Sidney W. Mintz, a renowned cultural anthropologist who focused on the Caribbean rural proletariat and linked Britain’s insatiable sweet tooth with slavery, capitalism, and imperialism, died on Sunday at the age of 93.
The son of a restaurateur and an amateur chef himself, Professor Mintz was best known beyond the academy and his own kitchen for his Marxian perspective on the growing demand for sugar in Britain, beginning in the 17th century.
In his view, that hunger shaped empires, spawned industrial-like plantations in the Caribbean and South America that presaged capitalism and globalization, enslaved and decimated indigenous populations, and engendered navies to protect trade while providing a sweetener to the wealthy and a cheap source of energy to industrial workers.
“There was no conspiracy at work to wreck the nutrition of the British working class, to turn them into addicts or ruin their teeth,” Professor Mintz wrote in “Sweetness and Power.” “But the ever-rising consumption of sugar was an artifact of interclass struggles for profit — struggles that eventuated in a world market solution for drug food, as industrial capitalism cut its protectionist losses and expanded a mass market to satisfy proletarian consumers once regarded as sinful or indolent.”
He added, “No wonder the rich and powerful liked it so much, and no wonder the poor learned to love it.”
For me, Mintz’s work was important for many different reasons: the importance of history in making sense of food, economic and social relations, and commodity exchange; a conception of capitalism as a global system; and a focus on capitalist and noncapitalist class structures and class struggles in both the North and the South. Perhaps most important, he turned traditional economic determinism on its head by arguing that the consumption of sugar, tea, and other commodities and their social importance in eighteenth-century Great Britain shaped British colonial policy and the production of those commodities throughout the empire.
Mintz’s work was also an important inspiration for one of my recent courses, Commodities: The Making of Market Society.