GUEST CURATOR: Patrick Keane
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Single and double refin’d Sugar.”
This advertisement, while very small, was also extremely important because it sold arguably one of the biggest products of colonial times. Sugar was one of the most important and bestselling staple crops in the world. Sugar importation was part of a trade network that brought together people from three continents: Europe, Africa, and the Americas (including the Caribbean islands). Slavery played a major part as, over time, millions of slaves on the Caribbean islands worked on sugar plantations.
During colonial times sugar was produced for all sorts of consumers, including people in the North American colonies. According to the William L. Clements Library’s online exhibit about sugar, “Between the middle of the seventeenth century and the middle of the nineteenth century, sugar was transformed from a luxury to a widely consumed commodity in Great Britain and the United States.” With this production also came high mortality rates for slaves who worked on the plantations. In addition, a lot more slaves produced sugar than other staple crops.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
In addition to sugar, the advertisement Patrick chose for today also marketed “Molasses, very reasonable.” It comes as no surprise that the proprietor of “the SUGAR HOUSE” in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, also sold molasses, a byproduct of the sugar refining process. Like sugar, molasses was produced on sugar plantations in the Caribbean and then exported as part of the trading networks that crisscrossed the Atlantic Ocean. Massive quantities of molasses were transported to New England, including Portsmouth, during the eighteenth century.
Why did colonists purchase so much molasses? They used it to produce rum by fermenting the molasses with yeast and water and then distilling the mixture in copper pot stills. During the eighteenth century New England became a major center for the production of rum. In the process, the New England colonies became enmeshed in what is often called the triangular trade. Merchants shipped sugar and molasses produced on plantations in the Caribbean to New England. Distillers purchased molasses and converted it into rum, which merchants then carried to Africa to trade for captive Africans. Those Africans were then transported to the Caribbean, where they labored as slaves on sugar plantations, as Patrick explains above.
Compared to the slave societies of the Chesapeake, Lower South, and Caribbean, colonists in New England owned relatively few slaves in the eighteenth century. That did not mean, however, that their economy and ability to participate in the expanding consumer culture of the era did not depend in large part on slavery. They relied on the transatlantic slave trade and the labor of enslaved Africans as integral parts of their networks of exchange. In other words, colonists in New England were complicit in perpetuating slavery even if they did not own slaves themselves. That was a consequence of their economic decisions.
On a final note, compare the roles of sugar and molasses in today’s advertisement. The sugar was intended for sale to consumers who were end users. The molasses, on the other hand, was not necessarily intended for the consumption of local customers. Instead, it was part of the production process for creating another commodity, rum, that upon its sale allowed colonists to participate more fully in consumer culture. Rum revenues made it possible to purchase imported English goods listed in so many other advertisements in colonial newspapers.