King's College London
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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

The insatiable demand for sugar

Photograph showing sugar cane being transported on a punt train, with a worker also presentPhotograph showing sugar cane being transported on a punt trainThe history of the former colonies of the British West Indies is synonymous with the slave trade and the exploitation of human labour in the production of sugar. Sugar production began in this region in Barbados in the mid-17th century and as demand for the product grew, so exponentially did the brutal exploitation of the region’s resources and of the slaves shipped in to work on the plantations.

Britain abolished slavery throughout its empire in 1833, but sugar cane plantations in the West Indies remained important sources of revenue. This British Government publication from 1956, when British Guiana was still a British colony, details how sugar, along with bauxite and rice, are the territory’s principal exports.

Guyana achieved independence in 1966 and despite the investment financed by the Colonial and Development Welfare funds outlined in this publication, the country of Guyana remains poor today.

Countries outside the West Indies now produce the bulk of sugar that is grown commercially and which feeds mankind’s insatiable desire for sweet products. Sugar consumption has contributed to the weight and health problems of many and over-consumption of the product is a key health issue of our time.

The photograph shown here depicts one of the biennial sugar cane crops on its way to processing. The publication is from a series of works published in the mid-20th century detailing investment in British territories and colonies soon before many of them achieved independence.

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