Sweetness and Control: Chemists in the Sugar Market

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 12:30 PM
Conference Room D (Sheraton New York)
David Singerman, Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the world’s cane sugar trade depended heavily on the work of chemists. In places as distant as New York and Indonesia, Hawaii and Berlin, sugar chemists measured the purity of every cargo. The credibility of those measurements, and their ability to travel, was essential to the operation of this global commodity market. Simultaneously, however, these same chemists were fiercely contesting the very laboratory practices and bodies of scientific knowledge that were supposed to guarantee their values’ exchangeability across different environments. 

This paper explores how ordinary sugar chemists—working in fields, factories, refineries, and customs houses—navigated a distributed marketplace of knowledge in which no institution could claim centralizing authority. In trade journals, newspapers, and courtrooms, they argued over the instruments, techniques, and understandings of nature that determined value in the sugar market. Metropolitan laboratories claimed that their expensive instruments and precise temperature-controlled measurements deserved special credibility. But chemists in the tropics countered that valid instruments had to work in heat and humidity and be operable by lightly-trained factory workers, precisely because theirs were the environments that produced sugar itself.

Colonial sugar laboratories were allegedly the forward outposts of scientific and industrial discipline. Yet in practice a chemist often faced conflicting authorities: his employer’s wishes, customs regulations, instructions from makers of scientific instruments, and his own skill and experience—not to mention whatever procedures were followed by the laboratory of the other party to a transaction. Within factories, moreover, they needed to cooperate with indentured or slave laborers whose work made the laboratory possible. Thus, this paper shows, while chemists might seem from afar to be disobedient imperial agents, they were constantly struggling to find ways to adapt supposedly universal science to local realities.

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