April Merleaux. Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. 320 pp. $32.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-2251-4.
Reviewed by Sarah Steinbock-Pratt (University of Alabama)
Published on H-SHGAPE (March, 2016)
Commissioned by Julia Irwin (University of South Florida)
Within the recent past, there has been an outpouring of scholarship on the global histories of specific commodities. Academics have also paid serious attention to the cultural histories of empire, migration, and labor. There has not been, however, much overlap between the two. Scholars of economic history have largely overlooked the ways in which culture influences and reflects economic change and growth. On the other hand, historians writing the cultural and diplomatic history of US empire have failed to fully account for the importance of global markets in dictating imperial policies and shaping understandings of areas under American influence. With Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness, April Merleaux seeks to fill this gap, linking the growth of global commodity markets, the rise of American empire, and the cultural politics of sugar production and consumption in the United States.
Merleaux’s book traces the creation of a global US sugar empire that was simultaneously shaped by domestic economic and cultural priorities, and which indelibly altered the way Americans viewed, interacted with, and ate sugar. She argues that race, articulated through the language of civilization and nationalism, was a primary lens through which Americans made sense of both empire and the sugar market. Focusing on both state and nonstate actors, Merleaux demonstrates that sugar was at the center of debates over the annexation of territory at the turn of the twentieth century. Private businesses, acting with the support of government policies, paved the way for formal structures of control in places like Hawaii and Cuba. After the Spanish American War, policymakers and administrators were forced to grapple with the two conflicting historical trends of expansion and exclusion. Juxtaposing images of civilized and native sugar refining and consumption, expansionists argued for empire as a project of uplift, that sugar production would be a vehicle to modernize and civilize Caribbean and Pacific Islanders. At the same time, and often using the same ideas and images, protectionists and anti-imperialists argued that cane sugar, like nonwhite colonized peoples, presented a threat to the body politic that must be guarded against. How to stimulate economic growth while maintaining preferential policies for white Americans became the focus of sugar regulation on the mainland and in US colonies. This balancing act influenced the policies of inclusion and exclusion regarding immigration, tariffs, and trade, cementing the unequal and liminal status of the US colonies, at once both domestic and foreign.
The various tariff laws and trade policies created in the first decades of the twentieth century encouraged sugar production across the US sugar empire, leading to a market saturated with cheap sugar and rising consumption of sweets. That Americans and those within the purview of US influence were eating more sugar was not a simple financial calculus, however. As Merleaux reveals, there were complex cultural and political meanings to the choice to consume sugar. Consuming sugar of the right sort, in the proper fashion, like the material culture of ritualized tea drinking, could be a way to lay claim to both middle-class and civilized status. Decisions about whether or not to purchase processed sugar and candies were also shaped by the context of commodity economics and imperial power. Merleaux notes that choices to consume less processed or homemade sweeteners were not always based solely on finances or convenience, but also on less tangible notions of national pride and economic autonomy. So Mexican and Mexican American sugar beet workers could choose to consume piloncillo rather than the less expensive refined sugar as a marker of national nostalgia and patriotism. Additionally, African American sharecroppers could view the home production of cane syrup and molasses as a method to resist the overwhelming influence of white landowners and to assert economic self-sufficiency.
By the 1930s, Merleaux argues, New Deal policies had begun to alter the debate over sugar and tariffs, while maintaining US hegemony in its sugar empire. By putting the Philippines on the path to eventual independence, the United States could keep out both Philippine sugar and Filipinos. At the same time, government policies made its other territories more domestic by lowering tariffs for Hawaii and Puerto Rico, while simultaneously maintaining their separate and unequal status, by imposing quotas on territorial sugar. Couched in the language of fairness and economic equality, New Deal policies were geared primarily toward the readjustment of the US sugar economy, resulting in the reaffirmation of the subordinate status of the territories in relation to the mainland United States.
In Sugar and Civilization, Merleaux brings together an impressive breadth of sources and methodologies to tell the story of America’s sugar empire. If there is anything lacking in her approach, it is that it does not seriously include the perspectives of sugar producers and consumers in the Caribbean or the Pacific. It would have been fascinating to learn more about the ways in which workers on Hawaiian sugar plantations, or colonial elites in Manila, interacted with sugar as a commodity and as a signifier. This is, however, something of an unfair criticism. The scope of Merleaux’s work is already quite ambitious, shifting from macro to micro perspectives and back again, trying to account for the multiple meanings of sugar among myriad historical actors.
Overall, Merleaux has crafted an excellent study of commodity culture, clearly laying out the political and economic stakes while also focusing on the evolving cultural meanings of sugar. Sugar is not the only way many of these stories could be told, but it serves well as a unifying thread throughout the disparate narratives of empire, migration, race, and global economics. This book is a strong addition to several historical fields, and will be a useful tool in both graduate and undergraduate courses, helping students under the difference between imperial processes and empire, and illustrating the ways in which nongovernmental actors played a role in expanding US power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Finally, in her discussion of the tendency to blame the poor and people of color for excessive sugar consumption and ill health, Merleaux has also given her readers something to chew on as we consider the politics of nutrition in the twenty-first century.
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Sarah Steinbock-Pratt. Review of Merleaux, April, Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness.
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