Sugar’s Dark Shadow

Your pantry's sweetest ingredient has an extremely bitter history. The sap-producing grass known as sugarcane has been grown and enjoyed by humans for at least 10,000 years, but it was only relatively recently that it went from a luxury to an everyday ingredient—a change that also triggered genocide, slavery, and the invention of modern racism. In this episode, how the Crusades got Europeans addicted to the sweet stuff, and how that appetite deforested southern Europe and kicked off the trade in enslaved Africans, before decimating indigenous populations in the New World and codifying racism into law. It's a dark story that involves Christopher Columbus' mistress, the early human rights advocate whose campaign to save indigenous people encouraged the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, and a trip to southern Louisiana, where we met Black sugarcane farmers to explore sugar's troubling legacy there. No sugar coating here: join us for the fascinating and horrifying history of this household staple.

Episode Notes

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An engraving of slaves gathering sugarcane, illustrated by artist John William Orr in 1859. (Image courtesy of the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

Neil Buttery

Neil Buttery is the author of A Dark History of Sugar. He also writes about British food and history on his blog, fittingly titled British Food History.

Elizabeth Abbott

Historian Elizabeth Abbott is the author of Sugar: A Bittersweet History.
At Whitney Plantation, one of the giant kettles enslaved workers used to process sugar cane juice into crystallized sugar. The juice was heated over an open fire in kettles of decreasing size, where it clarified and evaporated. After the evaporated juice turned into syrup, the sugar-makers would watch for sugar crystals to form and then move it into wooden tanks to cool. (Photo by Cynthia Graber)

Ashley Rogers

Ashley Rogers is the executive director of Whitney Plantation, a former sugar, indigo, and rice plantation in Edgard, Louisiana, which is now preserved as a museum dedicated to the history of slavery.

June and Angie Provost

June and Angie Provost are the owners and operators of Provost Farm, a family farm focused on growing sugarcane and empowering Black and Indigenous growers. You can hear more of the Provosts' story on episode 5 of The New York Times' 1619 Project podcast.


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