Beyond Sweetness: New Histories of Sugar in the Early Atlantic World

OCTOBER 24-27, 2013

The centrality of sugar to the development of the early Atlantic world is now well known. Sugar was the ‘green gold’ that planters across the Americas staked their fortunes on, and it was the commodity that became linked in bittersweet fashion to the rise of the Atlantic slave trade. Producing unprecedented quantities of sugar through their enforced labor, Africans on plantations helped transform life not only in the colonies but also in Europe, where consumers incorporated the luxury into their everyday rituals and routines.

“Beyond Sweetness: New Histories of Sugar in the Early Atlantic World” will evaluate the current state of scholarship on sugar, as well as move beyond it by considering alternative consumer cultures and economies. Given its importance, sugar as a topic still pervades scholarship on the Americas and has been treated in many recent works about the Caribbean, Brazil, and other regions. This conference thus will serve as an occasion for the assessment of new directions in the study of sugar.

At the same time, it will provide participants with a space in which to rethink traditional narratives about sugar’s rise to dominance. How have our own stories about sugar been influenced by the promotional agendas of early colonial accounts? What exactly were the steps via which sugar became an established commodity crop in the Americas? And if plantation owners and overseers disciplined laborers through technologies of control, what were, conversely, the mechanisms of resistance and rebellion? As we now know, the dynamics of power in slave societies were complex. Even as the plantation system dominated the lives of enslaved peoples, many of them searched for ways to mitigate or escape the regime of sugar planting. Furthermore, although sugar monoculture covered much of the Caribbean and tropical Americas, it was not the only form of cultivation being practiced either by Europeans or Africans and Amerindians. The fraught legacies left behind by these competing visions of land use and possession are ultimately what we will seek to untangle, as we consider both the power and limits of sugar in the early Atlantic world.