The Bittersweet Story of Molasses
Its thick consistency resembles that of honey. Hence, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, its name – molasses – is derived from the Portuguese word melaço, which originates from Latin mel – meaning honey.
Owing to its affordability, and its part in the triangular slave trade, molasses was the most commonly used sweetener during the 17th century. It was later largely replaced by refined sugar when sugar prices dropped after WWI.
Molasses played an important role in the slave trade triangle, which operated from the late 16th century to early 19th century, between New England, Caribbean, and Africa. Colonists exported rum to Africa for slaves, who were traded to the Caribbean for molasses, which would then be sent back to New England to make more rum.
This three-way triangular method of trade is vividly captured in Sherman Edwards’ musical, 1776, whichpremiered on Broadway in 1969: “Molasses to rum to slaves/ ‘Tisn’t morals, ’tis money that saves/Shall we dance to the sound/Of the profitable pound/In molasses and rum and slaves…”. Many Americans traders profited from this infamous triangular trade until slavery was successfully outlawed in America. The journey from Africa to the Caribbean was notorious for its inhumane conditions. Slaves were chained together below deck on a slave ship, in a space so small that prevented them from sitting upright. Overcrowding in the deck led to intolerable heat and insufficient oxygen. An estimate of “15 and 25 percent of the African slaves bound for the Americas died aboard slave ships”, say historians.
Molasses was also known for two other significant events in the history of America. In 1733, Britain imposed a stiff tax on molasses that were imported from non-British colonies. One pound of molasses which cost three pence was raised to six pence per pound. The Americans protested as New England was the world’s leading rum producer during the 1700s, and molasses was one of the key ingredients in the production of rum.
American colonists then turned to smugglers in order to avoid paying the tax. Britain eventually accepted defeat and The Molasses Act soon fell into disuse.“Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise.”
On 15 January 1919, a 50-foot tall steel tank ripped open and unleashed 2.3 million gallons of molasses at 35 miles per hour down Commercial Street in Boston. Known as the Great Molasses Flood, it claimed a total of around 100 million dollars of property damage in today’s money. What was far more tragic was the number of lives lost in the flood. A Boston Post article described the carnage: “Here and there struggled a form—whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass … Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings—men and women—suffered likewise.”
The human toll from this disaster came to 21 dead and 150 injured. Many remained missing for several days. Cesare Nicolo, a wagon driver was one of the many. It wasn’t until four months later that his remains were fished out of Boston harbour.
What ensued was a long legal battle lasting six years. The owner of the 50-foot steel tank was USIA (United States Industrial Alcohol), which built the tank in 1915. The plaintiffs deemed the tank to be a “faulty tank, that it was not designed to hold more than two million gallons”, says a news report in Reading Eagle. In its defence, USIA explained that it was an act of sabotage carried out by an Italian anarchist group, who had once threatened to destroy the tank with a bomb.
In April 1925, state auditor Hugh W. Ogden finally ruled that it was USIA’s poor planning and oversight that was to blame for the disaster. The company was to pay victims and their family members $628,000 in damages, equivalent to around $8 million today.
Despite its involvement in a couple of dark and troubled times, molasses is touted for its health benefits and is said to be a good substitute for sugar. A study published in Science Daily in 2011 reported that adding molasses extract to our diet may help to reduce body weight and body fats. Some have also vouched for the effective use of molasses to counter acne problems and reverse premature greying of the hair.