Purity and Power in the American Sugar Empire, 1860-1940

Purity and Power
Zones of Doubt

This book represents a significant expansion of my dissertation, “Inventing Purity in the Atlantic Sugar World, 1860-1930,” which was awarded both the Krooss Prize for Best Dissertation by the Business History Conference in the United States and the Coleman Prize for Best Dissertation by the Association of Business Historians in Britain. “Inventing Purity” showed that the idea that sugar is a uniform chemical commodity—sucrose, C12H22O11—was the result of struggles for control of skilled labor, struggles that took place in fields and factories in the Caribbean, refineries and customs houses in the U.S., machinery workshops in Scotland. Supported by the National Science Foundation and Social Science Research Council, I drew on archives across Britain, the U.S., and Puerto Rico, and on material objects from abandoned mills to chemical instruments.

Purity and Power builds on this dissertation to make two core arguments. First, in sugar-producing regions from Cuba to Hawai‘i, the meanings of purity and nature became the terrain on which farmers, workers, chemists, and factory owners battled for economic and social power. The process of turning raw cane into granulated sugar had relied upon the craft knowledge of slaves and artisans from the seventeenth century onward. In the 1860s, however, huge and mechanized sugar factories began to appear in the Caribbean. Chemists hired by these factories worked to eliminate their dependence on workers’ skill. By redesigning sugar factories as efficient chemical machines, and isolating them from their landscapes, their owners hoped that scientific forms of accounting could discipline production at great distances.

My book will be the first to show how the well-known history of sugar in the Caribbean is inextricable from the simultaneous social and ecological transformation of Hawai‘i, which after 1875 became among the most productive sugar-growing regions on the planet. State agricultural experiment stations, the movement of capital, itinerant experts, ships full of indentured workers and sugar cargoes, and even a traffic of living plants—these were the material links among the Atlantic, Pacific, and domestic components of U.S. empire. Yet such empire had equally material limits. For despite the rhetoric of chemical control, most critical points of sugar-making remained dependent on accommodation to craftsmen’s knowledge. Likewise, cane growers everywhere resisted attempts to rewrite their contracts in terms that were only measurable by chemical experts, and called on the state to regulate scientific practice on their behalf—even inside the factory itself.

Second, this book will show how these conflicts over sugar’s production in the overseas empire of U.S. capital are crucial to understanding the central issues of domestic political economy in late-nineteenth-century America: corruption, free trade, and monopoly power. Demand for sugar skyrocketed after the Civil War, and as a result the sugar tariff grew to become the largest single source of Federal revenue. In harbors from New York to San Francisco, however, the methods of enforcing the sugar tariff were constantly the subject of huge public scandals about corruption, adulteration, and fraud. The country’s most powerful refiners stoked these widespread fears, and exploited them to pressure the Treasury Department into adopting “objective” chemical measurement techniques. But spaces like refinery docks and custom houses let samplers, appraisers, and chemists slip between state and commercial authority, exploiting that mobility to their own advantage even as it made them attractive targets for influence by moneyed interests. Chemical techniques, rather than preventing fraud, allowed those same refiners to manipulate the ambiguities of scientific knowledge and practice to their own ends—not merely to siphon off government revenue, but also to force competitors to join the cartel that eventually became the notoriously powerful Sugar Trust. The Trust and other multinationals like United Fruit built on their domestic power to shape America’s foreign policy in Latin America and the Pacific and to expand into underdeveloped regions like eastern Cuba, where they could more easily supervise agriculture and labor.

Beyond the scope of my dissertation, Purity and Power will draw on rich archives that have rarely, if ever, been explored by historians. In the summer of 2015, I spent two weeks at the Special Collections of the University of Hawai‘i, laying groundwork for further research visits for this book. At the same time, I have maintained contacts among the Caribbean scholars with whom I collaborated during my dissertation, and I plan to travel to Cuba for further research, in addition to work at the Library of Congress, New York Public Library, and other domestic archives. Drawing on new sources and multiple forms of historical analysis, Purity and Power uses a single commodity to show how American history is an inevitably global history, and how it must take into account the ways that modern capitalism has sought to transform the natural world.

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