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Throughout history, human beings have attempted to enhance their food by discovering suitable additives. The search for such substances led seafarers to leave their homes in search of new lands that might have spices and sweets. Sugar cane played a significant role in history because it contributed to trade and travel. One of the negative impacts is the expansion of slavery as a way to support sugar cane plantations. Today, sugar is among the most commonly used products – it is added in drinks, bakery, and meals. When discussing sugar cane, it is imperative to talk about its history and how it spread across the globe.
History of Sugar Cane
Historians have conflicting opinions about the geographical origin of sugar cane: either it was the fertile valleys in northeast India or the Polynesian islands in the South Pacific. However, botanical studies, ancient literary sources, and etymological data indicate India as the origin (Galloway 4). Many woody wild-growing varieties of sugar cane found there do not differ from modern forms in terms of the main characteristics (Galloway 4). Sugar cane was described in the Laws of Manu and other sacred books of the Hindus (Macinnis 7). The word “sugar” comes from the Sanskrit sarkara (gravel, sand) (Macinnis 7). Centuries later, this term entered the Arabic language as sukkar, and the medieval Latin as succarum (Macinnis 19).
From India, sugar cane came to China – earliest records date back to 800-700 BC (Macinnis 4). This fact was confirmed by several Chinese sources reporting that the people who lived in the Ganges valley taught the Chinese how to obtain sugar by chewing sugar cane stems (Macinnis 4). Ancient seafarers from China probably brought it to the Philippines, Java, and even to Hawaii. When many centuries later, Spanish sailors appeared in the Pacific Ocean, wild sugar cane had already been growing on many Pacific islands (Macinnis 9).
The first mention of sugar in ancient times dates back to the period of Alexander the Great’s expedition to India. In 325 BC, one of his generals, Nearchus, reported that there was reed that grows in India, which produces honey without the help of bees (Macinnis 2). Five hundred years later, Romans used sakcharon from India and Arabia as a medicine for diseases of the stomach, intestines, and kidneys (Macinnis 164). The Persians, too, adopted from the Indians the habit of consuming sugar. They also did a lot to improve the methods of its purification. Already in the seven-hundreds, Nestorian monks in the Euphrates Valley successfully made white sugar using ash to clean it (Macinnis 4).
Sugar in Europe appeared during the Crusades – the Arabs introduced sugar cane to the Crusaders (Galloway 5). The Arabs, who spread their territories to the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain during the period between seventh and ninth centuries, brought sugar cane culture to the Mediterranean (Galloway 36). A few centuries later, the Crusaders returning from the Holy Land introduced sugar to all of Western Europe (Galloway 5). As a result of the collision of these two significant expansions, Venice, which found itself at the crossroads of the trade routes of the Muslim and Christian world, eventually became the center of the European sugar trade and retained this status for more than 500 years (Galloway 41).
Columbus brought sugar cane to the Americas on his second trip to Santo Domingo. The cane was later brought to Cuba in 1493 (Galloway 5). The development of the sugar industry in Latin America caused the development of slavery. The Spanish conquistadors in 1516 brought the first slaves from Africa to Cuba (Galloway 62). At the beginning of the fifteenth century, Portuguese and Spanish sailors distributed sugar cane to the islands of the Atlantic Ocean. Plantations first appeared on Madeira, Azores, and the Cape Verde Islands (Galloway 52). In 1501, Pedro de Atienza planted sugar cane in Santo Domingo (Haiti) – it is how sugar cane came to the New World (Galloway 144). In just 30 years after its appearance in the Caribbean, they became so widespread that the West Indies started to be called the sugar islands. The role of sugar proliferated with increasing demand for it in the countries of Northern Europe, especially after the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453 (Macinnis 38). The importance of the Eastern Mediterranean territories as source of sugar supplies declined.
With the spread of sugar cane in the West Indies and the penetration of its culture into South America, more and more workers were required to grow and refine it. The natives who survived the invasion of the first conquerors proved to be not suitable for such work, and the planters solved the problem by bringing slaves from Africa (Macinnis 41). In the end, sugar production turned out to be inextricably linked with slavery and the riots that spawned the West Indies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In the beginning, sugar cane presses were powered by oxen or horses. Later, in places blown by the trade winds, more efficient wind turbines started to be used (Macinnis 62). However, the production process, as a whole, was still quite primitive. After pressing raw cane, the resulting juice was cleaned using lime, clay or ash, and then was boiled in copper or iron tanks heated from beneath (Macinnis 86). Refining was comprised of dissolving the crystals, boiling the mixture, and subsequent re-crystallization (Macinnis 86). By the middle of the seventeenth century, Santo Domingo and Brazil had become the leading sugar producers in the world (Galloway 113).
In the United States, sugar cane first appeared in Louisiana in 1791, to where it was imported by the Jesuits from Santo Domingo (Galloway 114). At first, Americans cultivated sugar cane mainly to chew on sweet stems. However, 40 years later, two ambitious colonists, Antonio Mendez and Étienne de Boré, created their plantations on the site of the current New Orleans with the goal of producing refined sugar (Heitmann 9). After de Boré’s success, other landowners followed the example, and sugar cane started to be cultivated throughout Louisiana (Heitmann 10).
Sugar cane is a driver of innovation and international trade in the context of world history. The rise of slavery is partly due to sugar cane – plantation owners saw a benefit in using slaves to grow sugar cane. It has been sold and grown on many continents until it became a product of frequent use. Today, sugar can be found in every household across the planet. Since the eighteenth century, the main events in the history of sugar cane were related with the technology improvements of its cultivation, mechanical processing, and refinery.
Galloway, Jock. The Sugar Cane Industry 600-1950: An Historical Geography from its Origins to 1914. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Heitmann, John. “The Modernization of the Louisiana Sugar Industry, 1830-1910.” eCommons, 1987, pp. 8-24.
Macinnis, Peter. Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar. Allen & Unwin, 2002.