Abstract: Corruption and Control in the Nineteenth-Century Sugar Trade

David Roth Singerman


This paper takes seriously some of the allegations of corruption swirling around the New York sugar trade in the late nineteenth century. For centuries, the sugar market had depended on a certain relationship linking sugar's color, quality, and value. But from the 1860s onward, novel technologies for producing sugar in the tropics destabilized this relationship and thereby threatened the basis on which tariffs were collected. In response, the Treasury proposed the use of an instrument called the polariscope, which its advocates claimed could precisely measure the purity of a sugar cargo and thus circumvent allegedly fraudulent coloration of sugars. But small refiners and importers argued that the problem was not one of artificial colors. Rather, their larger competitors' power rested in influence over samplers, appraisers, and chemists whose judgments and labor were crucial to the enforcement of the tariff. By exploiting both the uncertainties of scientific practice and the fundamental complexity of sugar itself, these firms could use low-level frauds to shape the city's largest and most politically powerful industry.