Reviews of Bittersweet, by Peter Macinnis

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2003

Reproduced by permission from KirkusReviews

From Australian science writer and broadcaster Macinnis, an informative and readable history of the simple substance that changed the world and often brought out the worst in people. Sugar cane, a member of the grass family, was first discovered in the New Guinea jungle some 9,000 years ago. The locals found that chewing and sucking it was pleasurable; eventually they learned to cultivate it. A widely grown crop in the ancient civilized world, sugar's darker history began when the returning Crusaders brought it into Europe.

There, it was a luxury item, being both capital- and labor-intensive, until the opening of the New World, particularly the Caribbean islands and Brazil, gave European colonizers the abundant land and suitable climate necessary for growing cane. Because a huge labor force was required to work the plantations, the author writes, "Sugar and slavery seemed to go hand in hand."

Surveying the sweet stuff's bitterest legacy, Macinnis unsparingly describes the appalling cruelty and dangerous working conditions inflicted on slaves and their not-much-better-off counterparts, indentured servants. He also writes of sugar's influence on policy matters and history, such as Napoleon's decision to hang onto France's sugar-growing colonies and sell the others to the US in the Louisiana Purchase.

Blessed with a fine sense of humor as well as a sense of history, the author leavens his otherwise dramatic tale with lighter moments and such oddities as a four-volume 18th-century treatise on sugar-making written in blank verse, from which he quotes. Only a hardhearted few could resist priceless gems like, "Of composts shall the Muse descend to sing, / Nor soil her heavenly plumes? The sacredMuse / Nought sordid deems, but what is base; nought fair / Unless true Virtue stamp it with her seal."

Lively and entertaining: a splendid saga for the general reader. (6 maps)

Courier Mail, July 1, 2002, Monday

BYLINE: David Potter

Thanks, but no thanks

THERE have been more gracious literary tributes than Queenslander Peter Macinnis's acknowledgments in his Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar.

"I specifically acknowledge the Australian Government, which taxed all my photocopy charges, the books I bought while researching this, my notepads and writing paper, my travel, the power that drove my computer, my software, and the shoes I wore out, and then, without having lifted a finger, had the temerity to level a tax on the finished book equal to the amount I get in royalties, and after that will filch half of my royalties as income tax."

He left out the best bit:
"This service made it very much easier for me to understand the complaints of the sugar growers who had rapacious and parasitic tax-happy regimes to contend with."
I do NOT agree with governments placing a tax on knowledge, and a GST on books is precisely that. It is barbarous and ignorant.

The Cairns Post, July 13, 2002, Saturday

HEADLINE: Cold start to trilogy

BYLINE: Teresa Giacomi

THE top 10 books in Cairns this week:

1. Tropical Walking Tracks, Cairns & Kuranda, K Dungey and J Whytlaw

2. Tropical Walking Tracks, Atherton Tablelands, K Dungey & J. Whytlaw

3. Don't Die With The Music In You, Wayne Bennett

4. On Rue Tatin, Susan Loomis

5. The Windtalkers, Mark Allan Collins

6. Bittersweet, The Story Of Sugar, Peter Macinnis

7. Of a Boy, Sonya Hartnett

8. Speaking For Myself Again, Cheryl Kernot

9. Grave Secrets, Kathy Reichs

10. Who's Who In Hell, Robert Chambers

This list was compiled by Walkers Book Shop, Cairns Central.


The Cairns Post, July 20, 2002, Saturday

BYLINE: Teresa Giacomi

Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar

By Peter Macinnis

Allen and Unwin $24.95

AS Far North Queensland cane farmers harvest their sugar crops, they might want to spare a thought for how the process of reaping and sowing sugar began.

Peter Macinnis's Bittersweet - a book that was inspired by a trip to the dentist - is an entertaining look at how the not-so-humble sugar bush has sweetened, soured and, generally, shaped world history since it was first found growing naturally in New Guinea forests 9000 years ago.

Farmers of the Cairns district might not want to think about the ruthless, greedy nature of the early sugar trade that first established the international markets they currently supply.

The labour-intensive nature of growing, harvesting and milling sugar in its cane form has seen millions of people kidnapped, displaced and worked to death as convict, indentured and slave labourers in hot, tropical cane fields from India to China, South America to Asia over hundreds of years.

In Australia, sugar cane came over with the First Fleet, and the early Queensland industry's chosen method of bastardry was black birding, a practice where young males were taken from their Pacific Island homes either by force or trickery and transported by ship to Australia where they laboured in hot fields of sugar cane for the rest of their lives. But if history isn't foremost on our modern farmers' minds, economics surely will be.

Bittersweet will inform them that their current struggles with protected markets, overproduction, changing trends and depressed world prices are nothing new for one of the world's oldest agricultural crops.

In 1845, the British sugar industry in the West Indies found it couldn't compete with the price of Cuban sugar, which was still grown by slaves.

In two other British colonies, duties and tariffs imposed by London were to cause distress a generation later when a preserved fruit industry in Tasmania was blocked by the requirement that sugar from Queensland - another British colony - be taxed as though it came from a foreign land.

In his short and sweet little work, Macinnis makes some huge historical claims in the name of sugar.

The Queensland-born accountant with degrees in zoology, botany and education credits sugar with having been a major force in breaking down the notorious White Australia policy.

As one of the world's first truly international industries, it saw massive bodies of people move around the globe following the sickly, sweet trail.

The wealth sugar generated in the 1700s resulted in a huge bloc of wealthy men holding seats in the British Parliament, and encouraging the development of British naval policy to suit and further their own sugar-based interests.

Macinnis also outlines the addictive and irresistible quality of the legal white power that has seen religions preach against it, British royalty overindulge in it, and men of medicine prescribe it.

Bittersweet delves into the more modern preoccupations of this ancient industry.

The author weighs into the ethanol-as-a-cheap-green-fuel debate, and looks at some of the environmental issues that surround the practice of cane farming today.

His ultimate conclusion, however, will not be music to our local farmers' ears.

Macinnis suggests that if we must continue to put sweetness in our food, " perhaps we should seek other ways of finding it, because right now our joint human sweet tooth looks set to cause a nasty abscess in the environment".

Brisbane News, July 24, 2002, Wednesday

BYLINE: Phil Brown

bittersweet: the story of sugar

by peter macinnis

(allen & unwin, $24.95)

How many books have been inspired by a trip to the dentist? Well, we know of at least one and here it is: an entertaining and informative little history of sugar.

It was the author's sweet tooth that led him to the dentist's chair and got him thinking about his penchant for the sweet stuff. And the story of sugar turned out, he found, to be a ripping yarn stretching across 9,000 years. Sugar cane is, after all, one of the oldest agricultural crops in the world. It was the refining of sugar cane that really led to the sugar revolution and as civilization developed sugar became a valuable commodity. It had a great effect on the world, and not always in a good way. (Though dentists probably don't have a problem with it.)

For a start it boosted the slave trade and drove trades of rum, cod and manufactured products around the Atlantic, causing wars and geopolitical decisions that have shaped the modern world and power balances we see today.

Not so sweet considering that over the centuries up to 20 million sugar slaves died prematurely in its production. The English took to it big time, though. The author quotes a German lawyer who wrote in 1598 that Queen Elizabeth I had black teeth - "a defect the English seem subject to, from their too great use of sugar". Maybe that's what put her in such a bad mood that she had her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots' head lopped off?

Sugar is, after all, powerful stuff.

The Weekend Australian, July 27, 2002, Saturday


BYLINE: Tony Maniaty

Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar

By Peter Macinnis, Allen & Unwin, 190pp, $24.95

'BY Shakespeare's time," notes Peter Macinnis, "people had learned that making sweet tastes is a marvellous way to gather the money that gives power." That, in essence, is the story of sugar, which Macinnis coats with a digestible formula of politics, economics and science. In India, the army of Alexander the Great found a reed that made "honey without the help of bees" and by the late 15th century refineries were established across Europe. But sugar's profits relied on slaves and, says Macinnis, "Africans were fair game to all".

Perth Sunday Times, July 28, 2002, Sunday

Bittersweet -- The Story of Sugar

Peter Macinnis

Allen & Unwin, $24.95

CONDENSING more than 9000 years into 190 easily readable pages Macinnis, an accomplished science writer, shows how sugar has shaped world history. He focuses on the vital role of slavery, the role sugar politics played in the development of the New World and the product's percolation down the social scale from delicacy to cheap junk-food filler. Along the way there are some ripping yarns from the bad old days of pirates and planters.

The Mercury, Hobart, July 31, 2002, Wednesday

HEADLINE: Such sweet sorrow


A STATISTIC used by anti-slavery campaigners in the 18th century was that a family using 5 pounds (2.25kg) of sugar a week would kill a slave in the West Indies every 21 months, 450 pounds of sugar being the output of a slave's 10 years or so of working life.

This "exchange rate" was a powerful tool in the fight for emancipation, and pointed to a very high consumption of sugar. This observation was put in perspective further down the same page in Peter Macinnis's book Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar, where he said these figures were massaged and the "real" exchange rate was about a tonne of sugar per slave life in 1700 and two tonnes in 1800. That is: "The amount of sugar that today's average high school population in the developed world consumes in one week, as junk food, confectionery, ice cream and soft drinks, is enough to have killed a slave in 1800."

Indeed, although we may no longer be using 2.25kg of sugar a week making cakes, jams and sweets at home, consumption has by no means diminished. The addictive flavour of sugar (and salt) dominate modern, processed food.

"Few foods have had such an impact on human history as sugar, from its origins, its influence on the slave trade and its use as a medicine, a luxury, a comfort food and now a cheap filler in the modern processed food industry," says nutritionist Rosemary Stanton on the book's cover.

Some 550 years BC, Buddha was exhorting people not to eat sugar if they were not sick. Sugar was first imported into England, from the Atlantic island of Madeira, in 1319, and in 1598 a German visitor remarked that Queen Elizabeth I, at 64, had black teeth "a defect the English seem subject to, from their too great use of sugar".

However, only the very wealthy then could afford to rot their teeth. Sugar was an expensive, luxury product, but it became cheaper, and over about 100 years, from the late 17th century, consumption of sugar in Britain increased 20-fold.

Cheap sugar required cheap labour, and so slavery, although not unknown before, became big business. Sugar grows in the tropics and it was believed white men could not work in such climates -- a justification for slavery and the movement of South Pacific islander Kanakas to Queensland.

Macinnis says it's estimated that between 1450 and 1900 about 11.7 million slaves were exported from Africa to the Americas, and that only 9.8 million reached the other side of the Atlantic.

White planters "with cheerful racism", says Macinnis, later wondered if Mediterranean Europeans might also be up to the task of working in the tropics, which saw Portuguese go to Hawaii and Italians to Queensland.

Sugar is a greedy product. It requires capital -- land on which to grow the cane, mills to crush it. Once the cane is cut, it must be crushed within 24 hours to preserve the sucrose. In the 18th century, it took 20 tonnes of cane to produce 1 tonne of sugar, and 5 tonnes of water had to be evaporated, requiring heavy inputs of labour and fuel -- proximity to a sugar mill was not a good outlook for a forest.

About 1500 years ago, long after sugar cane had spread from its point of origin in New Guinea and was being enjoyed for its juice throughout the tropics, someone discovered that adding an alkali, such as ash or lime, brought the impurities out of the solution, and that with further boiling crystals formed.

Because sugar crystals would stick together on a long, humid sea voyage, sugar had to be refined near to where it would be consumed, a restriction that also meant the value-adding to turn a cheap product into a valuable one remained with the "home" country, not the colony.

Sugar, molasses and rum were also taxed, which caused resentment in the colonies. Macinnis reports that the author Anthony Trollope noted how the potential for a preserved fruit industry in Tasmania in the 1870s was blocked by the requirement that sugar from Queensland "be taxed as though it came from a foreign land, taking away the opportunity for profitable commerce in both colonies".

Macinnis was born in Queensland (and discovered an ancestor involved in the sugar labour trade there in the course of his research) and now lives in Sydney, where he works combining interest in writing, science and education. He is a lively tour guide through the history of sugar, a product he concludes still is not politically correct.

"Sugar has caused the mass movement and death of millions of humans," he writes. "It has resulted in the large-scale clearance of land and the destruction of soil and whole environments.

"If we need sweetness in our food, perhaps we should seek other ways of finding it, because right now our joint human sweet tooth looks set to cause a nasty abscess in the environment."

* Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar, by Peter Macinnis, Allen & Unwin, $ 24.95.

Herald Sun, August 3, 2002, Saturday


BYLINE: Fiona Lawrence, Paul Johnson, Dave Bullard, Shaunagh O'Connor


by Peter Macinnis

Allen and Unwin, rrp. $24.95

NEXT time you stir a spoonful of sugar into your coffee, consider the bloody, dark history behind those pure white crystals. From sugar's origins in New Guinea, Peter Macinnis traces its production and spread around the globe. Blending fact and insightful commentary with quirky yarns, he exposes a trail of misery created by greedy monarchs and mercenaries who harnessed slaves, fought wars and committed brutal murder to make their fortunes in sugar. F.L.

In a word: regaling

The Gold Coast Bulletin, August 3, 2002, Saturday

HEADLINE: Sweet and sour

SUGAR may be sweet but its history has often been bitter. For instance, up to 20 million sugar slaves died for its production.

In Bittersweet, by Peter Macinnis (Allen & Unwin, $24.95, out now), the well-known science presenter reveals sugar's impact on human history, including its influence on the slave trade, its use as a medicine, a luxury, a comfort food and as the cause of much cruelty and bastardry.

Here's a few facts about sugar - sugar cane is one of the oldest agricultural crops in the world; almost everywhere in the world, sugar has the same name, with only small local variations; in 1598, a German lawyer reported that Queen Elizabeth I had black teeth as a result of the English fondness for sugar; sugar is mentioned 102 times in the collected works of Charles Dickens.

According to Macinnis, sugar offered wealth and power to those who sold it but was actually a burden to those who grew it.

"A rare and special crop in the days of manual processing," he writes in Bittersweet, "it could only be produced in large amounts by the use of slaves, either human or machine."

Bittersweet looks at the discovery and exploitation of sugar and how it was used to shape the world.

The Age (Melbourne), August 10, 2002 Saturday


BYLINE: Cameron Woodhead

Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar, Peter Macinnis, Allen & Unwin, $24.95

The story of sugar began in New Guinea about 9000 years ago and is still going strong in the age of Aspartame. The sweet stuff's been around for almost as long as human nature, and seems an ideal subject through which to explore the latter. It's a relief to find that Macinnis' book isn't one of those shonky, fetishistic histories where thematic novelty is an obvious marketing ploy (you know the kind - the history of air, the history of hair, the history of those little plastic doovers at the end of your shoelace). On the contrary, it is a wise, readable and pleasantly idiosyncratic book that contains, among other things, the exploitation of slave labour, accounts of First Fleet voyagers experiencing tea without sugar, and the bizarre chemical accidents that gave us cyclamate, sucralose and other scary-sounding artificial sweeteners. Macinnis' exploration of the medicinal uses of sugar through the ages is especially interesting.

The Canberra Times, August 21, 2002 Wednesday Final Edition

HEADLINE: Taking the mystery out of cooking; Guide for beginners and young people

Raw sugar

Not long ago, we had a book all about salt, and now we have one devoted entirely to the other end of the flavour spectrum: sugar.

Different authors are behind the two, but both are similar in their approach in that they document the effects their subjects have had on the world.

In Bittersweet (Allen & Unwin, $24.95), Peter Macinnis chronicles how sugar brought tremendous riches through the ages, often at the expense of slaves forced into back-breaking labour. In earlier times, people paid dearly for this sweet new food from exotic places. The teeth of Queen Elizabeth I are said to have turned completely black as a result of her liking for sugared almonds and pastilles.

But the author argues that people today do not pay anything like the true cost of sugar, if the environment destruction from growing and processing it is taken into account.

Macinnis, who occasionally appears on ABC Radio's Science Show, got the inspiration for Bittersweet while sitting in a dentist's chair being treated for the tooth decay that began 40 years earlier when he first chewed on sugar cane in New Guinea. It's a cleverly written story and as the title implies, it's not all sweet.

Sydney Morning Herald, August 24, 2002 Saturday


BYLINE: Debra Adelaide

BITTERSWEET: The Story of Sugar

By Peter Macinnis

Allen & Unwin, 190pp, $24.95 (pb)

First cultivated in New Guinea about 400 generations ago, sugar travelled to India and thence Europe and the Americas; it was easily traded since the cane was such a portable sweet with virtues transcending country and language barriers. But the lust for sugar, argues Macinnis, changed the world irrevocably, especially after the Portuguese invaded African nations in the 15th century: slavery, once a by-product of war, became the reason for war as slaves were needed to cultivate and process this highly labour-intensive product. Closer to home, sugar had other major consequences: rum, distilled from molasses, gave grief to Governor Bligh and indirectly led to self-rule for the colony of NSW. A concise, readable and often dramatic account of a commodity that has caused such death (millions of people), destruction and tooth decay that its main benefit taste gratification seems unjustified.

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