Sweetness and Power is one of the most popular works by Sydney Mintz, where the author makes a wonderful attempt to evaluate the role of sugar in our world, in human past, and future.
In fact, his approach to evaluate human history by means of analyzing sugar industry may seem not that clear to every reader; however, if several facts from Sydney Mintz’s life and career are taken into consideration, many unclear things become more understandable for people. First of all, it is necessary to admit that Sydney Mintz was an anthropologist. His profession implied a thorough analysis of people, their history, and its impact on their future. It was not that interesting just to evaluate conditions, under which people lived and developed; however, if social and economic aspects are evaluated through a certain industry and with the help of particular examples, such approach should attract many readers. Mintz’s major purpose in this work was to clear up the changes, which took place on social and economic arenas.
He compared social and economic aspects with people’s consumption, and underlined the necessity of sugar use for each Englishmen’s diets. So, in Sweetness and Power, the main intention of Sydney Mintz was to pay readers’ attention on how capitalism may control human lives even in their eating process and impose the use of sugar as something really important and even crucial. A topical question arises from the very beginning: if common people consume sugar without a slightest idea of its importance for society, what could motivate the author of the book to start his unique research and to produce this book as a result of it? The answer is in the question: Mintz has managed to prove that he is not only efficient scientist, but a skillful writer and psychologist, who is able to conduct a unique research, prove its importance and create a new attitude towards conventional matter. In the book he is trying to persuade the reader that the role of sugar in the world system can scarcely be overestimated, and he tries to explain this role. The author’s main ambition was to reveal “the complex way in which sugar production was connected to the development and organization of slavery and capitalist expansion” (Kuever par. 8).
While writing Sweetness and Power, much was depended on the author’s personal live and his connections. It would be really difficult to find a person, who could cope with the task to analyze human history from the pure anthropological perspective better than it was done by Sydney Mintz. To prove this, it is necessary to say that due to his work he is considered to be “foremost scholar on sweetness” (Kuever par.1). His professional experience of fifty years of work as an anthropologist is also a convincing argument. One more fact that is worth mentioning is that the scientist belongs to left-leaning anthropologists and he works “within Marxist framework” (Barnard and Spencer 33). He presented a view of peasant community as integrated in national economic and political relations on the basis of unequal terms: that peasants were both dependent and exploited (Barnard and Spencer 33).
Thus, the scientist’s susceptibility towards those who lived in colonies, and suffer from poverty and from being oppressed and exploited was the factor that helped to find the ground for his research. What is more, Sydney Mintz cannot be regarded as mere theorist, because had practical basis for his research, as he went to Puerto Rico in 1948 to live among people who worked on sugar plantations. He lived in one dwelling with a young sugar cane worker, and he got an opportunity to get all information he needed from the primary source: peasant Puerto Rican community. This fact of his biography accounts for his fascination with sugar. The fact that the writer was on friendly terms with the inhabitants of colonies has dubious meaning. On the one hand, it means that the scientist had realistic basis for his analysis, but, on the other hand, it means that he was almost sure to have a bias in favor of the inhabitants of the colonies.
However, a cultured reader should consider both assumptions and interpret the book accordingly.
In the book under consideration, there are several major points, which have to be considered. First of all, Mintz admits that “human make food out of just about everything” (1). For a modern person, it is hard to comprehend why people pay so much attention to what they eat, and divide their preferences not according to their interests and preferences, but according to their ethnicity and nationality. People should eat only the food that is available for their environment. As the subject analyzed in the book is presented in historical perspective, all chapters present certain importance for the complex understanding of the work.
Still, because of the length limits of the work, the most important parts of the book will be analyzed right now. In the introduction, Mintz prepares a favorable ground for perception of the arguments, saying that A single source of satisfaction –sucrose extracted from sugar cane– for what appears to be widespread, perhaps even universal, human liking for sweetness became established in European taste preferences at a time when European power, military might, and economic initiative were transforming the world (xxv). At the beginning of the first chapter, he stresses the importance of nutrition for human beings: “Nutrition … is more fundamental than sex” (3). Thus, the author justifies the importance of food for anthropology. In the same chapter the anthologist dwells on the variety of attitudes to sweetness and establishes the border between “human likeness of sweetness and the supposed English ‘sweet tooth’” (Mintz 16). The second chapter, “Production”, suggests the idea that Jamaica and other British colonies were precursors of factory system of modern capitalism, despite the fact that they were based on slavery and not on wage labor.
He gives the description of strict discipline and the division of labor on the plantations: The specialization by skill and jobs, and the division of labor by age, gender, and condition into crews, shifts and ‘gangs,’ together with the stress upon punctuality and discipline, are features associated more with industry than agriculture – at least in the sixteenth century (Mintz 45). Mintz gives detailed “evolution” of sugar and its changing reputation. Though its roots come from the East, in Europe the sugar market was established only about 1800. However, earlier well-to-do people were main consumers of sugar. There were times, when to own sugar meant to own gold, it was considered a sign of luxury and wealth. It is evident that the working class had no access to this treasure, and sugar became a “monopoly of a privileged minority” (Mills 43). M. Gadsby says that for enslaved people sugar meant “exploitation, abuse, theft of bodies, and of course death” (42).
Overall, in the course of time the attitude towards sugar passed through several stages: at first it was treated as medicine, later turned into a spice and condiment; there was time when people treated it as decorative material and a preservative. Finally, it gained a reputation of sweetener and the status of food (Mintz 112).
On reading the book, it can be stated that the author has managed to fulfill his task successfully.
Now, it is known for sure that he has a right to be called “foremost scholar on sweetness”, as it was mentioned above (Kuever par.1). His picture of the history of sugar is so multidimensional and full, that it turns out to be a bit difficult to find out any shortcoming in his work. It can be proved by the fact that the scientist has even managed to analyze the meaning of sugar in literature and speech (Mintz 158). The choice of historical perspective was, probably the most successful choice the author could make. He has managed to shed light on all spheres of society connected with sugar.
Perhaps, the only weak point of the book is a bit complicated language, but as this book deals with anthropology, so the author has made it as accessible to non-specialists as he could. In general, the author’s intentions to represent the role of capitalists in ordinary people’s lives were rather successful, and his idea to concentrate on the sugar industry may be justified, because sweets will be always interesting to people.
Overall, the anthropologist Sydney Mintz has managed to show that sugar can make life not sweet, but very bitter, as it happened to the slaves, who worked on sugar plantations. It was because of sugar and its popularity that “capitalists needed to find sources of cheap labor for the cane fields, leading to the enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean” (Kuever par.8). The book about sugar has made the reader think about slavery and unfairness of the leading classes towards the exploited ones. This book should be read by everyone, as it is may teach the readers many lessons, starting with history of humanity and finishing with moral and ethical conclusions. Almost each reader may learn one important lesson from this book: even those things, which may seem trivial and of minor importance, in fact, may rule the history.
Sugar has proved to be as fatal as gold. For a long period of time, it was impossible to imagine that sugar was the main cause of people’s exploitation and slavery. What is more, it is evident now that sugar bears certain responsibility for underdevelopment of the Caribbean. The work by Barnard and Spencer proves this with the help of the example of Henry Wolf (Barnard and Spencer 33). Meredith Gadsby said: “We (Caribbean women) have made a lasting contribution to the British economy and we have paid for it with our blood, our sweat and out tears” (73).
This citation may be used, when speaking about sugar that is a very unique substance in all senses, as it turned out to be. In general, people should not be very careful when they evaluate this or that thing, because time has such unbelievable powers, which allow to change the essence of any thing and to make it crucially important for people.
Barnard, Alan and Spencer, Jonathan. Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. London: Taylor & Francis, 1996. Gadsby, Meredith. Sucking Salt: Caribbean Women Writers, Migration, and Survival.
Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2006. Kuever, Erika. Sidney Mintz. May 2006. 6 Okt.
Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. NY: Penguin Books, 1986.