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Course: For teachers > Unit 2

Lesson 3: Go deeper: oppression and resistance

The triangle trade and the colonial table, sugar, tea, and slavery

Sugar, once a luxury for the wealthy, became widespread due to increased production in the West Indies and Caribbean. This growth, however, was fueled by the harsh labor of enslaved workers. The sugar trade also spurred a global economy, with products like tea, coffee, chocolate, and rum gaining popularity. Silver objects, like sugar bowls, symbolized wealth and status during this era. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Brandy] We're in the galleries at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Looking at a lovely sugar bowl. We think about sugar as part of our everyday lives but sugar has somewhat of a dark history. - [Beth] The history of sugar in a nutshell. You go from India in the Middle East, where it's grown to Portugal, Madeira, the Azores and then it hops to the New World. - [Brandy] And we know for example that Christopher Columbus brought a sugar plant to the New World on his second voyage. - [Beth] He knew that it was a crop that might do very well in the New World environment. - [Brandy] It was seen as a crop that could be incredibly profitable. People wanted sugar. - [Beth] Sugar was called white gold. And we think about our sugar addiction today but that's hundreds of years old. And our desire for sweetness, may be as old as mankind. - [Brandy] Imagine sugar as this luxury item. Doled out a little bit at at a time because it was so precious. - [Beth] Mostly reserved for the absolute wealthiest individuals in European society. Kings and queens and nobility. And it's really in the 1530s with the sugar industry developing in Brazil that you're starting to get this massive influx. And sugar prices go down. - [Brandy] So sugar prices start to go down because production increases in the West Indies and the Caribbean. - [Beth] But still, it is for only the highest echelons. There are four beverages that are very important to popularity of sugar. - [Brandy] I can think of three: coffee, tea and chocolate. All of which would benefit from added sugar. - [Beth] Absolutely and then there's punch. - [Brandy] But growing sugar is very labor intensive and so this is where the darker part of sugar's history comes in. - [Beth] The slave trade developed around the sugar industry as early as the 1440s in Madeira, in the sugar colonies. In Portugal and then it's transplanted to Brazil and millions of individuals are abducted, relocated to work in the plantations. The work is incredibly harsh and the average enslaved worker on a sugar plantation had a working life expectancy of seven years. - [Brandy] So a global trade between Africa, Europe and the Americas. - [Beth] From New England to England, to Africa, to the West Indies, sometimes you're stopping in the south, Charleston, Norfolk. Then you're coming back to New England with a cargo full of mostly sugar and rum, those are the big money makers. But also spices, citrus fruits, salt from the Turks and Caicos. - [Brandy] It's important to remember too that molasses is being produced as a byproduct of the production of sugar and molasses is what you use to make rum. And is also used as a sweetener. - [Beth] Rum is used in the slave trade to literally purchase individuals in Africa who have been abducted. - [Brandy] So we've got tea coming from China and other places in the East. - [Beth] When tea becomes a thing, in the 1600s there aren't Western forms to use with this Eastern commodity, tea. So you have artisans creating forms, sometimes directly based on objects imported from China and it's shaped like a Chinese rice bowl, even with it's delicate lid, that could have been turned over and used as a separate vessel. - [Brandy] So silver is clearly a sign of status and wealth that you displayed in your home. And in the era before paper money there were silver coins. And silver coins could be melted down and turned into beautiful silver objects like this one. Or silver objects could be melted down into coinage. Making objects as beautiful as this, is highly skilled labor. - [Beth] And there's different types of labor that's going to be happening in a silversmith's shop. So you have the master silversmith, possibly a journeyman. And then you have the apprentice. - [Brandy] We're talking about taking a block of silver, an ingot and hammering it flat. - [Beth] So silver, for instance this bowl is going to be created through a process of raising through hammering. And you're gonna do that on an anvil. So you're gonna hammer around a concentric circle and it's gonna cause this malleable material to start to rise up. But the more you hammer, the harder your silver's gonna get. - [Brandy] So you have to heat it again. - [Beth] And that process is called annealing. After you've annealed it and created your form, you're gonna go through a process called pickling and that's putting it in an acid vat. And then polishing. 'Cause silver is not this beautiful, shiny substance in it's natural state. So we think that a global economy is new to our 20th, 21st century world, but the truth of the matter is the global economy started in the 1500s. And this might be a domestic item and it would have sat on someone's tea table, but it represents the interconnected globe of the 18th century. (light music)