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Sugar and Slavery

Out the gates, below is a 10-minute YT videoclip (point stops at 59′ but feel free to listen to the entire hour) from an audiobook version of Terence McKenna’s 1992 book, Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge: A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution (1992).

You can find the full text here for free while supplies last.  The video is set to start at Chapter 11, titled “Sugar and Slavery”.  You have the option to skip the video and read Chapter 11 contents, as I have provided them underneath.  You may also choose to play the audiobook and listen as you read along.  It’s like that one dude said, “you are a scholar, you are awesome, and if you don’t know now ya know, nigga.”

Sugar and Slavery

The distortion and dehumanizing of human institutions and human lives caused by crack cocaine today is nothing compared with what the European desire for sugar did in the 17th and 18th centuries.  One may argue that something approaching slave labor is typical of the early stages with cocaine production but the difference is that it is not slavery sanctioned by mendacious popes and openly pursued by corrupt but legitimate governments.  A further difference must be noted: brutal as it is, the modern drug trade is not involved in anything resembling the wholesale kidnapping, transporting, and mass murder of huge populations as was done to further the process of sugar production.

True, the roots of slavery in Europe reach far back.  During the golden age of Periclean Athens fully 2/3 of the city’s residents were slaves.  Under the Roman Imperium slavery became increasingly insupportable: slaves had no civil rights and in court disputes their testimony was acceptable only if it had been obtained by torture.  If a slaveholder were to die suddenly or under suspicious circumstances, then all of his slaves, without regard to guilt or innocence, were quickly put to death.  It is fair to say that the reliance on the Imperium on the institution of slavery must mitigate any admiration that we might feel for the “grandeur that was Rome.”  In truth, the grandeur of Rome was the grandeur of a pig sty masquerading as a military brothel.  Slavery diminished with the dissolution of the empire, as all social institutions dissolved into the chaos of the early Dark Ages.  Feudalism replaced slavery with serfdom.  Serfdom was somewhat better than slavery: a serf could at least maintain a home, marry, till the land, and participate in communal life.  Most important, perhaps, a serf could not be separated from or transported off the land.  When the land was sold the serf nearly always went with it.  In 1432 Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal , who was more manager and entrepreneur than explorer, established the first commercial cane sugar plantation in Madeira.  Plantings of sugar were made in the other eastern Atlantic holdings of Portugal more than 60 years before there was contact with the New World.  More than 1,000 men- including debtors, convicts, and unconverted Jews- were taken from Europe to work in the sugar operations.  Their condition was one of quasi-servitude- somewhat akin to the penal colonists and indentured servants who populated Australia and some Middle Atlantic American Colonies.  Sugarcane was the first crop to be introduced into commercial cultivation in the New World.  It is reliably estimated that by 1530, less than 40 years after the initial European contact, there were more than a dozen sugar plantations operating in the West Indies.  In his book Seeds of Change, Henry Hobhouse writes of the beginning of African enslavement.  In 1443 one of Prince Henry’s returning captains brought news of a capture at sea of a crew of black Arabs and Moslems:

These men, who were of mixed Arab-Negro parentage and Moslems, claimed that they were of a proud race and unfit to be bondsmen.  They argued forcefully that there were in the hinterland of Africa many heathen blacks, the children of Ham, who made excellent slaves, and who they could enslave in exchange for their freedom.  Thus began the modern slave trade– not the transatlantic trade, which was yet to come, but its precursor, the trade between Africa and southern Europe.

Hobhouse goes on to describe slavery in the New World:

“Sugar slavery was of quite different order.  It was the first time since the Roman latifundia that mass slavery had been used to grow a crop for trade (not subsistence) in a big way.  It was also the first time in history that one race had been uniquely selected for a servile role.  Spain and Portugal voluntarily abjured the enslavement of East Indian, Chinese, Japanese or European slaves to work in the Americas.

The slave trade itself was a kind of addiction.  The early importation of African slave labor into the New World was for one purpose only, to support an agricultural economy based on sugar.  The craze for sugar was so overwhelming that 1,000 years of Christian ethical conditioning meant nothing.  An outbreak of human cruelty and bestiality of incredible proportions was blandly accepted by the institutions of polite society.

Let us be absolutely clear, sugar is entirely unnecessary to the human diet; before the arrival of industrial cane and beet sugar humanity managed well enough without refined sugar, which is nearly pure sucrose.  Sugar contributes nothing that cannot be gotten from some other, easily available source.  It is a “kick”, nothing more.  Yet for this kick the dominator culture of Europe was willing to betray the ideals of the Enlightenment by its collusion with slave traders.  In 1800 virtually every ton of sugar imported into England had been produced with slave labor.  The ability of the ego-dominator culture to suppress these realities is astonishing.  If it seems that too much ire is vented on the sugar habit, it is because in many ways the addiction to sugar seems a distillation of all the wrongheaded attitudes that attend our thinking about drugs.

Sugar and the Dominator Style

When temporal distance from the original partnership paradise increases, when the connection with the vegetable/feminine matrix of planetary life slips far into the past, then the hold of cultural neurosis increases and manifestations of unchecked ego and dominator theories of social organization proliferate.  Slavery, almost unknown during the Medieval Period, when the notion of private property restricted ownership of anything to a privilliged few, returned with a vengeance to fill the need for manpower in the labor-intensive colonial cultivation of sugar.  Thomas Hobbes’ vision of human society as the inevitable subjugation of the weak by the strong and Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the ultimate economic basis of all social worth signal that values that seek to nurture the earth and to participate with it in a life of natural emotive balance have been foresaken for the rapacious self-centeredness of Faustian science.  The soul of the planet, shrunken by Christian monotheism to the dimensions of a human being, is finally denied any existence at all by the heirs of Cartesian rationalism.  The stage is then set for the evolution of a human self-image that is entirely dis-ensouled, adrifted in a dead universe devoid of meaning and without moral compass.  Organic nature is seen as war, meaning becomes “contextual”, and the cosmos is rendered meaningless.  This process of deepening cultural psychosis (an obsession with ego, money and the sugar/alcohol drug complex) reaches its culmination in the mid-20th century with Sartre’s appalling assertion that “nature is mute.”

Nature is not mute, but modern man is deaf- made deaf because he is unwilling to hear the message of caring, balance, and cooperation that is nature’s message.  In our state of denial we must proclaim nature mute- how else to avoid facing the awful crimes we have committed for centuries against nature and each other.  The Nazis said that Jews were not true human beings and that their mass murder was thus not of any consequence.  Some industrialists and politicians use a similar dis-ensouling argument to excuse the destruction of the planet, the maternal matrix necessary to all life.

Only a terminal addiction to the ego and styles of brutal domination could give rise to a mass mental environment in which such statements could appear plausible, let alone true.  Sugar stands at a watershed in such matters, for sugar and the caffeine drugs that spread with it reinforce and support industrial civilization’s unreflecting emphasis on efficiency at the price of Archaic human values.

The Drugs of Gentility

In the opening lines of his magnificent poem “Sunday Morning”, Wallace Stevens delivers an image of radiant transcendence and the familiar and ordinary worthy of Cezanne:

“Complacencies of the peignoir, and late Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, And the green freedom of a cockatoo Upon a rug mingle to dissipate The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.”

Stevens’ lines evoke an aura of genteel satiety that surrounds the drug caffeine.  “Sunday Morning” reminds us taht our stereotyped notion of what constitutes drugs is strained when we are asked to consider such delicate accessories of bourgeois sensibility as tea, coffee, and cocoa as being in the same category as heroin and cocaine.  Yet all are drugs; our unconscious striving to find our way back to the sensory ratios of prehistory has led us to develop countless variations on the act of paying homage to plant-based psychoactivity.  Mild stimulants, with nondestructive or manageable impact, have been a part of the diet of primates since long before the emergence of hominids.  Caffeine is the alkaloid that lies at the basis of much of the human involvement with plants that stimulate.  Caffeine is a powerful stimulator well below the toxic dose.  It occurs in tea and coffee and in numerous other plants, such as Ilex paraguayensis, the source of mate, or Paullinia yoco, an appetite-suppressing Amazonian liana, which have their own localized but ancient and highly ritualized styles of use.

Caffeine is bitter, and the inevitable discovery that it could be made more palatable with the addition of honey or sugar set the stage for the very prevalent and little-remarked synergistic effect that occurs between sugar and the various caffiene beverages.  Sugar’s tendency to become addictive is reinforced if sugar is also being used to make the ingestion of a stimulating alkaloid such as caffeine more palatable.

Sugar is culturally defined by us as a food.  This definition denies that sugar can act as a highly addicitive drug, yet the evidence is all around us.  Many children and compulsive eaters live in a motivational environment primarily ruled by mood swings resulting from cravings for sugar.


You can read about the WHO being shamed/bullied/blackmailed/politicked/whatever-you-wanna-call-it’d on topics of obesity and sugar lobbying here and here.  How on mother earth is this relevant, you might ask?  Listen to a few minutes of Sarah Wilson (2016) dropping some suh-weet sugar knowledge on that ass (as the kids say):

You may have caught the part about the WHO at 3:30?  How about the part about the rat studies with sugar addiction compared to rats with cocaine and heroin addictions at 8:58?  No?!  Well aaaaaallllllrighty then:

…it’s been proven, albeit in studies with rats, but this is not the kind of study that you can do on small children- lock them in a room and give them a whole heap of candy and see what happens– it’s seen as addictive as cocaine and heroin.  There are a number of studies where a rat prefers sugar over cocaine and heroin.

Sooooo…

I first heard of Terence McKenna in 2018 when I was having a friendly conversation with one of the Chefs af the kitchen I ran food out of for a small living.  It was a slower morning shift, and it was just some prep work going on as there was still some time before the restaurant doors opened up.  In that brief dialogue he also reminded me of several other artists that are worthy of mention, but Kurt Vonnegut was the other main one that really stands out.  Anyways, shortly after that conversation, within the week, I was listening to an old Joe Rogan standup set on Spotify where he actually hung around for some recorded Q&A with the crowd, and one of the questions was “what is your favorite book?” to which Joe went on to say that Food of the Gods was.

So I found a copy of Food of the Gods and it sat on my shelf for what I thought was going to be forever, but soon enough I ended up reading most of it within the time frame of a 26-hour Amtrak train ride from New York City to Tampa.  It has been fun going back through and reading it in bits and pieces.  I would certainly recommend reading Food of the Gods or listening to the audiobook; it’s got a lot of really interesting historical facts to back his logical arguments.  I would certainly not recommend riding the train from New York to Florida.

I think it’s also important to note that Terence McKenna published this book in 1992.  We are way behind.  Time to double-time.

Oh yeah.  One more thing.

They replaced Andy Briscoe.  You should see the new Sugar Association president… she’s got really good jokes…………..: