It is no surprise that when the anthropologist Sidney Mintz died on December 26th, obituaries flooded the media. I particularly liked this essay by a former graduate student, Sarah Hill. To these comprehensive tributes, I simply add my much narrower perspective.
The day following his death, I pulled out my tattered copy of his 1985 classic, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, an elegant analysis of how sugar changed from a luxury product for the European wealthy to a basic food of the English working class as modern capitalism emerged, with its far-reaching links between Europe, Africa (from whence the slave labor was obtained) and the Caribbean.
I’d bought Sweetness and Power the year after publication as I set off for other sugar islands, Hawaii, far away from Puerto Rico, where Mintz did much of his fieldwork. The Hawaii in which I lived and worked was not the Hawaii of beach resorts. It was the Hawaii of students who were the children and grandchildren of plantation workers. For them, the sun and the overseers, the machetes and the sharp edges of the cane leaves were the stuff of life.
Hawaii, which was just coming to the end of its seventy years as the most modern and capitalist of all sugar societies, was both like and unlike Puerto Rico.
Powerful sugar certainly was. After all, the interests of planters who wanted to enter the mainland sugar market coincided with those of mainland expansionists. Hawaii was annexed in 1899, the year after Puerto Rico, and some 5000 Puerto Rican were among the sugar plantation workers in the Islands.
Creolization certainly also occurred in Hawaii, but the mixing was quite different. Most of the plantation workers were from Asia, not Africa.
The trajectory of the workers on leaving the plantations was also distinct. They had arrived as indentured laborers, not slaves, and by the time Hawaii became a state, many had entered the professional classes, and together they took control of the state government.
And the adoption of new sugar technology, both in the fields and in the mills, gradually lessened the burden of the workers.
I would have loved to discuss these parallels and differences with Sid Mintz. And I would also have loved to explore alternative interpretations of sugar and the English working class as I was never persuaded by that part of Sweetness and Power.
Finally, our paths crossed in 2014 at a conference at Brown University. During one coffee break, I plucked up the courage to go and introduce myself. “We’ve never met,” I started out, intending to go on to thank him for his eye-opening, inspiring, and challenging work. I never got that far.
“Oh I know who you are,” he said.”I’ve been reading your book.” All I could do was gasp. As we chatted, he kindly offered to send me a list of items he thought I should have included in my bibliography, mentioning particularly the Russian botanist Vavilov, famous for his research on centers of domestication. A few more minutes conversation and he said wistfully that since I had focussed on high cuisines, that it would be wonderful if someone would write a global history of humble cuisines.
I would have loved to continue but by now a line of graduate students had formed, all of them with copies of Sweetness and Power for him to sign. His keynote address, later that day, lived up to his reputation as charming, eloquent, and, again challenging, this time to the pieties of contemporary food studies.
So, in conclusion, I think that thirty years on from Sweetness and Power, it is time to re-open the question of sugar and capitalism. A lot has been learned about both in the intervening years. And as Mintz’s comments in his keynote address showed, he saw scholarship not just as the piling up of bricks of certain knowledge but as a sustained conversation about interpretation.
Thank you, Sidney MIntz.