If there are no spots on a sugar cube, I’ve just put dice in my tea
After 150 years of sugar farming, this autumn sees the last sugar cane harvest on the Hawaiian island of Maui. It’s no longer ‘economic’ – American products use cheaper corn syrup now, rather than sugar. 650 people are losing their jobs as the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company, owner of the last plantation left on the island, closes its factory. The appearance of the landscape of the central lowlands between Maui’s mountains, a landscape which generations have grown up with, will rapidly change as 36,000 acres of giant undulating fronds of sugar cane disappear – to be replaced by what? Will developers move in? Or Monsanto?, which some say is eyeing up the land to grow genetically modified corn.Some locals are celebrating, however, as the burning of sugarcane fields as they are prepared for harvest causes controversy – and possible ill-effects on local people’s health. The use of water has been another long-term issue, with smaller farmers claiming that the big sugar companies have diverted streams for their use.
Sugar, then – problematic now, as it always has been. In Hawaii Chinese workers arrived to work on the sugar plantations in the second half of the 19th century, followed by Japanese and Filipino people amongst others (interestingly between them developing a common language, known as Hawaiian Pidgeon or Hawaiian Creole, which they used to communicate as the plantation owners attempted to keep the different groups separate and docile).
An interesting book called Sugar: a bittersweet history by Elizabeth Abbott (yes, since you ask, the same woman who wrote A history of celibacy) gives grim details of the slave labour involved in the service of sugar cane in different parts of the world. It also explains the growing use of sugar during the 19th century, such that ‘skimpy, badly balanced and sugar-saturated meals fuelled not only the working classes but also the Industrial Revolution that their labour made possible’. There’s even a section in the book on the history of the tea break, but I think that’s one for another day. Note to self: surely possible to work Garibaldi in at that point too?
I was in a museum in Bristol when I first got interested in the politics of sugar. I read about Mary Anne Galton, one of many 19th century women who boycotted sugar as a protest against the transatlantic slave trade. In those days most people would have taken sugar in their tea so that refusing it was more unusual than it might be today. “Sugar abstinence” was an activity where women took the lead as they ran the household and could decide what products to buy. ‘Both my cousins and I’, wrote Mary, ‘resolved to leave off sugar, as the only produce of slave labour within our province to discontinue’.
And a key figure in the abolitionist movement was John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism. Wesley thought that a boycott of sugar by Methodists would be a good way of showing disapproval of a trade which he despised. Older Methodists in Cornwall for instance, where Methodism is still strong, are said still to refuse sugar in their tea ‘on account of Mr Wesley’. Though given the amount of cake Methodists get through, I can’t help thinking this is more of a ceremonial point they are making.
Anyway, although the sugar boycott didn’t end slavery it was a propaganda victory, as well as an important acknowledgement of female participation and power. It’s as a direct result of “sugar abstinence” that boycotting as an economic weapon has become a regular feature of political and justice campaigns.
Like many of us who reached an important crossroads in 2005, I’m interested in boycotts. My personal longstanding Nestlé boycott is, I like to think, steely and effective, and only marginally compromised by the fact that there are more KitKats in my freezer than in many large Tescos. (I haven’t bought one in well over twenty years but kind friends feed my addiction – I find bars under my doormat, and was even once “paid” for a major proof-reading task entirely in KitKats).
Even as I type, by the way, I’ve just discovered that it’s Nestlé-Free Week from 28 October – 4 November this year. And you can even click here for campaign activities. You should, we all should, because boycotts really have to be public if they’re going to be effective. They can be a bit dour and humourless if you’re not careful, but it helps that the word is good since it sounds slightly silly. Charles Boycott was an English land agent in County Mayo who proposed evictions in the 1880s and thereby got local Irish Land League activists encouraging people to ostracise him. By far the most interesting fact about him on Wikipedia is that he died in Flixton – I fear that this may be the one in Suffolk but I’m deffo not going to check, because it’s just too good to think that the 2005 boycotters cheering Torpey’s first ever goal were doing so within a South African apple-hurling distance of where the actual Mr Boycott pegged out.
The several thousand people who founded FC United of Manchester are used to hardening their hearts to boycott – but at the same time to using that same determination to focus on positive stuff. Being accessible to all and discriminating against none, for instance. That’s good that. A community that boycotts together laughs together, as Che Guevara surely said during his North West Counties years. It’s been much commented on that we seemed to stop pulling together once our promised land of Broadhurst Park was finally attained. This time last year the Chesterfield thing was more than a little problematic. Great feeling of solidarity standing outside the ground with those big flags waving though. How do we go about finding our equivalent to an anti-slavery sugar boycott? – marching to the ground from town shoulder to shoulder, possibly waving inflatable pitchforks and certainly bawling the sort of spontaneously hilarious chants that we seem to have forgotten how to compose. What’s an obvious Bad Thing that we can group together against? Oh blimey, hang on… If it’s not Sugar, let’s just double count our magpies and hope it’s not Trump, eh?