Prof. Dr. Ulbe Bosma

Senior Guest Researcher

Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies
August 2023–November 2023

International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, The Netherlands


The World of Sugar How the Sweet Stuff Transformed Our Politics, Health, and Environment Over 2,000 Years

How did sugar become so prevalent in our food, causing health issues and environmental problems?

Hosted by Rituparna Patgiri, Asst. Prof. of Sociology at University of Delhi, researches food, media, gender. Co-founder of Doing Sociology, This episode starts with early sugar evidence. Traders brought it to rulers across continents. Europe's demand led to brutal sourcing, using enslaved labor. Sugar shaped cultures, fortunes, and policies. It even spurred world-changing freedom movements.

© Ulbe Bosma

Academic Profile

The momentous change in the global countryside over the course of the nineteenth century deserves a synthetic study that will talk about people but also about numbers. I am currently writing such a book based upon a combination of source material about the production of the world’s key commodities and a series of databases available at the International Institute Social History that pertain to labour relations (e.g. shifts within households, forced labour) and land use.   

Ulbe Bosma obtained his PhD in history at Leiden University in 1995. From 1993 to 2007 he acted as coordinator of the Sephis programme, sponsoring historical research in the Global South. Since 1997 he is Senior Researcher at the IISH and since 2012 professor of 'International Comparative Social History' at the Free University of Amsterdam. The endowed chair covers empirical research and teaching into labour and labour relations (including slavery and forced labour), from a comparative social historical and geographical perspective.

He was visiting professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris and fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Studies. His main fields of interest are the histories of labour, international labour migration, and commodity frontiers.


  • 2023. The World of Sugar. How the Sweet Stuff Transformed Our Politics, Health, and Environment over 2,000 Years. Belknap Harvard University Press.
  • 2019. The Making of a Periphery: How Island Southeast Asia Became a Mass Exporter of Labor. Columbia Studies in International and Global History. Columbia University Press.



  • 2023. "The Sugar Baron of Boston. The little-known story of Edwin F. Atkins, whose Belmont family’s vast cane plantations in 19th- and early 20th-century Cuba created avast fortune and left a complicated legacy." June 3, 2023. Open access 
  • 2022. With S. Beckert. "Ever more land and labour Centuries of capitalism saw the global countryside ruthlessly converted into cheap commodities. But at what cost?" October 6, 2022. Open access



  • 2022. With K. Manjapra. "Metaphorical Overtures of Freedom and the Plantation Complex." In  Capitalism: A Journal of History and Economics 3(1): 191–214.
  • 2022. With B. van Leeuwen. "Regional variation in the GDP per capita of colonial Indonesia, 1870–1930." In Cliometrica.
  • 2021. With P. Brandon. "Slavery and the Dutch economy, 1750–1800." In Slavery & Abolition 41(1): 43–76.
  • 2021. With M. van Erp, C. Reynolds, D. Maynard, A. Starke, R. Ibáñez Martín, F. Andres, M. C. A. Leite, D. Alvarez de Toledo, X. Schmidt Rivera, C. Trattner, S. Brewer, C. Adriano Martins, A. Kluczkovski, A. Frankowska, S. Bridle, R. B. Levy, F. Rauber, and J. Tereza da Silva. "Using Natural Language Processing and Artificial Intelligence to Explore the Nutrition and Sustainability of Recipes and Food." In Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence 3: 621577.
  • 2021. With S. Beckert, E. Vanhaute, and M. Schneider. "Commodity frontiers and the transformation of the global countryside: A research agenda." In Journal of Global History: 1–16.
  • 2021. With S. Beckert, E. Vanhaute, and M. Schneider. "Commodity frontiers and global histories: The tasks ahead." In Journal of Global History.
  • 2020. "Commodification and Slavery in the Nineteenth-Century Indonesian Archipelago." In Journal of Social History 54(1), 109.
  • 2020. "Communism, Cold War and Commodity Chains: Southeast Asian Labor History in a Comparative and Transnational Perspective." In International Labor and Working-Class History 97: 159.
  • 2020. "Local Peasants and Global Commodities: Sugar Frontiers in India, Indonesia and the Philippines." In Austrian Journal of Historical Studies 30(3): 42.
  • 2020. "The Making of a Periphery: A Response." In International Review of Social History.
  • 2020. With S. Sint Nicolaas and M. van Rossum. "Towards an Indian Ocean and Maritime Asia Slave Trade Database: An Exploration of Concepts, Lessons and Models." In Esclavages & Post-Esclavages 3.
  • 2019. With P. Brandon. "De betekenis van de Atlantische slavernij voor de Nederlandse economie in de tweede helft van de achttiende eeuw." In Tijdschrift voor Sociale en Economische Geschiedenis 16(2): 5–46 + i–xxx.
  • 2018. "Slavery and Labour Contracts: Rethinking Their Nexus." In International Review of Social History 63(3).
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