The Sugar Revolution in New England: Barbados, Massachusetts Bay, and the Atlantic Sugar Economy, 1600-1700
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CitationMenzin, Marion. 2019. The Sugar Revolution in New England: Barbados, Massachusetts Bay, and the Atlantic Sugar Economy, 1600-1700. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractMy dissertation seeks to deepen our understanding of the emergence of capitalism and imperialism in the early modern world both by analyzing the nature of sugar as an early modern commodity and by considering the role that demand for sugar played in the colonization of New England and Barbados. My aim is twofold: to investigate and periodize sugar, molasses, and rum consumption in early seventeenth-century England and then Massachusetts Bay, and to explain the nature of this demand and its consequences for the economy and people of the English Atlantic. I trace the emergence of the local and international business and personal networks that bound together Barbados and New England into an interdependent sugar and slavery region, as well as examining the role that native peoples played in the sugar economy.
I argue that the emergence of capitalism during this period should in part be understood as an expression of pent-up consumerism. Consumerism was not simply an accommodation to a changing socioeconomic system, but a driver of it. The pre-existing demand of English people for sugar must be considered as a factor in efforts to secure and develop the English colonies and Atlantic markets. Historians have long recognized the importance of sugar as a vehicle of capital accumulation, of its production zones as markets for British industrial goods, and of sugar plantations themselves as early models of industrial organization. Yet sugar’s influence as a consumer good has not been as well explored.
My research indicates that factors such as lower prices, greater availability, or social change do little to explain sugar’s popularity in England before the development of the English sugar colonies, when prices remained high (though not prohibitively so) and work rhythms traditional. While the sugar-slave complex did buttress the rise of capitalism – in particular, sugar’s narrow cultivation zone and its capital-intensive processing characteristics encouraged trade and market production of all kinds of surplus commodities, and the wealth it generated fostered capital accumulation and expanded the slave trade – people did not become habituated to sugar because of the cultural and economic changes brought by capitalism. I argue that the sequence was in fact quite the reverse: it was sugar dependency that fostered capitalistic behaviors.
The intense reaction that sugar produced in the body – generating sensations associated with healing, life, and nurture – contributed to its unique role in the early modern gift economy. Ironically, this cultural function only reinforced demand for the commodity, resulting in perhaps the most impersonal, profit-driven industrial production process yet seen in the Atlantic world, and rendering sugar a source of social devastation. My dissertation is both a quantitative economic history and a cultural analysis of the processes involved in human choice and behavior. I undertake to uncover why, beginning in the seventeenth century, far-flung groups contributed enormous financial and human resources to large-scale sugar production and trade, changing the face of the Atlantic world and accelerating the pace of modern economic development.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:42029508
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