Thursday, December 21, 2006

Good morning, my sweet

According to Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton (which I am currently reading), there was a time after the French and Indian War when Britain contemplated swapping all of Canada for the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Sounds on the face of it like an astounding bit of foolishness. But Guadeloupe had on its few volcanic acres something you couldn't find in all of the cold wilderness of Canada: sugar.

In the 18th century, Europeans couldn't get enough of the "white gold" to sweeten their coffee, tea, and cocoa -- new, exotic drinks. The West Indies were perfect for growing sugar cane, but the Spanish had pretty much wiped out the indigenous people of the Caribbean. The hoity-toity Europeans weren't about to toil in the sun. So who would till the fields?

The rest, of course, is history. Hundreds of thousands of black Africans were forceably shipped from the trading forts of West Africa to grow sugar for the cafes of Europe. Two thirds of all enslaved peoples in the Americas worked on sugar plantations. Of those who were lucky enough to survive the passage from Africa, three out of five were dead within five years of arrival.

We all have a taste for sugar, which we imbibed first in mother's milk. Our pleasure in sweetness is nature's way of telling our brains "calories." Sugar is pure energy. Funny, isn't it, that 6 carbon atoms, 12 hydrogen atoms, and 6 oxygen atoms should be so important to life? It's all in the way they are put together.

Pure sugar was a luxury in Europe until 1700. The source was generally sugar cane, a tropical grass with unusually high sugar content that originated in New Guinea and was carried west by migrating peoples. Columbus brought cane to the Caribbean on his second voyage. On our little island here in the Bahamas, every public gathering has someone selling chunks of macheted sugar cane out of the back of a pickup truck. It's a popular treat, nibbled and sucked like an ice cream cone.

Oh, and what's the connection with Hamilton? He was born on the sugar-plantation island of Nevis, and lived in the islands until his teens. Among the Founding Fathers, he was conspicuous for his abolitionism.