7 - The sugar trade  pp. 184-218

The sugar trade

By Kenneth Morgan

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Though historians dispute whether the West Indian islands were, on balance, an economic drain on the wealth of the mother country during the eighteenth century, there is no doubt that cane sugar from the Caribbean was the most valuable British import in the century and a half down to 1820. English sugar imports increased sevenfold from 430,000 cwt. in 1700 to over 3,000,000 cwt. in 1800. Scottish sugar imports more than trebled from an annual average of 19,889 cwt. in 1739–42 to 72,662 cwt. per year in 1773–5.3 On the eve of the American Revolution, the value of sugar imports into England and Wales was £2,634,000. As these figures suggest, people in Georgian Britain began to acquire a sweet tooth. This important change in diet was also stimulated by the growing importation of tea, coffee and chocolate and by the availability of these groceries to the mass of the population. In the Bristol area, even the poor could afford sugar except at times of economic depression. In England as a whole, per capita sugar consumption rose from 1 lb. to 25 lbs. between 1670 and 1770. By 1787–96, English labouring families spent around 10 per cent of their annual food expenditure on treacle, sugar and tea. Soaring demand at home meant that sugar re-exports were significant only when war disrupted the supply of French-grown sugar to Europe. The two main by-products of sugar, rum and syrupy molasses, also found growing outlets: molasses became the mainstay of New England distilleries while rum, often served as grog or punch, became a popular beverage in Britain and Ireland.