The Sugar Plantation in India and Indonesia

Ved Baruah

The publication of Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power: Place of Sugar in Modern History in 1986 has generated an enduring interest in the structures of imperial trade and plantation economies. Although these have been studied from local, comparative and global perspectives, notably Sucheta Mazumdar’s Sugar and Society in China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), histories of the slave-driven sugar industry in the Caribbean have been the focus of historical study. Given this, the lifecycle of other plantation economies and the commodities produced therein are relatively poorly understood.

 Sugar production in the Asian context, therefore, lacks nuanced comparative study and understanding of systems of production. In light of the overwhelming emphasis on ‘slave sugar’ and the dominant transatlantic slave trade focus in historical scholarship, Ulbe Bosma’s The Sugar Plantation in India and Indonesia: Industrial Production, 1770-2010 is a welcome contribution to the field. The volume’s main contributions lie in detailed study of Dutch and British colonial power and sugar entrepreneurship in Asia and the intrinsic links of the production system with global demand and supply as well as internal production dynamics in Java and India.

Sugar, science and statistics

The detailed study of sugar production in Java by the Dutch in the early nineteenth century which provides insights into the relationship between peasant production and industrial manufacturing is clearly the volume’s main forte. Similarly, the focus on traditional small-scale peasant and co-operative production systems and their intrinsic links with local land and tenancy rights as well as revenue models and wider imperial concerns are the main strengths of the Indian case study. The discussion of the impact of science and technology in the nineteenth century that forms the core of Chapter 4 is novel and, given the context of Bosma’s focus on industrialisation, a key accomplishment. Often overlooked features such as irrigation techniques, technological advances and improved understanding of plant science created new dynamics in the labour market and the impacts are still only sketchily understood by historians. Taken together, the study of India and Indonesia highlights the impacts of the structures of coercion exerted by the Dutch and British empires and Bosma dextrously discusses them within the global history of sugar production in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Using a diverse range of archival material, the volume offers a counter narrative to plantation model of sugar production and a rich trove of statistical data is used to show clear historical links between small-scale production and global output thus providing a reinterpretation of the historical predilection to theorise and position sugar as a global industrial commodity.

Longue durée and commodity histories

While the expansive temporal scope of the volume spanning virtually four centuries provides scope for study of features that persevered throughout the pre-industrial and industrial production phases, the ambitious timespan attempted is also its major weakness. The volume’s focus on production tends to overlook the histories of structures of exploitation and abuse inherent within these systems and there is a propensity towards explaining changes and trends in Java and India using global economic theories. For instance, the case study of Indian production in the volume tends to interpret changes in the locality through the frame of the global. The most significant shortcoming in this context is the comparative study of the Deccan and eastern India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that fails to account for the social differences in these two regions that have relatively independent histories. The other major casualty of the volume’s ambitious remit is the less than comprehensive discussion of the indigenous sugar production networks in India and their relationship with the colonial state (Chapter 5). The failure to appreciate the importance of the locality, especially environmental and political factors that played an important part in the transitions that took place over the period in question is perhaps the only major flaw an otherwise comprehensive and nuanced study.

The Sugar Plantation in India and Indonesia provides us fresh perspectives on the industrial production of sugar in Asia that challenges Eurocentric accounts of global trade during the height of colonial empires. This would surely evoke renewed interest in scholars to study relatively marginalised and underexplored plantation economies. Significantly, the volume demonstrates the scope and need for revisionist accounts of opium, tea, coffee, jute, and other global commodities that played substantial roles in the colonial Asian contexts. These material histories continue to shape the fundamental structures in the contemporary globalised world and would greatly benefit from ambitious transnational approaches.