J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, August 24, 2020

“Material Culture of Sugar” Webinar from Historic Deerfield, 26 Sept.

Way back in April, Historic Deerfield was going to host a one-day forum on sugar in early New England culture. But then people recognized the Covid-19 virus had started to spread in this country, and institutions postponed their public events for a few months.

The virus is still spreading, the national government hasn’t committed to an effective strategy to stop it, and even in parts of the country where the pandemic seems more under control we have to be careful. Responsible institutions have therefore reconciled themselves to smaller gatherings and online events.

Historic Deerfield has now announced that “The Bitter and the Sweet: The Material Culture of Sugar in Early New England” will be a digital event on Saturday, 26 September. Here’s the event announcement:
I own I am shocked at the purchase of slaves
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
—William Cowper, Bristol Gazette, June 12, 1788
Sugar is a sweet part of our everyday lives, but one with a bitter history. The insatiable demand for sugar transformed the global economy, generated new sources of commercial wealth, and fueled an unprecedented human diaspora. Domesticated in New Guinea more than 10,000 years ago and first processed in India and the Middle East, sugar emerged as a New World commodity in the 15th century. At first a rare and expensive luxury restricted to the elite, demand for sugar as an indispensable product increased exponentially during the 17th and 18th centuries in tandem with the rising popularity of the tea, coffee, chocolate, and punch it sweetened.

Grown and processed by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, sugar formed one of the three legs of the trans-Atlantic triangular trade that flourished from the 16th through the 19th centuries. New England merchants sent barrel staves, building materials, provisions, and livestock to the West Indies enabling plantation owners to convert every available acre to sugar cultivation. Ships carried sugar and molasses from the plantation colonies of the Caribbean to New England rum distilleries. Merchants then shipped rum to Africa in exchange for ever-larger numbers of enslaved people carried back to the Caribbean to produce more and more sugar.

This one-day forum brings together a diverse group of historians, curators, and archaeologists to focus on the material culture and history of sugar in New England, including issues of wealth, power, refinement, status, social justice, and politics.
The speakers will include:
  • Mark Peterson on how the rise of large-scale sugar production in Barbados rescued the New England colonies from economic collapse and provided dynamic growth through the colonial period.
  • Brandy S. Culp on the material world fueled and shaped by sugar, encompassing the history of the trade and its human impact to the goods generated around its use.
  • Justin DiVirgilio on the social and political context in which rum distilleries operated, using archeological evidence about a distillery in mid-18th-century Albany.
  • Amanda Lange on the varieties of cane sugar used in 18th- and 19th-century New England households and the objects associated with tea, coffee, chocolate, and punch.
  • Dan Sousa on the museum’s newly acquired group of anti-slavery ceramics, reflecting how sugar production was intimately bound up with slavery.
  • Barbara Mathews on maps and artifacts demonstrating the relationships between Brazil, the Sugar Islands, New England, and the leading European powers.
The cost for the all-day program is $60—less than for the in-person forum, but then you’re providing your own lunch and there’s no hearth-cooking demonstration to produce a snack at the end of the day.

See the event announcement for more details, including the exact schedule, biographies of the speakers, and how to register.

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