TRANSCRIPT Sugar’s Dark Shadow

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Sugar’s Dark Shadow, first released on May 28, 2024. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

MAN SINGING: Highland kids all love the cane, it grows so clean and sweet; they eat it when its freshly cut—

KIDS: And then that’s quite a treat! NEAT!

WOMAN SINGING: Imperial sugar is quick dissolving; Imperial sugar is fine grained!

CHORUS: Imperial sugar is 100 percent cane, pure cane!

MAN: Imperial sugar…

CYNTHIA GRABER: These commercials from the 1960s advertising sugarcane are super cheery and fun and they make me think that everything about sugar is unicorns and rainbows!

NICOLA TWILLEY: That’s good, because you’re listening to Gastropod, the show that is all about unicorns and rainbows. Or you know, food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.

GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber, and you listeners probably won’t be surprised that you shouldn’t believe everything you hear on a TV ad. Sugar is sweet but its history really is not.

TWILLEY: This episode, we’re telling the story of sugar’s dark side. And although you may think you’re familiar with some of the issues around sugar, this is a story you probably haven’t heard.

GRABER: It involves the Knights Templar and their Crusades, Christopher Columbus’s mistress, and one of the world’s first internationally famous human rights advocates.

TWILLEY: Just before we dive in to the story of sugar, I have some exciting personal news for you! My refrigeration book, which long time listeners will know I have been working on for literally years, is coming out next month. And I am beyond excited for you all to read it. It’s called Frostbite: How Refrigeration Changed Our Food, Our Planet, and Ourselves, and if you love Gastropod, you’ll love it. Pre-ordering a book is pretty much the most helpful thing you can do to support an author, so please consider doing that if you can! And here’s the even more exciting news that you can use: you can enter for a chance to get a free copy of the book early, before anyone else, plus a special super cute fridge magnet that I helped design. This is a special exclusive for Gastropod listeners only: sign up at by June 4, and you might win one of the very first copies of my book, plus a magnificent magnet! We’ll have the link on our website,

GRABER: And we will be celebrating with an episode based on Nicky’s book in just a few weeks! Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.


NEIL BUTTERY: Well, it’s a kind of grass.

ELIZABETH ABBOTT: Not the sort of grass that you have on your lawn, but it’s a family of very, very tall growing grasses.

BUTTERY: So think of it as like bamboo. It grows very quickly, like bamboo does.

TWILLEY: Neil Buttery and Elizabeth Abbott are both historians who’ve written books about sugar. Neil’s is called A Dark History of Sugar, and Elizabeth’s is called Sugar: A Bittersweet History.

GRABER: As you can see there’s a bit of a theme here. The cane itself though isn’t bittersweet at all, it’s just sweet sweet.

BUTTERY: I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten sugar cane before. It’s very, it’s quite rich. It’s a lot more flavorsome than you might expect.

TWILLEY: These rich flavorsome sweet canes grow super tall, they’d make Shaquille O’Neal look tiny. Full grown sugar cane is more than double the height of a tall human.

ABBOTT: And it’s quite thick. The stalks are about two inches thick, and they are quite soft, and they have bands and joints and that’s that’s where the sweet sap comes from.

GRABER: That sap is naturally sweet, and that’s just what people noticed in what’s now New Guinea, in Indonesia, thousands of years ago.

BUTTERY: In about 8,000 BC, it was selectively bred for a thinner skin. So that—what the people could do is chew on it as a bit of a snack.

GRABER: New Guinea is where historians think sugarcane was domesticated as a sweet, energy-dense snack and maybe for its sap for juice. And the locals were such fans that they took it around on their boats as they sailed off and explored.

TWILLEY: Over the millennia, sugar cane started being grown around the Pacific and also southeast Asia. And somewhere in there, though no one knows exactly where and when, people figured out how to take that sweet sap that came out of the grass stalk when they crushed it, and boil it until it crystallized.

BUTTERY: We have to go to maybe the eighth century BC before we have something that’s anything like sugar and that’s in India.

GRABER: Making sugar sounds like it should be a simple thing. You have a liquid, maybe someone left it out and the water evaporated and they were left with the fine, sandy thing we know and love today. But actually it took a long time to figure out how to go from sap to crystals.

ABBOTT: Because it’s a very, very complex procedure to get it to that stage. The sap has to be boiled repeatedly and and and sort of cleanse and then refined and, and then you do it again and again, five, six times. And so obviously that requires a lot of equipment. A lot of fuel, firewood and containers that, they have to be metal and so on.

GRABER: Like Elizabeth says, it’s a complex process, but the simple-ish explanation is this: Basically they boiled the sap again and again, and at the final stage when they’d evaporated as much water as they could, they poured the hot sugar lava into a cone-shaped mold.

TWILLEY: As it cooled, it would begin to crystalize. And at this point, it would have been that pale brown color that Neil described. That’s because, as well as sugar, cane juice contains a bunch of minerals and flavor molecules and even vitamins. Together, those extra ingredients made the crystals brown.

GRABER: There was a hole at the bottom of these molds, and as the sugar slowly crystalized, extra liquid dripped out that hole. The runoff liquid had some sugar but also a lot of those flavor molecules and minerals, and it was really dark brown, today we call it molasses.

TWILLEY: The whole thing is a massive faff, but eventually humans figured out how to turn sap into sugar. Certainly by a couple of thousand years ago, there were Indian hymns that shout out sugar, and a government document that refers to five different kinds of sugar, one of which has a name that should sound familiar.

ABBOTT: It was in India and, where we got the word candy, because it was referred to as kanda, which is close to candy. But they meant sugar.

GRABER: Whatever the sugar variety, the results of that sap being boiled and crystalized would not have looked quite like what we scoop out of a sugar bowl today. They still eat a version of it in India called jaggery.

BUTTERY: So it’s sort of caramelly, crumbly and hard. When you eat it, it’s kind of a little bit granular, but I wouldn’t say it’s proper crystals. When we think of crystalline sugar. It’s not quite there yet. So it’s an unrefined, pale brown, very delicious, sugar.

TWILLEY: From India, this big processing breakthrough helped sugar spread still further.

ABBOTT: It went to China, and it went to, Persia, and, and it went to, Egypt. And it was, it took in all those places, even though in somewhere like Egypt, which is very, very dry and arid, and it’s very difficult to grow. They managed to grow it by having irrigation systems that are extremely complex and intricate.

GRABER: Egyptians were also particularly famous for refining their crystalized sugar until it became white. We described how to make jaggery, a cone of kind of light brownish sugar. The Egyptians would start with this, they’d make sugar by removing the molasses.

TWILLEY: But some molasses was left in the cone, so to get the purest, whitest sugar—the stuff the Egyptians were famous for—they also had to use water or another liquid to kind of wash the last little brown bits of molasses out super slowly. It sounds like a very tedious process. If the water moved too fast, it would dissolve the sugar, so it had to be this very slow filtering.

GRABER: Egypt may have perfected this early white sugar in the 700s, but they seem to have learned the technique from the Persians, who were pretty sugar obsessed. Egypt at the time was part of the Islamic empire that spread out around the Middle East and North Africa.

TWILLEY: All this effort to get the whitest crystals and wash out any trace of color—and also flavor, and vitamins and minerals—it makes me wonder, why bother? I mean, call me lazy, but I like those caramel flavors in browner, less refined sugar anyway

BUTTERY: So the white sugar, or almost white sugar—they haven’t got it perfect, but we, we think of it as white sugar—has no other flavors in it, except the sweetness. So there’s no flavor clashes.

ABBOTT: It has very little actual taste in the way that molasses does. It’s just, it’s just sweet, sort of the essence of sweetness. And that’s what characterizes it.

GRABER: And that lack of flavor was also its real selling point. Other than sugar, the main option for sweetness would have been honey. Honey has a really strong flavor. But sugar can play just a supporting sweet role in a recipe, the flavor won’t dominate.

TWILLEY: Plus as any baker or confectioner knows, sugar has sort of magical structural properties. It creates crumb in cakes, it gives shape to egg whites to make meringue, you can mold it and turn it into hardened candy forms—it’s just a lot more versatile than honey, when it comes to cooking and baking.

GRABER: The stuff that Egyptians and Persians enjoyed was a real game changer when it came to desserts. But still, it was grown on a relatively small scale, it took a huge amount of effort to process, and it was still a special treat.

TWILLEY: And almost no Europeans had ever even had the chance to try it. There were exceptions—Southern Spain was part of the extended Islamic Empire at the time, and of course travelers would have encountered sugar and maybe even brought some back.

GRABER: But that was it, until the Crusades.

BUTTERY: Yeah. So this is where things go a little bit wrong. [CHUCKLE] You involve white Europeans and things always go wrong. Yeah. So you’ve got the crusades at the very beginning of the 11th century.

TWILLEY: The Crusaders, if you’re unfamiliar, they were European knights and soldiers who, totally unprovoked and at the urging of the pope, set off for the Middle East to quote unquote, “take back” Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims. There were a whole series of different crusades with varying levels of success starting in 1095 and ending a couple of centuries later.

BUTTERY: They occupy the Holy Land and whilst they’re there. They, of course, occupy a lot of sugar fields and a lot of sugar factories, and they basically take those over.

GRABER: The Crusaders didn’t succeed in their goal of “taking back” the Holy Land, they were eventually kicked out, and they scrambled back home to Europe. But they didn’t want to give up sugar. They brought cane with them and they started growing sugar in some of the only places where sugar could grow in Europe, and that was the Mediterranean islands of Sicily, Crete, and Cyprus.

TWILLEY: But there was a problem. Remember how we explained you have to boil cane juice repeatedly to process it into crystalline sugar? That takes a lot of firewood.

BUTTERY: There’s not a huge amount of forest in Southern Europe, but what there is, they’re, they’re cutting down to feed the furnaces of their sugar plantations. And if you imagine, if you’ve got seven pounds or seven kilos, whatever, of sugarcane juice, you’ve got to boil away five of water. Which requires a huge amount of energy. One single refinery used three quarters of a ton of wood per day.

GRABER: So they were going through trees quickly. But the few Europeans who had gotten a taste of this new sweetener absolutely loved it, and the demand just continued to grow. And so the boiling continued, just in different locations.

BUTTERY: So what you had was, you had the plantations moving further and further, further West, deforesting as they go. At no point did anyone think, Oh, hang on a minute. This is a problem. We’re deforesting the whole of Europe. They just kept on going. It kept on going until they got to Spain and Portugal.

TWILLEY: Which, if you have a map of Europe in your head, is pretty much the end of the road. But there were a few islands off the coast of Morocco, in the Atlantic, that Portugal and Spain colonized in the 1400s.

GRABER: Sugarcane farms and farmers followed that colonization, and they set up shop on these Atlantic islands, on the Canary Islands and on Madeira.

TWILLEY: And this is where sugar’s dark side truly began to emerge.

BUTTERY: And that’s really when you get the, the slave trade beginning. But it’s fairly minor at this point. It’s not a, as it were, wholesale use of slaves for labor. Very much the majority were European peasants, really, working the fields.

GRABER: Sugar farms demanded a lot of labor. So the Portuguese would ship over anyone they could to work on sugar farms in their colonies. One of the earliest examples was a group of Jewish children, they were between two and 10 years old and their parents had been killed in the Inquisition for refusing to convert to Christianity.

TWILLEY: Two thousand of them were shipped over. Six hundred survived the first year.

GRABER: Now, that story did shock me, I’ll be honest, but this kind of forced labor didn’t start on a sugar farm. Slavery has been around pretty much since humans have been around. It’s not unusual to hear stories in history of one group of people on any continent fighting with and conquering another group and taking slaves.

TWILLEY: The word slave is thought to come from the Slavs, who were trafficked by the Vikings in such huge numbers that it became a thing. But warlike Norsemen aside, Europeans didn’t invent slavery and nor did the sugar industry.

GRABER: That said, there does seem to be evidence of forced labor even from the early days, on sugar farms in the Islamic Empire.

TWILLEY: And it *was* on the European sugar plantations in the Atlantic that slavery really became an industry.

BUTTERY: It was the Portuguese that got the, this sort of system of slavery up and running.

GRABER: In the 1400s, Portugal was kicking off the Age of Discovery, they were starting to sail outside the Mediterranean, down the coast of Africa. One Portuguese sailor captured some Africans who lived near the coast and brought them back.

TWILLEY: A few years later, in the 1440s, another ship’s captain kidnapped 235 Africans and brought them back to Portugal, and that’s really seen as the start of the trade in enslaved Africans.

BUTTERY: It wasn’t to man the sugar plantations. They were taken to Portugal to do various jobs, like to be domestic servants. But they were used to supplement the workforce in all sorts of walks of life. And eventually, of course, they move them over to Madeira. And they realized quite quickly that, hang on a minute, why are we taking all of these Africans to Portugal and then to Madeira? Why not just bring them straight to Madeira.

GRABER: And the appetite for slaves on Madeira increased because the appetite for sugar was so high among the wealthy.

TWILLEY: At this time, sugar was really reserved for royalty and the elite. But aristocratic feasts required boatloads of it.

ABBOTT: Sculpting things out of sugar became extremely popular in Europe. They made the, the, the actual plates and, and bowls and cutlery out of sugar. And then when you finished eating off it, you then just ate the plate, ate the spoon, ate the fork.

GRABER: But the noble demand for sugar left Madeira’s forests in ruins. Within only a couple of decades, half the forests on the island were gone.

BUTTERY: And it should have stopped there, really, you know, it should have just run out of, run out of wood, and the sugar industry should have fizzled out.

TWILLEY: But it didn’t. Because in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And his mistress was in the sugar game. That story, after a quick word from our sponsors.


GRABER: Columbus may have been particularly famous for being the first European to lead a voyage to the Caribbean, he landed at what Europeans named Hispaniola, which today is Haiti and the Dominican Republic. But his second trip in 1493 is when colonization really got going.

BUTTERY: Off he goes with a load of colonists and livestock and food and equipment for them to set up colonies on Hispaniola. And in amongst, you know, the wheat or whatever, are loads of sugar cane cuttings. So he was intending to grow sugar immediately when he arrived there.

TWILLEY: And where did he get the idea to grow sugar from? Well, turns out Columbus was a sugar daddy. Or at least, his mistress came from a sugar family.

BUTTERY: Her father was a big sugar baron on the Canary islands. I guess he, he just said, here’s a big bag of cuttings and, you know, go off, see what you can do with them.

GRABER: The cuttings took. Columbus came back to Europe and told the king of Spain that sugar was pretty much a sure bet on Hispaniola.

ABBOTT: And he was able to convince the king that sugarcane was, you know, the latest thing and it was a really, it had a lot of potential and it would really grow well in this, this new Indies.

TWILLEY: Side note about this new Indies thing: Columbus actually died thinking that this island was part of India, that’s where he was trying to reach for spice trade reasons. But in any case, none of these little details—where they were, whose land it actually was—none of these things were pertinent.

ABBOTT: He had the king’s permission to make all settlers have to grow sugarcane. And then for the labor force, it was obvious to him that the Taino people who were already there, would be great on plantations. They would stop doing what they were doing. They weren’t going to plant their native crops anymore—which were, by the way, the crops that are suitable for that, that soil and so on.

BUTTERY: I mean, it was unbelievable what they did. I mean, they took their land. Columbus arrived on Hispaniola with a letter from the king of Spain telling the people of Hispaniola that they had no rights to their own land and Spain owned their land.

GRABER: This will not come as a surprise, but the Taino had not agreed to give up all their rights to their own land, and they didn’t submit easily. But they didn’t have guns and Europeans did, and Europeans forced them into sugar slavery.

ABBOTT: They were overworked, they were underfed, they were horribly treated, and they carried no immunity to European diseases that were brought over by all these settlers.

BUTTERY: All this sort of really heavy work that they were doing, combined with, succumbing to all these illnesses, they began to drop, they began to drop like flies.

ABBOTT: When the Europeans arrived the Taino population has been estimated as anywhere from 3 million to just under eight million. Twenty-two years later. There were, 20,000 of them. And 50 years later, there were only 200 of them down from millions.

TWILLEY: This genocide was a tragedy. But to the plantation owners at the time, it was a logistical issue, and so once again, like on Madeira and the Canaries, the colonists had to import labor.

ABBOTT: They got indentured servants from Europe. And, and then they got prisoners who would be sent over. Nothing worked out because white people kept dying. Now, they thought that was because they were white people. And they didn’t realize that everybody would die from that treatment.

GRABER: Cutting 12-foot tall sugar cane and crushing the sap and boiling the sap repeatedly, it was REALLY hard work. And of course the plantation owners didn’t feed their workers particularly well or provide medical care if someone got hurt. And this was all happening in a tropical country where it was hot and there were diseases that Europeans hadn’t experienced before. So yeah, most of the workers died.

TWILLEY: Within a decade of colonization, Europeans had started to kidnap Africans to bring to work on Hispaniola.

GRABER: At the same time the first kidnapped Africans arrived in the new world, there was another person who would end up playing a major role in this story, he was a wealthy 19-year-old Spaniard named Bartolomé de las Casas.

ABBOTT: And he came over as a late teenager to, you know, to work the land and make some money and, he was an adventurer.

BUTTERY: He’d had a sugar plantation on Cuba. And he considered himself quite a nice, slave owner. He thought he was kind to his slaves who were all indigenous people at this time.

TWILLEY: Las Casas got along splendidly as a sugar plantation owner for a solid decade.

ABBOTT: And then he had an epiphany.

BUTTERY: It dawned on him one day that, hang on, that’s a contradiction in terms. There’s no, there’s no such thing as, nice slavery. It’s all awful. So he freed his slaves, sold his equipment. Spent the rest of his life really trying to get all the indigenous people out of slavery.

GRABER: Las Casas left his life as a merchant, he renounced all his worldly goods. He went back to Spain and joined the Dominican religious order.

ABBOTT: And then he became basically a human rights advocate.

TWILLEY: In 1522, Las Casas published a short but no punches pulled treatise titled A Very Brief Recital of the Destruction of the Indies, in which he just straight up said that the conquistadors had committed genocide in the new world, motivated by their greed and their pursuit of wealth. And he detailed the horrific treatment and the oppression of the native peoples in the sugarcane plantation system.

ABBOTT: He, he influenced the Pope into issuing, papal bulls about the, the rights of Indians.

BUTTERY: Which is a commendable thing, of course. However. Here’s the problem. What he did was, he’d seen a small number of African slaves being brought over to places like Hispaniola. And they’d been used in the mines.Because this is the quite, you know, relatively early days. There was just a few slaves knocking about. And he noticed that they weren’t, dying of the disease as much as the poor old Taino. So he said to people, right, get rid of your slaves. And instead moved to these African slaves.

GRABER: It seemed to him at the time that the Africans were maybe somehow better suited to this kind of work. And so maybe it wasn’t okay to treat the Taino so horribly, but it’d be okay to put Africans in the same position.

TWILLEY: This guy who was called “the protector of the Indians” and was seen as an early human rights advocate—he also was the guy who basically laid out a justification for the African slave trade.

ABBOTT: It was a terrible, terrible thing that he did. And he understood at the end of his life, which is way too late, that in order to help one group, he had sacrificed another.

GRABER: And this laid the ground for what happened next. At this point in the 1500s, the Portuguese and the Spanish had set up colonies throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America. They started farming sugar wherever they could. A lot of those plantations were in Brazil as well.

TWILLEY: And as the number of sugar plantations ramped up, so now did the trade in enslaved Africans. Hundred of thousands of Africans ended up being shipped from Western Africa to the Caribbean and Brazil to work in the sugar fields and sugar mills.

BUTTERY: So there’s this huge switch over from Indigenous people to Africa. And this is when you get the slave trade really ramping up.

GRABER: And as we’ve said, there were so many people needed on each sugar plantation to do the work there that enslaved Africans quickly outnumbered white colonists.

ABBOTT: If you are a white person on a plantation, and the ratio of white to Black is, you know, I don’t know, 25 white and 500 Black. And you are basically, mistreating them so, so viciously, you have to be afraid.

TWILLEY: Colonists felt fear, and they also felt some niggling guilt. So they constructed an elaborate set of justifications to avoid feeling the appropriate degree of guilt about this abusive system they’d set up and were profiting from.

ABBOTT: They began to attribute to Africans, all sorts of characteristics. They were lazy. They were stupid. They were not as smart as white people. And they believed in crazy things. Anything negative was attributed to them in order to make it palatable to themselves, really, to their consciences, that they would do these things.

BUTTERY: If they said, oh, well, they basically don’t mind being treated like this. And anyway, they’re basically animals. And that way it meant that the, the slave drivers and the people working with the slaves all day wouldn’t feel guilty. About being, you know, so cruel and, well effective, unfortunately.

ABBOTT: They had to, you know, malign them. They had to read into the Bible, passages that suggested inferiority. And they had to drive it into the, the ideology and the, and the culture of their time that Blacks are inferior and they are made by God to be enslaved, it’s okay to enslave them.

GRABER: And the Spanish and Portuguese colonists passed this system of beliefs onto the other colonists who had followed them to the region and were also farming sugar. There was the Dutch, the French, and even more importantly for our story, the British. They set up sugar plantations all over the Caribbean, on islands like Barbados and Jamaica.

TWILLEY: It was the British colonists in Barbados who really codified these racist attitudes into law.

BUTTERY: 1661, the Barbados Assembly is the fateful year really, where they have, they have this big group meeting and they write the Act for the Governing of Negroes. Which is essentially a three or four page long document describing how they have essentially fewer rights than animals and that they cannot be considered human or to be judged or treated in the way Europeans are. So… it was actually written into law that they weren’t human.

GRABER: Obviously Africans were already being mistreated, but the Barbados Act for Governing Negroes gave the whole system legitimacy. Sure, racism had existed before, but this was qualitatively and quantitatively different. Neil says that the sugar plantations basically made racism the law of the land—they created modern racism.

BUTTERY: And once Barbados started doing that, the rest of the English colonies started doing that. Because of this completely erroneous correlation between people from Africa and a viewpoint that they’re not actually human beings.

TWILLEY: With these elaborate justifications and now a legal underpinning, this intertwined system of sugar plantations and the trade in enslaved Africans became a hugely successful, much copied template.

GRABER: The model of modern slavery was now established. But in theory that could have meant that Africans would have been enslaved on farms growing tobacco, or indigo, or other commodities that were in demand in Europe—

BUTTERY: And most planters, I think when they first arrived there, they did try and grow a range of crops. But the insatiable appetite in Europe meant that—well, it was a no-brainer. It was just make, make a switch, make a switch to make lots and lots of money.

TWILLEY: Like we said, sugar had long been in high demand among the elite, its scarcity in Europe is part of what made it so valuable at first. But as the plantation system of slave-grown sugar in the Caribbean took off, there was more sugar for sale, and prices gradually started to come down.

GRABER: The increasing availability of sugar and the rise of the sugar plantation system in the Caribbean and South America changed Europe and beyond in ways that are incredibly far reaching. Just for one, it’s part of why coffee and tea became as popular as they were, taken with spoonfuls of sugar. And as we’ve discussed on the show before, the rise of coffee and tea, and the use of caffeine in Europe, helped lead to the scientific revolution.

TWILLEY: While also fueling the industrial revolution: in Britain, undernourished factory workers kept themselves going by downing cup after cup of sugar-sweetened tea. Over the course of a couple centuries, after the sugar-slave plantation system got going, sugar went from an elite status symbol to an everyday essential.

GRABER: But as important and fascinating as the story of sugar consumption is, that’s enough for an entire separate episode. This episode we’re really focusing in on sugar growing and its dark side, in particular its influence on slavery. After the Barbados Acts, the trade in Africans increased dramatically—eventually around 13 million people were taken, and they mostly ended up farming sugar.

ASHLEY ROGERS: Sugar is actually the main crop grown by enslaved people. If you look at all of the people who were traded out of West Africa as captives and who ended up on plantations in the new world- in the Caribbean, in North and South America. The majority of them were going on sugar plantations. Something like 70 percent. So even though cotton is in our minds as this kind of dominant crop in the United States, worldwide, it was sugar. And sugar was the reason for, you know, stealing all these millions of people from Africa, and forcing them into labor on plantations.

TWILLEY: This is Ashley Rogers, she’s Executive Director of the Whitney Plantation. Its mission is to educate the public about the history and legacy of slavery. The plantation sits on the banks of the Mississippi, which is where we met her.

ROGERS: And we are standing on the grounds of a historical sugarcane, rice, and indigo plantation in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, which operated for over 220 years.

GRABER: Louisiana is kind of the northern-most limit of where sugar can grow, but it was the first place in the continental US that sugar really took hold.

ROGERS: Well, actually, Louisiana is not very suited for sugar. So that’s sort of the funny thing about it. And the sugar that we grow here is not as good as sugar in other places because it doesn’t have the full growing season.

GRABER: But there were a bunch of reasons that people thought it’d be a good idea to farm sugar there anyway. One of the main ones was that enslaved Africans led a successful revolt on Haiti in the late 1700s, and they threw off French rule. Until then, Haiti had provided a lot of the world’s sugar, so this meant there was a bit of a supply issue. And the demand was still growing.

TWILLEY: What’s more, once Louisiana became part of the US in 1803, sugar plantation owners there could make bank despite the less than perfect growing conditions. That’s because there was a tax on foreign sugar, but Louisiana sugar was no longer foreign, it was domestic, and so even though their sugar was not so great the state’s plantation owners could still sell it at an enormous profit.

ROGERS: They’re millionaires. I mean, these are some of the wealthiest people in the United States.

GRABER: And so everyone wanted in. Even plantations like the Whitney that had previously been growing indigo and rice, they pivoted to sugar.

TWILLEY: The southern stretch of the Mississippi river became sugar plantation central.

ROGERS: Every single piece of property lining the river on both sides was plantations. There were so many plantations in this area that St. John the Baptist parish had a higher population of enslaved people than free people.

GRABER: We came here to visit a former sugar plantation because it’s here, in Louisiana, that the template pioneered in Barbados was taken to its most horrifying extreme.

BUTTERY: Well, they picked up the English system and really, really ran with it.


GRABER: Ashley walked us around the plantation. We stopped at a stand of cane that had been recently harvested.

ROGERS: Right now what we’re looking at is just stubble. This is what’s been left because it’s—we’ve passed the harvest season, so it’s been cut already. But when it’s growing, you know, it’s 10 feet tall. It’s the scale is not really human in that sense. And when you think about these plants that are 10 or 12 feet tall in these rows and, and the field stretches for miles and miles, you can’t see the end of it. And you think of yourself as just one person, you think differently about the labor.

TWILLEY: It was pretty hot standing out there looking at the harvested stubble, and it was easy to imagine how much hotter and more humid and bug-filled and scratchy it would have been in amongst the tall canes, towering over your head. When the sugarcane is growing, the leaves, they’re incredibly sharp. And so I encourage guests to come up and just gently touch the edges of them because when you touch those leaves, you can feel the barbs in your skin.

GRABER: Enslaved people were out in the field all day getting scratched by those barbed leaves, and they had to cut the immense cane all around them really quickly before the first frost killed the stalks.

TWILLEY: This nightmarish job of cutting the cane, it’s the opening scene in the movie Twelve Years A Slave, which is based on the writings of a free Black man called Solomon Northrup who was kidnapped and sold into slavery on a sugar plantation in Louisiana.


MAN: Y’all gonna be in the cutting game. Very simple. I want you to take the knife—get in the cane—make it sing. Take the cane off. Cut the stalks, clean the shucks off.


GRABER: Spoiler alert—though, really it’s been out for more than a decade—but the movie does have a satisfying ending, at least when it comes to Northrup regaining his freedom. In real life, Northrup’s memoir describing the conditions he endured and the violence he experienced on the sugar plantation was published in 1853, and it really helped fuel the abolitionist movement in the US. Needless to say, the movie is tough to watch. And it all starts with cutting cane.

TWILLEY: After the cane has been cut, it also has to be juiced and then boiled down really quickly. If you wait at all, then enzymes in the cane will prevent crystals from forming, and you have to throw it out.

ROGERS: So this is going around the clock. They’re working by candlelight. Because sugar is so… particular, and it will start to rot the moment that it’s cut. So they have to move super fast in order to still have a viable product by the time that it gets processed in kettles like this.

TWILLEY: First the cane had to be pressed, and remember none of this was mechanized, and the enslaved workers who were operating the mill were working round the clock. So there are lots of stories of workers feeding the cane in and getting their fingers caught and then being dragged into the mill and getting limbs crushed or even dying.

GRABER: From the mill, the cane juice quickly was moved into a series of huge kettles, like oversized cauldrons.

ROGERS: One person’s job, he was the fireman, was that he was tending the fires underneath of the kettles. And these had to run 24 hours a day. So during the sugarcane grinding season, there was no respite.

GRABER: And if the field was super hot and painful, working with the kettles was even worse.

ROGERS: So if you can imagine these open kettles are in this state where they’re constantly boiling and constantly kicking up all this steam. The other thing that happens is they start to splatter on the people who are working next to them, so. It’s extremely hot. It’s extremely dangerous work.

TWILLEY: No aspect of life as an enslaved person in the New World was a picnic, obviously. But we’re telling you what the work was like on sugar plantations in such gruesome detail because even among all the horrors of slavery, this was especially horrific.

ROGERS: Yes, the work on sugar plantations was considered, you know, some of the worst, some of the most difficult work performed by enslaved people.

GRABER: And news of sugar plantations spread around the US. There was an internal slave trade, where slaves might be sold from one region, like from Virginia or North Carolina, to another.

ROGERS: And they would end up in New Orleans because New Orleans is the largest slave market in the United States. And that was something that people carried a lot of fear about. You can read about that in slave narratives, that the idea of being sold down to Louisiana, where they’re going to be growing cane, or they’re going to be on these big plantations, was seen as a death sentence.

TWILLEY: Because often it literally was a death sentence.

ROGERS: There’s a historian named Michael Tadman who has, looked at, the, The disparity between the death rates on sugar plantations versus other types of plantations. He says that sugar itself is deadly. That more people were dying on those plantations than being born on those plantations. Where the rest of the United States, where they’re growing cotton, they’re going to grow tobacco. The populations of enslaved people have a positive birth rate. More people are being born than dying. That’s not true in Louisiana. It’s positive 20 percent in many parts of the rest of the South, it’s negative 13 percent in Louisiana. So there are more people dying on these plantations.

TWILLEY: All of this—the death rates, the danger, the incredible amount of extremely hard labor involved in the sugar cane business, and the fact that unlike with other crops, they were processing it on the plantation too—this is why so many more enslaved Africans ended up farming sugar rather than say, tobacco or cotton.

ROGERS: A tobacco plantation with 20 people enslaved or 30 people enslaved would be a pretty large scale plantation. Sugar plantations? I mean, in Louisiana, you’re looking at, this is, we’re over 100. Our neighbors down the road, 150.

GRABER: Clearly farming sugar just took a lot of labor. So what happened to the plantations and the workers after the end of slavery with Emancipation in 1863? That’s coming up after the break.


ROGERS: So often when we talk about these plantations, we also are imagining that that story ended in 1865 when the 13th Amendment is passed and slavery is illegal. But this plantation operated until 1973. And I’ve talked to people who were born here in 1961.

TWILLEY: Clearly, those people weren’t ever enslaved. But Ashley’s point is that it’s not like Emancipation was a magic wand. On the one hand, yes it was, because overnight it became illegal to own people. But on the other hand, it didn’t change labor conditions on the ground overnight. After all, there was still a sugar cane crop in the field that needed to be harvested.

GRABER: And so a big problem facing owners was that they wanted to keep farming sugar, but at this point who was going to be out in the field?

BUTTERY: White owners tried to get in foreign work. But that didn’t last very long because they turned up there, realized what they were expected to do, and they’re like, no thanks. And off they, off they went.

TWILLEY: Honestly, who can blame them. But the cane still needed to be harvested. So instead a lot of plantation owners just tried to stop their formerly enslaved workers from leaving.

GRABER: Unsurprisingly, many African-Americans had zero interest in staying in Louisiana and instead wanted to head north, to the Union side of the country, where they felt like they’d have a better shot at a new life.

ANGIE PROVOST: I can give an example of my great, great, great grandfather, Antoine Winters. Okay.

GRABER: Angie Provost and her husband June farm sugar not too far from the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana.

ANGIE PROVOST: So Antoine Winters was enslaved at Oak Lawn Manor. And that’s about 15 to 20 miles from where we’re sitting right now. So, upon emancipation, I believe it was the winter of 1865 or 1866 that he actually left the plantation. And said he wasn’t going back.

TWILLEY: But Angie’s great great great grandfather Antoine couldn’t just hit the road like a regular citizen, because post-Emancipation, some white plantation owners had quickly started up their own militias to keep Black farmers from leaving the state.

ANGIE PROVOST: He doesn’t want to be seen traveling on the roads during the day. And so he’s moving through the night, making his way up to Lafayette, trying to get as far north as he could. Now, Lafayette is about 20 miles from here. He couldn’t get any further north because he said that the Night Riders would push him back. So the Night Riders would be like the Knights of Camelia, or something like, akin to the Ku Klux Klan.

GRABER: The Knights of Camelia that’s actually seen as the first white supremacist society and the forerunner of the KKK. And it was founded on a sugar plantation in Louisiana, because plantation owners were not prepared to share their power with people who had been their property. A similar group kept Antoine from leaving the state, and so instead he found a community of newly freed Blacks and settled down.

TWILLEY: At Emancipation, there were big promises being made. Formerly enslaved people were going to be given the resources to buy their own land and set up as farmers themselves. But those promises ran headfirst into the problem that a lot of white plantation owners refused to sell any land to Black people. Which left Black folks who didn’t or couldn’t leave without many options.

ROGERS: You have a whole swath of the United States that is agricultural, that’s built on the idea of slavery. Are they just going to overnight change and, and become industrial? Right, this, like, vision of the New South: we’re going to build factories, we’re going to be just like the North. No. They’re going to keep being agricultural, and the people who had been enslaved… what happens to them? Nothing’s provided to them. They don’t have any money to show for the decades of work for the generations of work that they’ve, you know—the, the, the value that they’ve added to the economy. They’re destitute. They need jobs. Where are jobs? Jobs are on plantations.

GRABER: They took those jobs. In theory African Americans should have had more power to be able to negotiate better working conditions and better pay. But actually they didn’t have that power, because they weren’t backed by the local political system. White owners were allowed to run things almost the way they had in the past.

TWILLEY: Certainly, the owners now couldn’t sell their workers, but they could set their wages and then pay them in tokens that were only redeemable at the company store, which the owners ran—and plenty of them did exactly that. We talked about this kind of abusive labor in our shrimp episode, at this phase of US history the labor laws just weren’t in place to protect the vulnerable. And newly freed Black people in the south were among *the* most vulnerable.

GRABER: But still, this new system of semi-free labor wasn’t quite as profitable for the owners as things had been under slavery. Now, machines had already been invented that they could have used for some sugar farming tasks in the past, but the machines were more expensive than humans.

TWILLEY: But now, post-Emancipation, that changed, and the farms started to mechanize.

ROGERS: At the time that, you know, we were transitioning from slavery to free labor, some planters had this funny name for machines. They called them iron slaves.

GRABER: And those iron slaves were purchased to replace the real slaves post emancipation.

TWILLEY: The entire story of post-emancipation America in general is one of a lot of initial hope and then a lot of broken promises. That aspiration for the formerly enslaved to receive, if not justice, then at least some economic opportunity—that aspiration met the political reality of wealthy whites who didn’t want to make any sacrifices.

GRABER: And that kept the goldmine that was sugar growing out of the hands of the people who had long worked in the fields, and frankly that hasn’t really changed through til today.

TWILLEY: Remember Angie Provost? She’s a descendent of enslaved cane workers, and she and her husband live surrounded by former plantation land.

ANGIE PROVOST: You are here with us in New Iberia, Louisiana, home of the Sugarcane Festival.

JUNE PROVOST: And hi, I’m Wencelas Provost Junior. I go by the name of June. And I’m a fourth generation sugarcane farmer. I mean, sugarcane is my life, it’s my family’s legacy. It’s something that we love doing.

GRABER: June used to own and farm about 5000 acres, which is quite large and a decent size for a sugar farm. It’s not super huge, but it’s the right size to make a good living.

TWILLEY: One thing to know about sugar farming, is whether you’re white, Black, or anything else other than Jeff Bezos, you need a loan. You have to plant and fertilize and spray your crop and bring in the harvest before you earn any money, and you only get half of the money from the sugar mill at harvest time. The other 50 percent comes later, as the sugar is actually sold.

GRABER: But you need that money to pay for all the expenses on your sugar farm, like fertilizer and labor. So what ends up happening is you’re using the money from harvest to pay back last year’s loan, and then the whole process starts over again. Today, the margins are slim enough that most growers don’t have a lot of cash to tide them over.

TWILLEY: Pretty much all sugar farmers get loans at the start of every year, they’re approved by the USDA and a bank, and it’s totally standard practice. Angie and June would apply for their loans like everyone else.

GRABER: But here’s the issue: June had won all sorts of awards for his farming, for the yields he had gotten off his farm, he says he was a success as a farmer. But he ran into problems at the bank. The loans weren’t getting approved in time for him to use that money for the next year. And he says he wasn’t alone.

JUNE PROVOST: As Black farmers, we’re already behind that eight ball because we don’t get our loans until March, April, sometimes June. And here you’re just getting your loan in June. So you have to start that whole process and everything can’t be done. You can’t catch it up in two weeks. It’s a process. It takes those months. So if you’re a month behind, you’re screwed. And that’s what I call a slow death. Because that’s exactly what it is. They’re, they’re not killing you right away, but it’s, it’s, they’re killing you piece by piece.

TWILLEY: This kept happening—the loans would be approved late, and also they wouldn’t be for enough money to cover June’s costs. And like he said, this loan issue was not only incredibly frustrating, it actually got in the way of his ability to farm and get a decent harvest from his land.

JUNE PROVOST: You know, farming is hard. I’ll say, you have weather conditions and all of that. But…but as Blacks, we always had to worry about not only the weather, we had to worry about, if we’re going to get a crop loan. When we’re going to get that crop loan. And how much is going to be that crop loan. So, and that’s again, that’s why I say a slow death.

TWILLEY: Eventually, in 2014, it got to the point where the bank foreclosed and June lost his farm. It was bought by a white sugarcane farmer.

GRABER: June had his suspicions something wasn’t right, and even that he had been deliberately pushed off his land. And then, a whistleblower from the USDA contacted him in 2015 and told him that he had been treated far differently by the bank than white sugarcane farmers, and they gave him access to documents that showed supposed unlawful activities against his account.

TWILLEY: June started legal proceedings. The case was settled out of court in 2021, so there’s no verdict on that. But this kind of discrimination when it comes to loans for Black farmers is a practice that has been very thoroughly documented—it’s been commonplace across the South

ROGERS: Unequal lending across the board is a problem. It’s a problem in housing, but it’s also really a problem in farming. And, you know, the, the truth is that like, if you look at the history of places like this, you see that after the Civil War, okay, yes, enslaved people were not given anything, but they earned things pretty quickly. And a lot of people were very, very industrious and they wanted to be in control of their lives, in control of their families. They wanted land. And they understood land to be a way, a method of having a better life. A lot of formerly enslaved people buy land after the civil war. But then that land is taken.

JUNE PROVOST: And again, I always say we as Black farmers. We just want a level playing field. We want to be treated fairly and equal just as anybody else, as our white counterparts. Only thing I wanted to have was just… the same as any other farm. I didn’t want nothing more than anybody else. I wanted the same equal fair treatment. I wanted to farm. I love doing it. I didn’t bother anybody. I wanted to farm. But that’s, that is not what happened. You know, you always say, if you work hard, you can have the American dream. That is not true for Black folks.

GRABER: The basic outline of June’s story—discrimination, losing his land—it’s not uncommon. There are very few Black sugar farmers left in the region. The New York Times estimates it’s only in the single digits.

TWILLEY: June and Angie are still there, they’re farming a small plot today, and they’re fighting to try to build back up and make a living doing the one thing they know and love.

JUNE PROVOST: And for me, and I know I get that question a lot. Why would you want to, why are you still fighting for it? Because it’s something that I love. It’s my family’s legacy. I can remember when I’m five or six crossing the rows over. And I think that’s why I like planting cane time so much because, that’s what I remember with my dad. Just crossing the rows and him just bending down on his knees. So just remembering my dad and him just looking at the cane that’s popping up, that is the greatest feeling in the world.

ANGIE PROVOST: We are right here on on in our home, which is June’s childhood house. This is the house where he was born down the street soon as he came back from the hospital with his mom and dad, this was his house, right? So, that, I think, is what farming sugarcane is for us. It provides a stable life for your family if you are given the proper resources. Now we have had to fight. Our story is not unlike other Black farmers or other Black people throughout this country. But, one of the things why it’s so important for us is because we know what opportunity we are missing.


TWILLEY: As we made this episode, we realized that sugar’s dark side is unfortunately an extremely large side. Right now, sugar from the Dominican Republic, which used to be sold in the US as Domino brand, it hasn’t been allowed to be imported into the country since November due to labor violations. There are labor issues in Florida, in Brazil, in the West Indies—pretty much everywhere sugar is, abusive labor practices are too.

GRABER: Of course there are alternatives. To avoid supporting this type of labor abuse, you can buy fair trade sugar, these farms are monitored for the treatment of their workers.

TWILLEY: Can and should! And on that note, thank you to Neil Buttery, Elizabeth Abbott, Ashley Rogers, and June and Angie Provost for helping us tell this story. We have links to their books and their websites on our own website, and more in our supporters’ newsletter too. We’ve also got the special Gastropod listener link to win a copy of Frostbite, plus a fridge magnet, enter by June 4.

GRABER: Thanks also to Jeremiah Lee and Bryce Gatreaux, they’re young sugar farmers who we met at St. Joseph’s plantation, which is one of the parcels of land they’re currently farming. They helped us understand how sugar farming works, in particular why all sugar farmers need recurring loans.

TWILLEY: Huge thanks as always to our producer, Claudia Geib, and we’ll be back in two weeks with a brand new episode for your listening delight!