mission, "Canadian Sugar: A Native and World Historical past."
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