The Sugar Globe

On 24 October 2023 we launched the next stage of our Sugar Globe project as part of Black History Month. Our associate drama company Act Up! Newham created a film about the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples and sugar, “We’d do anything for something sweet!”. In this recording of the live event, Company members introduce the film and answer questions afterwards.

A giant snow globe is filled with a scene made of sugar, showing a group of disabled people outside of a community building with Together over the door.

The Sugar Globe by the Together! 2012 Art Club with Margaret Spence on exhibition at East Ham Library in November 2022. Thanks to funders Newham Council and Arts Council England. Globe design and manufacture by Charles Woolf of Talbot Designs.

Together! 2012’s Sugar Globe project is part of the Inspire programme of The World Reimagined art education project about the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples. Inside our Globe, the Together! 2012 Art Club and Margaret Spence have reimagined a world without Covid, where we can come together in our own fully inclusive venue, rather than meeting only online. The figures inside the Globe are made of sugar, with boiled sugar sweets being used to create a mosaic around the base. 

While we made the Globe, we learned, talked and thought about the role that sugar plays in our lives as Disabled people, and about the history of the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples and the sugar industry in East London. We discovered that the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples is directly linked to the role that sugar plays in our lives and health today, as well as to our access to healthcare and the environment.

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Close up of boiled sweets creating a mosaic around the base of the globe, with candy canes forming a heart.Michelle Daley’s research into the role that Disabled People played in the Abolition of the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples is essential reading. We also enjoyed reading A Brief History of Sugar in Art by Tasha Marks, and this article by Laura Kinky about Tasha Marks’ own work as an artist with sugar.

Sugar Cane before the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples

The vast majority of Europeans didn’t eat sugar until Colonisation and the enslavement of African peoples.

  • Image of Thai sugar caneSugar cane is native to South and South East Asia. 
  • Crystallized sugar was discovered by the time of the Imperial Guptas, around the 5th century CE. This made sugar easier to store and transport. In the local Indian language, these crystals were called khanda, which is the source of the word candy.
  • From the 12th to the 15th centuries, the Venetians owned the only sugar processing plant exporting to Europe, in Tyre in Lebanon.
  • Sugar was very expensive in Europe, although it was popular.
  • Then, in the mid-15th century, Europeans began colonising São Tomé, Madeira and the Canary Islands and growing sugar there.

The Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples and Sugar Cane

The growth of the sugar trade and the great wealth it generated is inextricably linked to the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples

  • Portrait of Christopher ColumbusSugar cane arrived in the Caribbean as part of colonisation, being carried on the Italian Christopher Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. 
  • The first known sugar cane mills in the region began operating in 1506, in the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo.
  • The Portuguese introduced sugar plantations in the 1550s off the coast of their Brazilian settlement colony, located on the island Sao Vincente. 
  • The Portuguese and Spanish were soon gaining huge wealth as a result of using enslaved African peoples to grow and process sugar.

The Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples, Sugar Cane and the British

British plantation owners became hugely wealthy as a result of the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples and sugar trade.

  • Coloured painting or engraving of enslaved African people cutting sugar on Antigua.The English began producing sugar in Barbados in 1627. They quickly began generating vast wealth, using the skilled labour of enslaved African peoples. 
  • Sugar soon became the main crop in neighbouring countries too, under colonial rulers who also included the Dutch, French and Danish.
  • By the eighteenth century, between 1766 and 1791 alone, enslaved African people in the ‘British West Indies’ produced over a million tons of sugar.
  • The West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs were at the heart of the sugar trade in East London. The first of the three linked docks opened in 1802, more than 30 years before Abolition.

The Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples, Sugar Cane and the British diet

Plantation owners managed to create permanent changes to the British diet, in order to create the continuing demand for sugar.

  • This is an image of orange, red and green boiled sweets in cellophane wrappers, viewed from aboveBefore the enslavement of African peoples, British food was much less sweet than it is today. Most of the sweetness that was found in food came from honey.
  • Mass sugar consumption began in the mid-17th century, after cheap sugar began arriving from the Caribbean. 
  • The human brain seems to respond to sweetness without being able to tell the difference between the beneficial sugars in fruits and honey; processed pure sugar; and to some extent artificial sweeteners. Processed pure sugar delivers a much more concentrated portion of sugar than raw sources, including in comparison to chewing raw sugar cane.
  • Plantation owners depended on the demand for sugar to make their profits. Their feasts showcased and promoted a new British diet, where sugar-rich products were prominent and fashionable.

The Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples and Sugar Sculpture

Sugar sculptures were one way in which sugar was made desirable, at the same time as symbolising wealth and power.

  • Sugar sculpture is the art of producing artistic centrepieces for meals entirely composed of sugar and sugar products. 
  • Sugar sculpting with spun sugar is most likely to have been invented by enslaved African peoples in the Caribbean, who developed expertise in all aspects of sugar production.
  • In September 1591, Queen Elizabeth I was served a banquet outside in Basingstoke with more than 1,000 dishes to weigh down the table.The dishes most remarked on by guests were the sugar sculptures: “Lions, Vnicorns, Beares, Horses, Camels, Buls, Rams, Dogges, Tygers, Elephants, Antelops, Dromedaries, Apes, and all other beasts”.
  • As the sugar trade became established, sugar sculptures quickly became popular at grand feasts, both in the Caribbean and in Europe.
  • Sugar sculptures demonstrated the wealth of the feast’s host. Sometimes they would even employ famous artists to create the sculptures.

Echoes of the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples in Sugar Art today

Sugar sculpture is still only available to the wealthy today, but sugar fondant modelling is a popular craft.

  • Close up of a sugar figure of a woman with long red hair. She is sitting in a wheelchair holding a dog on her lap.Today, sugar sculptures continue to feature at ‘grand feasts’, often held at hotels or restaurants. They are still only affordable by a minority, because of the expertise, experience and time required to create them.
  • Sugar fondant modelling is much more affordable and accessible, and lots of home bakers have experimented with it for special cakes.
  • There are many competitions that include sugar sculpture and fondant modelling, showing the level of interest that exists.
  • A healthier alternative to sugar fondant modelling is salt dough modelling. We tried this at the Together! 2012 Art Club’s Make and Natter sessions on Zoom, creating self-portraits with the help of artist and caterer Margaret Spence.

Echoes of the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples in the British confectionery trade today

The British eat far more sugar-based confectionery than people in neighbouring countries.

  • A cardboard Santa has a range of chocolate treats coming out of his hat in a bouquet. with the greeting Merry ChristmasThe development of the confectionery or ‘sweet’ trade was another way in which British plantation owners maximised demand for their sugar.
  • British children learn to love sweets from an early age, especially as sweets are usually given to them by someone who loves them, often as a reward.
  • We learn to associate sugar with gestures of love and other positive emotions. We call our lovers ‘sweet hearts’, and describe children or behaviour as being ‘sweet’.
  • Sugar-based gifts dominate Easter and Valentine’s Day celebrations, and play prominent roles at Christmas, on birthdays and other occasions.
  • Many British ‘sweets’ are unavailable in other countries, because people find them too sweet to be palatable. We are almost unique in eating confectionery that consists only of sugar, colouring, and minimal if any flavouring.
  • British chocolate-based products are also significantly higher in sugar than in many other countries.

Echoes of the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples in the British diet today

The British eat far more sugar every year than the average world citizen.

  • Photo of bags of Demerara sugar, caster sugar, icing sugar and granulated sugar on a tray, with a glass bowl of sugar in front.British people each consume an average of 43.4kg of sugar every year. Around the world, the average person consumes about 24kg of sugar each year, with recent figures showing that North and South Americans consume up to 50kg, while Africans consume under 20kg.
  • Sugar is found in many processed foods in the UK, including savoury foods and other foods where it can’t be tasted. Sugar is often disguised under different names.
  • People living in poverty in the UK are more likely to be dependent on processed foods, both because of the lower price and because of lack of access to adequate cooking facilities and affordable power. People living in poverty are two and a half times more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes compared to the average earning person, and are then twice as likely to face serious complications.
  • The Government recently announced that it would pause plans to increase taxes on processed foods where manufacturers had not reduced their sugar content below set levels. The Government said this was to protect the health of people living in poverty, who would otherwise not be able to buy food that is high in sugar. A number of Government members have said that people should be able to choose to eat high-sugar foods without the state influencing them.

Echoes of the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples in British health today 

Sugar is damaging our health, particularly if we are of Black African origin.

  • Jars of boiled sweets are on a wax-printed tablecloth.In the days before sugar was grown outside of Asia, it was believed to be good for your health, and in Europe it was used as a medicine. 
  • Today, we still associate eating sugar with getting better, taking sweets to friends who are ill. The saying “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down” reinforces the association with eating confectionery when ill.
  • In reality, processed sugar is really bad for our health. It causes obesity, diabetes and dental problems, without having any nutritional value.
  • People of Black African origin are up to three times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than people of White European origin. People of Black African origin are also affected differently by diabetes, and at a younger age.

Echoes of the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples in British ablism today

Many British citizens experience barriers to accessing healthcare and the built environment as a result of a value system based on fitness to cut sugar.

  • This is an image of black and white striped mint sweets in cellophane wrappers which have gold coloured edges.The core value dictating access to the built environment and health care in the United Kingdom today is the ability to carry out manual labour. The unspoken test is still: are they fit enough to cut sugar?
  • The National Health Service rations treatment based on the QALY system. Patients are not entitled to treatment that costs more than their assessed financial value under the QALY system. More and more pounds in value are deducted the less that someone is perceived to be able to carry out manual labour. Patients who can afford to pay privately are unaffected by these restrictions. You can see Ju Gosling’s poem QuALitY of Life here.
  • For centuries now the built environment has been designed only to meet the needs of people who are perceived to be fit enough to undertake manual labour. This has excluded the needs of children, mothers, older people and carers from consideration, resulting for example in placing steps in many places where ramps, lifts and dropped kerbs are needed.
  • Today, legislation is supposed to create an inclusive environment. Instead, distance is used as a barrier to keep out those incapable of manual labour. Distance is designed in between parking and entrances, between entrances and lifts, and between locations and toilets. The distances designed into Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, together with other environmental barriers such as all pedestrian space being shared with cyclists, make it inaccessible to most Disabled people.
  • In 2022, Newham Council commissioned urban design agency Publica to develop the borough’s new cultural strategy. Publica’s website included a wide range of images, both of current and future developments that they had designed. Not one image of these aspirational environments contained an identifiable Disabled person.

Together! 2012 CIC’s motto is that ‘Together, we are strong. Together, we can change our world.’ Many thanks to The World Reimagined for showing us how we can start to reimagine our world without the ongoing impact of the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved African Peoples.

Together! 2022 Disability History Month Festival, 22 November - 8 December, Inclusive Dance, Drama, Exhibitions, Family Activities, Films, Music, Poetry & conversations, all free & from the comfort of your own home, with captions and British Sign Language interpretation. Including the international Together! 2022 Disability Film Festival 2-4 December 2022.

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