Take a look at the image of George Washington on the back of a one dollar bill. A magnifying glass will help you to see it properly. Observe the tightly closed lips, and the bulging cheeks of the great man. The reason for his curious appearance is that America’s first president had only one of his original teeth left at the time of his inauguration, and in the portrait is struggling to control his new set of dentures.
He was not alone in having acute dental problems. The 18th century was the Age of Sugar. Mankind has long suffered from a sweet tooth but, for much of human history, had little more than dried fruit and honey with which to indulge it. The introduction of the sugarcane plant to the tropical islands of the Caribbean, together with a large influx of slave labour imported from Africa, resulted in a huge increase in the scale of production. Sugar, together with its allied products of rum and molasses, began to be introduced into the western diet in unprecedented quantities. It is surely no coincidence that prior to the 18th century there was no such profession as dentistry.
The growth of sugar consumption had a considerable strategic impact on the great powers of Europe. Transatlantic trade increased exponentially as sugar and capital poured across from the New World to the Old. The consequences of this trading pattern for the economy and society of tropical West Africa was appalling. Civilisations were devastated by the slave trade and its endless need for plantation labour. In the Caribbean, previously un-regarded little islands became fabulously producers of wealth, and the navies and armies of Europe arrived in the West Indies to fight over them.
The principle antagonists were Britain, France and Spain, but such was the European hunger for sugar that most of the maritime nations were drawn in to the region. The Dutch were a major player, controlling a number of islands from their powerbase at Curacao. The Danes controlled the island of St Croix for much of the century, and even Sweden possessed the tiny Leeward Island of St Barthelemy from 1784.
To understand the scale of the conflict, consider the small island of St Lucia. It was an English possession in 1639, the in French hands in 1667, captured by the British in 1762, returned to France in 1763, taken by the British in 1778, back to France in 1783, changed hands twice more during the Revolutionary wars before finally becoming a British possession in 1814. Since most of the conflict took place on islands, navies were vitally important in this struggle. No attack could be mounted without first gaining control of the sea. As a result substantial naval bases were built in the region by all sides to support the fleets sent across the Atlantic on the outbreak of war. These could be huge. For example, Rodney’s fleet at The Battle of the Saintes, fought off Dominica in 1782, was larger than Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar.
There is no clearer indication of the central importance sugar had to the 18th century economy than the result of the negotiations that brought the Seven Years War to a conclusion in 1763. Given the choice between having a few minor sugar islands transferred back to French control or the return of Canada, the delegation from Paris chose the islands. Maple syrup may be nice, but the lure of sugar proved irresistible.
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The picture is of an 18th molar, cut open and carved with scenes of hell by one particularly acute suffer of toothache.
Philip K Allan is an author of historical naval fiction. His debut novel, The Captain’s Nephew is available to order now from all good online retailers. Click here to learn more