Sorghum: The Abolitionists' Sweet

In today's politically charged times, many people boycott Trump-related businesses and purchase such items as free-trade coffee and chocolate.

At a talk at the Alexandria Black History Museum last week, Susan Benjamin discussed a way that "grab your wallet" occurred in antebellum America--through choosing alternatives to slave-dependent sugar.

According to Benjamin, in the 1600s the British brought sugar cane to Barbados from India, and it caught on for food, medicine, and fermentation. (Native Americans used corn syrup, hickory bark, and fruit as America's first sweeteners.)

Sugar production required intensive labor--and that labor came from slaves. Planting and harvesting cane was brutal. Processing the cane into a usable product was particularly hazardous, requiring the transfer of the boiling-hot substance into a series of vats, called a sugar train or Jamaican train.

Sugar production, 1820s, Antigua (rather idealized depiction)--From Wikipedia Commons

Sugar production, 1820s, Antigua (rather idealized depiction)--From Wikipedia Commons

Norbert Rillieux, an engineer and "free person of color" from New Orleans, developed an improved system to crystallize the sugar that eliminated the multi-vat train system. But, as with Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, making sugar production more efficient was not good news for slaves.

The Free Produce Movement developed to boycott slave-made products, including sugar and, perhaps most famously, cotton. In the 1820s in Leicester, England, a woman named Elizabeth Heyrick led an effort to boycott West Indian sugar; according to one account, about 400,000 people joined in across England. In the United States the Colored Free Produce Society of Philadelphia formed in the 1830s. Several Quaker-led groups also operated, especially in the 1830s and 1840s. Similarly, the constitution of the Philadelphia Free Produce Association of Friends stated the group formed to "promote the use and facilitate the acquirement of goods supplied by free labor." George Taylor, a merchant at the corner of Fifth and Cherry streets, could provide these items wholesale or retail.

A sorghum drop, which has a molasses-y taste.

A sorghum drop, which has a molasses-y taste.

According to Benjamin, sweet sorghum, or sorghum molasses, was one proposed alternative to sugar. Sorghum originally came to the U.S. via slaves, she explained, but it could grow in a wider variety of climates than cane sugar and did not rely on plantation-style production.

Unfortunately, sorghum cannot crystallize like sugar and is not as versatile a product. While it remains in production today, it never really caught on--and it unfortunately played no role in bringing down slavery.

Benjamin provided samples of many historic sweets and candies--from licorice root used as natural toothbrushes, to peanut brittle from a recipe by George Washington Carver, to taffy and sugar sticks that were a favorite of Queen Victoria. She has written several books on candy history and sells historic candy in a shop in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.


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