H-Diplo Roundtable XIX, 9 on Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness

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Roundtable Review
Volume XIX, No. 9
30 October 2017

Roundtable Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Roundtable and Web Production Editor: George Fujii
Introduction by Kristin Hoganson

April Merleaux. Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-4696-2251-4 (paperback, $35.00).

URL: http://www.tiny.cc/Roundtable-XIX-9


© 2017 The Authors.

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

As the winner of the 2016 Myrna F. Bernath Book Award, April Merleaux’s Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness, has won due recognition for its contributions to U.S. foreign-relations history. The four reviews in this roundtable confirm my view that high on any list of these contributions should be the light it shines on U.S. imperial formations, as they split and lump peoples, extend and erect boundaries, and advance hierarchies of various kinds. Proceeding from the assumption that empire is “an arrangement in which political sovereignty is exercised unevenly across space and in which some people and geographies are differentiated as being outside of the law or subject to an alternate set of legal arrangements,” (20) Merleaux reveals how this unevenness played out from sugar beet farms to cane plantations, from refineries to customs houses, from producers to consumers, from Colorado to the Caribbean and the Philippines. Not surprisingly, race figures largely throughout. Sugar is a means to these larger analytical ends as well as an important subject in itself. As Alex Goodall puts it in his review: “The age of empire was for the United States an age of sugar.”

Although the reviewers agree that the book is an important addition to the history of American empire from the late nineteenth century to the New Deal, they each provide a slightly different take on its core attributes and achievements. This is a testimony to another point of general agreement: Merleaux has written an expansive book that opens out in multiple ways.

Sarah Steinbock-Pratt praises Sugar and Civilization for successfully knitting together topics that have not always overlapped: labor history, racial politics, tariff policy, consumerism, and empire among them. Taking stock of the whole, she characterizes the book as “an excellent study of commodity culture.” She recommends it for the classroom, in part because it illuminates the roles played by non-governmental actors in expanding U.S. power.

Michael E. Donoghue also positions Sugar and Civilization in the historiography on commodity production, and he likewise applauds its mix of economic and cultural analysis. But he seems relatively more taken by the kaleidoscopic complexity Merleaux exposes in her treatment of political alliances, economic policy, consumer preferences, the sugar market, and site-specific struggles to make the most of a raw deal.

Goodall draws our attention to the book’s engagement with histories of capitalism and modernization. He appreciates Merleaux’s efforts to integrate cultural, political, and economic analyses, to delve into both the trade barriers and folk habits encompassed by the term “customs.” Goodall also highlights Merleaux’s success in bridging divides between the foreign and the domestic and the agricultural and the industrial.

Jana Lipman credits Merleaux with revealing attitudes about the nation and modernity as well as about empire and she commends Sugar and Civilization for showing how trade policy served as a powerful imperial tool. She also registers its attentiveness to workers and its implications for periodization, namely, for extending the turn-of-the-century imperial era into the New Deal.

There is so much happening in this book that reviewers seem almost abashed to ask for more. But fortunately for ongoing conversations, they do: Steinbock-Pratt and Donoghue urge more attention to sugar producers and consumers in the Caribbean and Pacific. Donoghue notes the omission of Haiti and the Dominican Republic; Goodall, the omission of the cane-producing U.S. South. Goodall also raises the matter of the bio-historical–that is, the effect that sugar had on the bodies of imperial citizens and subjects. Lipman’s wish-list for additional coverage includes more attention to labor politics and worker organization and to trade policy moving forward in time (in lieu of a conclusion focusing on dietary practices and contemporary health concerns).

Aside from the comments on paths not traveled, several key questions stand out: How, exactly, does Sugar and Civilization affect our understanding of the history of capitalism? What does this case study of the sugar industry tell us about compromised sovereignty more generally? How does this book advance our understanding of causation, change, and subjectivity? And how can historians wishing to pursue such multifaceted histories best grapple with the literary challenge of fitting findings to narrative form?


April Merleaux is an Assistant Professor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Before joining the Hampshire faculty, she was an Associate Professor at Florida International University in Miami, Florida where she taught for 7 years. She earned her Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale University in 2010. In addition to Sugar and Civilization, Merleaux has published several articles and regularly presents at SHAFR and other annual meetings. She is working on a second book, an environmental and agrarian history of the war on drugs.

Kristin Hoganson is a Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998); Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007); and American Empire at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford Press, 2017). She is currently revising a book manuscript on the U.S. heartland, in which empire figures as a major theme.

Michael E. Donoghue is an associate professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He earned his PhD in history at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. His book Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone was published by Duke University Press in 2014. He has co-authored along with Thomas G. Paterson, J. Garry Clifford and Robert Brigham, American Foreign Relations: A History, Volumes I and II (8th ed., Cengage, 2014). Professor Donoghue is currently working on a monograph on U.S. Military-Cuban Relations 1939-1964.

Alex Goodall is a Senior Lecturer in International History at University College London and the author of Loyalty and Liberty: The Politics of Counter-Subversion From World War One to the McCarthy Era (Illinois, 2013) and, with Michael Patrick Cullinane, The Open Door Era: United States Foreign Policy in the Twentieth Century (Edinburgh, 2017). He is currently researching history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth history expansion of U.S. power in the Caribbean and Central America from a transnational perspective.

Jana K. Lipman is an Associate Professor of History at Tulane University. She is the author of Guantánamo: A Working-Class History between Empire and Revolution (University of California Press, 2009). She is also the co-editor of Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism (New York: New York University Press, 2015) and the co-translator of The Ship of Fate: A Memoir of a Vietnamese Repatriate by Tran Dinh Tru (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, forthcoming). Her work has also appeared in American Quarterly, the Journal of American Ethnic History the Journal of Asian American Studies, the Journal of Military History, and Radical History Review. She is currently writing a book on the history of Vietnamese refugee camps in Southeast Asia from 1975 through 1997.

Sarah Steinbock-Pratt received her PhD in History from the University of Texas. She is currently an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Alabama. Her work addresses questions about U.S. empire, gender, and race, and includes articles published in Women’s Studies and Gender & History. She is currently working on a manuscript on American teachers and colonial education in the Philippines. Her book project, “Education for Empire: American Teachers and the Creation of a Colonial State in the Philippines,” investigates the role American teachers played in the building of a colonial system of education in the Philippines from 1901 to 1945. Examining these teachers’ negotiations with American officials and Filipinos illuminates the gulf between official policies and the day to day functioning of empire, demonstrating how the implementation of empire on the ground often deviated from the expectations of the colonial state.


Explorations of imperialism through the lens of a single tropical product present something of a trend in recent years. In the American sphere, Peter Chapman’s Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World, Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of a Fruit that Changed the World, Teresita A. Levy’s Puerto Ricans in the Empire: Tobacco Growers and U.S. Colonialism, and the wider ranging Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History plus Mark Pendergast’s Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World (2010) are some recent examples.[1] Regarding the British Empire: Emma Robertson’s Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History, Brenda M. King’s Silk and Empire, Richard J. Grace’s Opium and Empire and Markman Ellis et al., Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf That Conquered the World continue this approach with different products and players in varied contexts.[2] But since the early sixteenth century, the king (or queen) of all tropical produce was sugar, the maker of empires and the ‘white gold’ of the New World. Some historians have even claimed that its mass production in conjunction with the slave trade created the economic wherewithal that forged modern capitalism in Britain and Western Europe in the late eighteenth century.[3] April Merleaux has written a fascinating examination of the U.S. sugar empire from the late nineteenth century through World War II that embraces both an economic and cultural analysis. What makes Merleaux’s work so admirable is its broad scope, which encompasses the racial and class assignations of different sugar products for different consumers, the competition between overseas cane and domestic beet sugar, the issues of protectionism, tariffs, and quotas at the heart of the sugar economy, and all the conflicting interests: U.S. colonists in the new territorial islands, immigrant workers drawn to new cultivation sites, sucrose technicians, populist nativists, and radical revolutionaries, to name just a few.

Merleaux starts by examining the creation of a sugar dominion that had its roots in domestic production in Louisiana and Florida but leapfrogged overseas following the War of 1898 to include Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hawaii, and the Philippines. Here a sugar empire of global proportions beckoned for U.S. capitalists. On the one hand this expansion created a bonanza of new resources for a burgeoning domestic and global market, yet it also put sharp pressure on domestic cane and beet growers to protect their livelihoods from an avalanche of cheap non-continental sugar. Meanwhile East Coast refiners and investors, the so-called Sugar Trust, tried to balance all sources and the political interests involved for their own economic benefit through the privileging of standardized white refined sugar. From the outset, the cultivation and marketing of sweetness proved highly political and required all sorts of odd alliances among populists, expansionists, racists, protectionists, Cuban planters, Filipino and Puerto Rican nationalists, and confectionary companies creating a variety of candies for an expanding American and international sweet tooth.

Indeed, U.S. sugar tariffs and market quotas proved so central to earlier Cuban sugar production that a cut in the U.S. quota demanded by domestic producers in response to the 1893 depression helped spark the 1895 Cuban War for Independence that touched off the whole U.S. expansion in the sugar realm. Merleaux defines that empire as “an arrangement in which political sovereignty is exercised unevenly across space and in which some people and geographies are differentiated as being outside the law or subject to an alternate set of legal arrangements” (20). Such a definition works well in demonstrating the similarities in play between the armed conquests of people of color in overseas sugar regions with the expropriation of U.S. Western lands and water resources from Amerindians and Mexicans for large-scale sugar beet production. This definition also addresses the maze of differing duties, tariffs, taxes, quotas, prices, production cuts, grading scales, technologies, and policies imposed on specific islands, products, and groups in an effort to arrange some harmony within an innately unequal and unjust imperium.

Both the cultivation and consumption of sugar had strong racial and class connotations, as Merleaux insightfully demonstrates. White middle class consumers and the aspiring working class, encouraged by advertisements that appealed to the purity of ‘whiteness,’ preferred granulated sugar and more gentile hand-dipped chocolates and bonbons. Mexican laborers in the West and black sharecroppers of the South stuck to their traditional sweeteners such as piloncillo and muscovado for the former and cane syrup and molasses for the latter as markers of ethnic identity and nostalgia. Cheap stick and penny candy satiated their children. Still, these minorities often paid more for their favored raw products than for cheaper refined sugars. Whites saw darker sugar as appropriate for the black and brown field workers who cut cane and topped beets. Images of native workers sucking on cane purportedly confirmed their subhuman status. Merleaux also explores the subconscious, metaphorical ‘eating’ of colored people through chocolate items that were favorites of whites, as well as sugar and chocolate allusions to love in popular songs and advertisement. All groups had their assigned sweets in this hierarchical saccharine dream. But complications arose in a very real sugar empire, such as child labor in the beet fields drawing Congressional investigations, Filipino cane cutters flooding into Hawaii, Mexican and Japanese immigrants displacing rural whites as beet cutters, and Cuban revolutionaries overthrowing dictator Gerardo Machado, the chief pro-U.S. sugar daddy in the Caribbean. The mass production and industrialization of sugar in the new centrifugal mills unleashed competitive forces and interests that strained the American body politic while it satiated a huge and culturally shaped sugar addiction. “O Sugar, what crimes have been committed in thy name!” (74), one editorialist wrote in a critique truer than he knew regarding the exploitation, low wages, appalling work conditions, and dangerous environment in which so many impoverished sugar workers toiled. So much pain ironically arose in service to sweetness.

But Merleaux also shows how exploited folks sometimes used their status to local advantage, especially in the U.S. territorial islands that held such amorphous political status. Fear of a floodtide of duty-free Philippine sugar pushed U.S. nativists and domestic sugar advocates to support the transition toward Philippine independence in the 1930s. Filipino patriots cooperated for nationalist reasons at the cost of economic bounty. Puerto Rico came close to following the same path but local reformers like Luis Muñoz Marin persuaded the Roosevelt administration to back diversifying the local economy first and reducing its sugar profile, a project in which U.S. protectionists concurred. Cuban revolutionaries, purportedly living on an ‘independent’ island, rose up in 1933 in part to get a better sugar deal within the U.S. market whose access tightened thanks to Smoot-Hawley and other Depression era tariffs. Due to U.S. geostrategic concerns, these nationalists won some concessions that included an end to the Platt Amendment, which had maintained U.S. political control over the island from 1901 to 1934. And earlier, one of the foremost heroes of the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata came to the fore on the local and international scene as a rebel against Mexican and U.S. sugar operations in Morelos that stripped local campesinos of their land and water access for the mass export of sugar. The violence and chaos of the Revolution hurt the sugar industry there and fostered border contraband against the sugar rationing in World War I America. Merleaux delves masterfully into the intricacies of rationing and price controls under Herbert Hoover’s World War I Food Administration which illustrated a central problem of the sugar imperium: the role of the federal government in trying to bring order, conformity, and equity to a highly competitive and chaotic market at all levels of human, economic, and political endeavor. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal would wrestle with similar dilemmas in keeping major interests within its coalition satisfied while striving to prevent economic collapse in a period of overproduction, shrinking demands, and contradictory efforts to limit output.

Reviewers often want the book they survey to be the one they would have written and not the work that the author actually constructed. This reviewer seeks to avoid this syndrome but wishes that the author had given greater coverage to the plight of overseas sugar workers whose voices and experiences rarely emerge in her narrative though it is rich in their imagery and economic status within the hierarchy of sweetness. Such a section devoted to them might also have overcomplicated the organization of the book. A couple of important developments in the U.S. imperial arena to which Merleaux gives little attention occurred in this book’s period: the U.S. invasions and occupations of Haiti (1915-1934) and the Dominican Republic (1916-1924) that impacted sugar’s political economy as well. While neither country could compete with the vast imports from Cuba, a budding U.S.-financed sugar industry emerged in the Dominican Republic fueled by cheap, indentured Haitian labor that illustrates many of Merleaux’s larger labor points in horrifying detail. Among the many strengths of this work are the marvelous images that the author has assembled along with graphs, advertisements, and charts. A second edition of the monograph could use a large map that illustrates the vast geographic reach of the U.S. sugar empire with product and immigrations flows clearly delineated. Such a map, while ambitious, would put the whole scope of this fine work in sharp relief for novices to the sugar trade. But these small omissions, which are perfectly understandable due to page and image limitations in academic publishing today, aside, Merleaux’s book is a wonderful addition to a new genre of U.S. imperial studies as well a powerful work that stands impressively on its own, addressing one of the key drivers of American empire in the first half of the twentieth century. That is, before aspartame, high fructose corn syrup, and the bane of diabetes and sugar obesity damaged King Sugar’s dominance in ways that we are still grappling with today. I could go on with more accolades for this fine work but my energy level is low and I am reaching now for a Snickers Bar manufactured in New Jersey with sugar from Brazil, vanilla from Mexico, and cocoa from Guyana. Merleaux’s work helped me appreciate the global complexity of my once taken-for-granted yet favorite snack.



In Jean Toomer’s novel Cane (1923), sugar pervades the American landscape, charging it with sweetness and bitter-sweetness. Cane surrounds rural southern communities. The sugar fields are the places into which you disappear with a shotgun, and where you carry the dead weight of a human body. The high, packed plants are constricting to pass through; the crops, cultivated for centuries, give the countryside an aura of timelessness. On the edge of a forest, cut stalks are squeezed into a grinding machine and the juice, boiled, infuses the air with its sugary odour. Bent by wind and cut by workers, the stalks mimic the fragile bodies of black men and women of the South, while humans become increasingly indistinguishable from the sugar that nourishes them. Workers chew cane as they gossip and argue. Nostalgic songs convey “lush melodies of cane and corn” (138), sweet words and music from lips tinctured with syrup. Even the pain of the harvest reaper is described as “Sweeter than the oats or wheat or corn” (133). A woman recalls a love affair from her school days that “ended in her shame when he as much as told her that for sweetness he preferred a lollipop” (42). She and sugar become seemingly interchangeable choices. Toomer saw the mark of Cain attributed to black folks’ skins and bodies. “Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs” (23), he wrote.[4]

Cane does not appear in April Merleaux’s book, and the South plays a relatively minor role in its larger framework: the author focuses primarily on the U.S. empire in the West, the Caribbean, and the Asia-Pacific. Nevertheless, Toomer’s text, written in the middle of the period studied by Merleaux, offers an elevated illustration of one of the central processes that Sugar and Civilization seeks to interrogate: the way in which the political economy of sugar production stretched beyond the raw economics of tariffs, or the basic politics of sustenance, and into the cultural lives of early twentieth-century Americans.

The age of empire was for the United States an age of sugar. U.S. imperial power began in the wake of the burning of the sugar plantations by the Cuban revolutionary leader Antonio Maceo’s liberation army, and as intervention left the federal government in charge of a growing network of formal and informal territories, sugar became a key component of the imperial economy. Artificially stimulated by the protective tariff, sugar production, refinement, and consumption both tied together and kept at arm’s length the United States and its external territories. High tariffs, overseas capital investment, and international migration produced a complex and evolving commodity chain in which the beet growers of the American West, cane growers of the Caribbean and Asia-Pacific, industrialists of the northeast, and consumers across the United States swayed to the same winds of global market economics.

As the boom in sugar pervaded American life it arrived not as an empty commodity, a neutral carbohydrate that solely served to sustain the American worker, but as a totemic good, freighted with symbolic meaning. In this Merleaux points to the contradictions of the commodification process. While new capitalist technologies of gradation and standardisation were designed to render the origins and production methods of sugar irrelevant, to make the story of its creation invisible to the purchaser, people at all levels resisted efforts to eliminate difference, and looked instead to see moral significance in the diversity of sugar. “The point of refining is… to remove the last remnants of sweat and soil from the sugar so that its consumers are unaware of the product’s natural and human history,” writes Merleaux (24). And yet distinctions were sustained between types and grades of raw sugar as well as the foods that were made from them. These were then used to justify the differential treatment of tariff-free domestic producers, quota-controlled imperial territories, and businesses in lands beyond the imperial zone, which in turn justified the unequal treatment of domestic American workers, immigrants, and foreigners. The diversity of sugar production and the rituals that surrounded sugar consumption were thus intimately connected to the wider inequalities of imperial life. The awkwardness of commodification reflected the ambiguities of imperialism’s relationship with capitalism: co-dependent, yet not always neatly aligned.

As with Toomer’s Cane, sugar pervaded American life as metaphor as well as substance. The discourse around sugar connected basic properties of the commodity with the largest issues of politics and civilization. Expansionists presented large-scale sugar production as a crucial tool for the modernization of imperial possessions. Anti-imperialists used the differences between the production methods of the tropical sugar estates and the family-owned beet farms of the West to support their well-trodden concerns with the corrupting and inegalitarian consequences of empire. Various forms of sugar became synecdoche for differences between civilization and barbarism. Industrially-refined table sugar was distinguished from ‘uncivilized’ folk versions such as raw cane and piloncillo. Refined sweets and precious desserts were used as a marker of cultural election and conspicuous consumption, while rich tourists in the Caribbean islands saw poor children eating sugar cane as a key illustration of exotic backwardness. “The visual trope of black children eating sugarcane was so common that tourists to the tropics re-created such scenes in their snapshots,” Merlaux writes (57). The power of this morally-charged language of sugar and power is shown in the near invisibility that has resulted from its clichéd use. Merleaux’s study forensically draws our attention back to the freighted double meanings of the words that link sugar, empire, and narratives of modernity: sweetness, refinement, purity, whiteness.

Nor was this simply a top-down process imposed by visions of civilization that prized the industrial. Whereas for many the refined forms of sugar were valued for the way in which their rough production had been excised from history, for others sugar taken directly from nature evoked a deep sense of regional and ethnic belonging. ‘Customs’ thus covers both trade barriers and folk habits.

This is an exceptionally ambitious book, of which these themes are just a part. In just over 200 pages Merleaux seeks to present a complex transnational commodity history and a study of the political economy of the sugar trade and its relationship to debates over tariffs, law, and empire as well examining the cultural politics of sugar in American life over four decades. It is hard to do justice to the scope of this study, and it seems churlish to spend much time complaining of things that it does not engage with in detail. Nevertheless, it is perhaps worth noting that the orientation of the work is towards the politico-economic and the socio-cultural, rather than the bio-historical: sugar consumption in this account is primarily connected to the industries that produce it and the images that are conjured by it more than the effect it had on the bodies of imperial citizens and subjects. Although this latter theme appears in later chapters of the work, it would have been fascinating to have seen greater consideration of the ways in which the transformation of the American diet impacted not only the linguistic repertoire of American imperial citizenship but also the physiological history of this drastic change in the American diet, and the impact this had on the state’s emerging health infrastructure (again, touched upon toward the end of the book but not examined in depth). We do not hear much of diabetes, obesity, or of the (presumably) exponentially-growing need for dentists that this new empire of sweetness must have produced. Yet even here Merleaux does offer some thought-provoking initial observations on the way the transforming welfare state was bound up with larger patterns of imperial consumption. She notes that sugar goods were initially presented as a simple and cheap source of fuel, especially for poor workers, early in the twentieth century. As nutritionists in the 1930s began to notice the health impacts of over-reliance on refined carbohydrates, they struggled to understand the broader socio-cultural context of sugar consumption, instead attributing health issues to “problems of individual will or poor mothering” (228). These politically-charged forms of medical interpretation, of course, persist. In contemporary demands that we ‘not eat the marshmallow’ we see a millennial transposition of Theodore Roosevelt’s insistence on the need for self-restraint, and in today’s calls for a low-carb diet and regular exercise we hear a faint, industrially-refined echo of that President’s romantic evocation of the virtues of the strenuous life.[5]

Still, rather than demanding that even more be packed into an already carb-heavy historical meal, perhaps a fairer criticism of Sugar and Civilization relates to the assembly of the material that has been gathered. The great and commendable strength of this work is the way in which Merleaux pursues the history of this commodity across borders and boundaries that ordinarily limit the scope of historical research and often impose distorting logics: most notably, of course, between the foreign and domestic, but also between the agricultural and industrial, and between culture, politics, and economics. Merleaux’s text offers a powerful demonstration that politics, economics, and culture, which are so often separated into distinctive works of analysis, work most fruitfully when combined. Nevertheless, this success also poses new problems: in transcending these boundaries and disassembling old historical structures, we draw new lines and boundaries, and must seek new ways of assembling the material within a coherent alternative frame that renders the implications of this research meaningful to the reader–especially in terms of the perennial historical themes of causation, change, and subjectivity.

Merleaux seeks to resolve this problem by offering a complex arrangement of thematic and chronological chapters, and by repeatedly stressing what she sees as the fundamental diversity of American imperial power. She writes, “the differences were also exactly what made this an imperial project” (54). This is an important corrective to the assumption that the imperial was in any way singular or coherent. However, it was sometimes difficult, for this reader at least, to conclude what else one is to take away from this larger assemblage of difference.

This is hardly a unique problem to Merleaux’s text, of course. Whenever we seek collectively to revise our frames of scholarly reference the historical profession finds itself with a literary challenge as well as one of research method: requiring the re-evaluation of historical monographs not only as vehicles for compendious research but also as texts constrained by the logic of narrative forms. In a certain sense, this is the same problem faced by Toomer and other modernist writers of fiction early in the twentieth century, who also sought to expand the scope of literature to account for greater diversity in experience and representation and found themselves in so doing with a challenge of style as well as subject matter. Perhaps texts like Cane, then, can not only illustrate the metaphorical work done by commodities in our daily lives, but also point to some of the stylistic and structural opportunities offered when writing histories as innovative as Merleaux’s.



Early on in this excellent monograph, April Merleaux admits that readers’ eyes “now glaze over at the mention of tariffs” (30). Guilty as charged. I might even add that my eyes glaze over at the mere mention of tariffs. However, Merleaux goes on to make a compelling case, and she argues that U.S. sugar policy, and in particular tariffs, defined American understandings of empire, nation, and modernity in the early twentieth century. Given the emphasis Senator Bernie Sanders and now President Donald Trump placed on trade, tariffs, and free markets in the 2016 Democratic and Republican primaries, it seems as good a time as any to return to the fine points and complications of U.S. trade policy in the early twentieth century.

In some ways, Merleaux’s book is “old school” as it takes on thorny economic issues as the flesh and bones of empire, and she demonstrate how “trade policies are also crucial elements of empire” (14). The book offers a close analysis of tariff policy, and Merleaux explains how over time the United States marked Puerto Rico and Hawai’i as ‘domestic’ spaces, while sugar tariffs demarcated Cuba, and ultimately the Philippines, as ‘outside’ the United States. Merleaux argues that the U.S. relied on this trade policy to define the contours of its empire from the early twentieth century through the New Deal. She states that U.S. trade policy was a powerful tool of empire alongside U.S. military interventions and cultural representations. Her book begins in the years just following the War of 1898 and the acquisition of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Guam, and it extends through World War I, the 1920s and the rise of protectionism, particularly the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which imposed the country’s highest tariff to date, and concludes with the New Deal.

Merleaux defines empire as “an arrangement in which political sovereignty is exercised unevenly across space and in which some people and geographies are differentiated as being outside of the law or subject to an alternate set of legal arrangements” (20). This definition allows for a more expansive definition apart from straight-forward territorial control, which enables her to include Cuba and later the Philippines in her analysis. However, many countries have compromised sovereignty, and it might have been worth reflecting on how this definition might reverberate outside the penumbra of the sugar industry. Merleaux also provides commentary on politicians she terms populist anti-imperialists, and she explains how Democratic Southern and Western politicians “believed imports and immigration undermined U.S. sovereignty” (34). The result was a decidedly race-based ideology that wanted to protect U.S. domestic sugar production and reject foreign sugar and foreign non-white workers.

Merleaux argues that choices about which types of sugar were produced and who consumed them cemented racial hierarchies, and she juxtaposes the representations of tropical production of sugar cane with the domestic production of sugar beets. She explains that domestic sugar producers intentionally promoted their sugar as more ‘civilized,’ in both color and quality than sugar produced in Cuba, the Philippines, Hawai’i, and Puerto Rico. The U.S. sugar industry only welcomed raw sugar from the territories, and it protected its refineries through tariff policies. In this way, ‘refined,’ ‘whiter,’ or ‘purer’ sugars were identified with the metropole and modernity, while tropical sugars were ‘darker,’ ‘coarser’ and lacked civilization. Not surprisingly, the main actors of U.S. trade policy were elite white men contemplating how to make the most profit; however, alongside her investigation of trade policy, Merleaux also includes chapters on the labor and sugar habits of white women, African Americans, and Mexican Americans. She deftly recognizes these populations as both sugar workers and sugar consumers, and she analyzes their buying practices with both identities in mind. While I sometimes wished there was more inter-play between the chapters on trade policy and the chapters on consumption, I value Merleaux’s decision to take on the challenge and include both elements in her book.

Merleaux’s analysis becomes more complex in the book’s later chapters, particularly as she notes the ways in which progressive reformers identified child beet workers as compromising domestic sugar production’s claims to ‘civilization.’ The response included providing at least paper rights to beet workers, which were unique in agricultural labor at the time. In addition, protectionism became an impetus for Philippine independence. Scholars have noted how the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act used the promise of independence to limit Filipino immigration into the United States. Merleaux adds that the U.S. also wanted a legal mechanism to limit the entry of Philippine sugar. As Paul Kramer demonstrated in The Blood of Government, U.S. corporate interests in the Philippine sugar industry were always marginal compared to U.S. investments in Hawai’i and Cuba.[6] Merleaux expands this analysis and argues that more Filipinos worked in the sugar industry in Hawai’i than in the Philippines (166). Merleaux tartly notes that the United States’ support for Philippine independence demonstrated the United States’ very real power: “Philippine independence was both an emblem of the US’s sovereignty–what greater power than to abdicate power?–and the consequence of failed US policies” (189).

Throughout the book, Merleaux is attentive to a broad range of workers, including African American workers, women working in candy factories, Mexican-Americans in the beet industry, and Cuban cane workers who threatened Cuba’s political stability. Although a bit of a tangent, I will never be able to watch the television sitcom I Love Lucy’s ‘chocolate’ episode the same way again. In the famous scene, job-searching Lucy and Ethel are charged with dipping chocolates on an ever-speeding assembly line. Merleaux brings historical context to this comedic sketch, and she demonstrates how ‘dipped’ chocolate candies became feminized. White women were both the primary workers in the chocolate factories, and they were the primary consumer class. The assumption was that these white women were ‘pure’ and ‘sweet,’ and these attributes extended to the ‘dipped’ luxury chocolates, thus placing them at the top of the sugar hierarchy (137-40). In contrast, hard candy and candy ‘cane’ was racialized as non-white, and candy makers assumed African American and other children of color were the chief consumers. In another example, Merleaux dedicates an entire chapter on the consumer practices of Mexican workers in the United States. She argues how migration transformed piloncillo from an inexpensive sugar relegated to the peasant class to a product which became more valuable in the United States precisely for its connection to Mexico and local traditions.

I do wish that Merleaux’s book paid more attention to labor politics and worker organization. While there is a great deal of analysis of consumption practices, there is far less attention to workers’ lives or labor organizing in either the territories or the continental United States. Merleaux rightly notes the ways in which Cuban workers’ militancy destabilized the island, but workers’ political mobilization (or lack thereof) is not central to her overall story. How did workers respond to changes in U.S. tariff policies in Cuba, the Philippines, or the Midwest? Where did workers form unions? Where did they strike? Why does it seem that workers had greater opportunities to join labor movements in places like Hawai’i or Cuba than they did domestically?

One of the book’s strongest points is the inclusion of the New Deal in U.S. imperial history. Standard narratives rightly point to President Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure as a decided break in U.S. foreign relations in the Western Hemisphere. Roosevelt did indeed halt the previous ‘gunboat diplomacy’ missions and invasions that characterized U.S.-Latin American relations. However, Merleaux takes a less sanguine look and argues that U.S. trade policy improved and complemented U.S. imperial priorities. She argues that Roosevelt was offering populations in the territories economic equality and the right to be consumers, but that this did not extend to political equality: “In actuality, sugar policy offered economic equality–the right to spend, earn, purchase, own, and profit–without full political rights and representations” (206-207.) Merleaux places the New Deal within the same early twentieth-century politics of U.S. trade and imperial practices, rather than seeing it as an outlier.

Merleaux’s book contributes a great deal to recent scholarship in economic history, and I would place her book alongside innovative monographs by Jason Colby, Heidi Tinsman, and Suzanna Reiss who have brought renewed attention to political economy and twentieth-century U.S.-Latin American relations.[7] The following is not so much a critique as a question. Given the longstanding scholarly debates and the seminal works by Eric Williams and Sidney Mintz, I would be interested in how Merleaux positions her work within the recent debates about the history of capitalism. Is Merleaux’s U.S. sugar empire a capitalist empire? Does she agree with recent work on the ‘history of capitalism,’ by scholars such as Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman, or does she critique this conceptualization? Or offer yet another framework? Do U.S. trade policies with the various territories complicate or change our understanding of what constituted U.S. capitalist development?[8]

Finally, in her conclusion, Merleaux gestures toward the ways in which sugar became identified with elite judgment over working-class Americans’ dietary practices, and the contemporary fixation on obesity, junk food, and diabetes. I am sympathetic to Merleaux’s questions, but I was actually more interested in her thoughts on the current implications for U.S. trade policy. Does her work shed light on U.S. trade practices after World War II and Bretton Woods? Is there a similar story about sugar production, consumption, and trade policies in the development of the soft-drink industry in the World War II era? What other ways did U.S. companies continue to assert practices that resulted in ‘arrangement(s) in which political sovereignty is exercised unevenly?’ In other words, did debates over sugar remain salient in the post-war era? Was there something specific about sugar, or did U.S. sugar production and consumption patterns become illustrative of U.S. trade and corporate policies writ large?

Merleaux’s book leaves us with important questions about the nature of the U.S. economy and empire in the early twentieth century. The book is ambitious and is a testament to integrating historical analyses of trade, production, and consumption. I am not sure I would characterize President Donald Trump as a populist anti-imperialist, but Merleaux’s book reminds us that the pairing of racialized, anti-immigrant and anti-trade rhetoric is anything but new. On a more optimistic note, Merleaux succeeded in keeping me interested in U.S. tariff policy. Quite an accomplishment.


Refining Empire: A Review of Sugar and Civilization

Recently, 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, however, been 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 U.S. empire have failed to fully account for the importance of global markets in dictating imperial policies and shaping understandings of areas under American influence.[9] With Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness, April Merleaux seeks to fill this gap, linking together 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 U.S. 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 category through which Americans made sense of both empire and the sugar market (1-2). 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; 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 U.S. colonies. This balancing act influenced the policies of inclusion and exclusion regarding immigration, tariffs, and trade, cementing the unequal and liminal status of the U.S. colonies, at once both domestic and foreign (5, 31).

The various tariff laws and trade policies created in the first decades of the twentieth century encouraged sugar production across the U.S. sugar empire, leading to a market saturated with cheap sugar and rising consumption of sweets. That Americans and those within the purview of U.S. 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 claims to both middle class and civilized status (64). 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 (108). 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 (132-133).

Merleaux argues that by the 1930s, New Deal policies began to alter the debate over sugar and tariffs, while maintaining U.S. 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 (176-177). Merleaux reveals that New Deal policies, couched in the language of fairness and economic equality, were geared primarily toward the readjustment of the U.S. 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 understand the difference between imperial processes and empire, and illustrating the ways in which non-governmental actors played a role in expanding U.S. 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’s work has also given her readers something to chew on as we consider the politics of nutrition in the twenty-first century.





It is with great pleasure that I read these thoughtful comments on Sugar and Civilization. The readers assembled here offer accurate overviews of the book, and they suggest some of the fruitful directions that other historians might follow as they build on my research.

These reviewers each note what Alex Goodall calls the “literary challenge” of narrating a history that crosses many borders, scales of analysis, and geographic locations. I am delighted that Goodall evocatively opens with Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), a novel about which I thought a great deal in the earliest iterations of the research, but to which I regrettably did not return. Goodall is absolutely correct that Cane is an exemplar of the processes about which I write, and a model for creatively narrating complex experiences. On the other hand, Cane is itself dense and perhaps not entirely accessible to all readers. Of the various methodological quandaries in combining cultural and social analysis with political economy, figuring out how to tell a story that makes sense is high on the list. I tried as much as I could to put people at the center of my storytelling. Whether this strategy was enough remains for readers to decide.

Several reviewers note that I could have paid more attention to labor organizing across the U.S. sugar empire, and more broadly to the voices of workers in the territories and Cuba. While I do write briefly about labor organizing among beet workers in Colorado and even more briefly about workers in Puerto Rico in the late 1930s, I know there is much more to be discovered on these important topics, and other historians have focused more directly on them.[10] Early in my research I spent some time searching for labor organizers who consciously made connections across the U.S. sugar empire. While I did find evidence of energetic cross-border and inter-imperial labor organizing, the people I found generally saw sugar as only one among many exploitative industries. Sugar was not an organizing principle for them in the same way that it seemed to be for policymakers. This is not to say that I could not have spent more time analyzing strikes and labor actions, many of which coincided with tariff debates. But alas, there are limits to every work.

To some extent, my relative inattention to territorial voices represents real logistical constraints, which I do not think we discuss often enough as we laud transnational histories. As a graduate student and then someone on the tenure track I simply could not afford to travel to Cuba, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. I did the best that I could with available sources to show what workers’ experiences might have been, and I did consult Mexican archives. To the extent that we continue to laud transnational, multi-archival methods, we must look for ways to fund such ambitious research. As Lara Putnam has pointed out in an excellent recent American Historical Review article, there is a real risk that digitized sources allow us to claim experiences and locations outside of the United States as part of U.S. history.[11] We must recognize that the story looks and feels very different if our questions start outside of the United States. The history of U.S. sugar tariffs told entirely from Cuban and Filipino archives would be an entirely different tale than mine. It would be well-worth telling, but, unfortunately, it was not the one I could produce.

Jana Lipman asks how I position my work in relation to recent works in the history of capitalism. Like other historians working under that umbrella, I see capitalism as contingent rather than as monolithic or teleological, and I see it as inseparable from the nation-state. Markets do not exist apart from people, who create and maintain the laws and institutions that enable the production of value. In that sense, political economy is cultural and social, and historians have much work to do to show how these interwoven processes work. My original research questions about capitalism came as much out of Latin American history as U.S. history. Latin Americanists have long used commodities as a method for understanding complex multi-scalar histories. I aimed to move beyond the mechanistic models of capitalism that dominated earlier works in that field, and to bring cultural analysis into the picture.

Sugar and Civilization ends just before World War II, but the patterns I describe continued in the postwar period of international economic and political expansion. The characters in the story of sugar changed dramatically after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, but the idea that access to markets could be used to influence the internal politics of other countries has continued to be all too common for U.S. policymakers. More broadly, I would point to the persistent connection between the politics of trade and immigration. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example, was no less about immigration than it was trade—architects of the free trade agreement hoped to slow migration from Mexico by creating jobs there. The fact that this aspect of NAFTA failed should come as no surprise. Likewise, New Deal sugar-trade policy demonstrates an important point that remains true: nomenclature notwithstanding, bilateral (or trilateral) trade agreements are not free trade. They are institutionalized systems for designating who can participate in which markets, and they are prone to domination by more powerful trading partners. To me there is no question that NAFTA can be understood in an imperial context, just as I argue that New Deal sugar quotas must be understood in that way.

As Lipman points out, Sugar and Civilization has come full circle and is unexpectedly politically relevant—albeit in new ways—in our current moment of reinvigorated nativism and protectionism. As we watch the terms of the debate around globalization shift, I would remind readers that aggressive territorial expansionism in the 1900s was inseparable from tariff protectionism and immigration exclusion. Protectionism is first and foremost a means to assert power, and the United States has long asserted sovereignty by regulating how goods and people move across its borders. The ongoing racialization of trade and immigration policy has long historic precedents. While I appreciate that I have managed to pique the interest of these reviewers, I fear that the hard lessons of tariff history may ultimately be too boring for the present administration to heed after all.


[1] Peter Chapman, Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2007); Dan Koeppel, Banana: The Fate of a Fruit that Changed the World (New York: Hudson Street Press, 2008); Teresita A. Levy, Puerto Ricans in the Empire: Tobacco Growers and U.S. Colonialism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2014); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage Books, 2015); and Mark Pendergast, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World (New York: Basic Books, 2010).

[2] Emma Robertson, Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013); Brenda M. King. Silk and Empire (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008); Richard J. Grace, Opium and Empire (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014); and Markman Ellis et al, Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf That Conquered the World (London: Reaktion Books, 2015).

[3] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944, 1994); S.D. Smith, Slavery, Family, and Gentry Capitalism in the British Atlantic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Stuart B. Schwartz, Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

[4] Jean Toomer, Cane (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923).

[5] The phrase, taken from Joachim de Posada’s Don’t Eat the Marshmallow Yet! (New York: Berkeley Books, 2005), and popularised by a much-downloaded TED talk, refers to a Stanford experiment on the links between childhood abilities in self-control and success in later life.

[6] Paul Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, and the Philippines (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 395-396.

[7] Jason Colby, The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race and U.S. Expansion in Central America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011); Heidi Tinsman, Buying Into the Regime: Grapes and Consumption in Cold War Chile and the United States (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014); Suzanna Reiss, We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of U.S. Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

[8] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin, 1986); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage Press 2014); Seth Rockman, “What Makes the History of Capitalism Newsworthy?” Journal of the Early Republic 34:3 (2014): 439-466.

[9] For examples of recent commodity histories, see Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History (New York: Penguin, 2003), Dan Koeppel, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World (New York: Hudson Street Press, 2008), Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014). On the cultures of empire, migration, and labor, see Rick Baldoz, The Third Asiatic Invasion: Empire and Migration in Filipino America, 1898-1946 (New York: New York University Press, 2011), Catherine Ceniza Choy, Empire of Care: Nursing and Migration in Filipino American History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), and Daniel E. Bender and Jana K. Lipman, eds., Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

[10] Examples include Dionicio Nodín Valdés, Organized Agriculture and the Labor Movement before the UFW: Puerto Rico, Hawaii, California (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011); Philip A. Howard, Black Labor, White Sugar: Caribbean Braceros and Their Struggle for Power in the Cuban Sugar Industry (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015); Zaragosa Vargas, Labor Rights Are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); Moon-Kie Jung, Reworking Race: The Making of Hawaii’s Interracial Labor Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006); Jason M. Colby, The Business of Empire: United Fruit, Race, and U.S. Expansion in Central America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013); Daniel E. Bender and Jana K. Lipman, eds., Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

[11] Lara Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” American Historical Review 121:2 (April 2016): 377-402.