Cultivation of sugarcane probably originated on the island of New Guinea in the South Pacific about 8000 years ago and spread to the nearby Solomon Islands, the New Hebrides and then to New Caledonia. In one Polynesian account of the origin of mankind, two fishermen, the only people on earth, one day, found a piece of cane in their net. At first, thinking it useless, they threw it away, but after catching it by chance for three days running, they planted it in the ground. It grew and after a while, it burst and a woman appeared from it. She cooked for the men by day and hid by night in the cane. How the two men got there in the first place is not explained.
About 2000 years later sugarcane had moved westward reaching Indonesia, the Philippines, and then Northern India. Its Eastward spread has been traced to the migrations of the Pacific Islanders when it arrived in Hawaii between 600 and 1100 A.D. Captain Cook saw indigenous cane still growing in Polynesia when he was there just over two hundred years ago. Then, it was being used for making a kind of beer.
Sugarcane was introduced into China from India around 800 B.C. Crude sugar was being produced by 400 B.C. and by 700 A.D., it was being commercially exploited by Indians in the Sub-continent. In China, the boiled down and sun-dried juice of sugarcane was called “stone honey”, and the most expensive, highly prized luxury items were the white cakes of stone honey imported from India. In 510 B.C. a Persian military expedition recorded finding sugarcane in that sub-continent, and later, Alexander the Great also found it there. His Admiral, Nearchos, is recorded as describing “a reed which makes honey without bees.” Theophrastus in 287 B.C. described it as “…honey which is in a cane”, and Dioscorides described it as “…a kind of concentrated honey, called saccharon, found in canes in India and Arabia, like in consistence to salt, and brittle to be broken between the teeth.”
Sugarcane culture slowly spread Westward reaching Persia by 500 A.D. The next migration was started by the Prophet Mohammed who, a few years before his death in 632 A.D., began a Holy War for the conversion of the world to Islam. When his armies conquered Persia, they found sugarcane and adopted its cultivation, carrying it with them in their conquests, now calling it “the Persian Reed.”
Sugar cane was introduced to Egypt after their defeat by the Arabs in 710 A.D. Using their highly developed skills in agriculture and chemistry, the Egyptians developed clarification, crystallization, and refining processes. From there, sugarcane continued its Westward journey across Northern Africa reaching Morocco. Then, crossing the Mediterranean to Southern Spain by 755 A.D. and to Sicily in 950 A.D., it progressed along the southern littoral of the Mediterranean, where in time it reached the islands off the Atlantic coast of Africa.
An example of the extreme costliness of sugar in those days was the construction of the Badii palace in Marrakech by Ahmed el Mansour. The building materials including gold, Italian marble, and onyx were all traded for their weight in sugar.
Production of sugar then was a primitive process. A blindfolded mule or ox treading in a circle, drove a vertical grinding mill or a pestle in a mortar to crush the cane, and the juice was evaporated by boiling to a sticky mixture of crystals and syrup. Such a method is still in use in India where the product is called gur or jaggery. Although it tastes good on bread, it does not keep well.
The original word for sugar is probably the Sanskrit “sarkar” meaning grain. The East Indian word for sugar was “shekar”; in Arabic, it was “al zucar”, adopted in Spanish as “azucar”, French as “sucre”, German as “Zucker” and in English as “sugar.”
In the Middle Ages, similar equipment was used to produce sugar. In Sicily, the grinding stone was powered as a rule by men. There is a painting dating from about 1580 by Hans van der Straat, of a sugar factory near Palermo. A contemporary description says that going into the place was like entering the Forge of Vulcan: “the men who worked there being blackened by the smoke from the fires, dirty, sweaty, and scorched, more like demons than men.” It goes on to describe all of the various jobs: cutting cane, crushing, boiling the juice, even planting cane tops in manure as a seed for the following year.
In 10th century Europe, sugar was considered a valuable medicine. Later, it was considered a rare spice and its price was as high as that of pepper, saffron and cinnamon. Like those spices, the Arabs also controlled the European sugar trade. Because of its exalted status, sugar was used to season things to a degree that today we would consider excessive and unappetizing. Meats were often cooked in a heavy syrup of sugar with almonds and fruit.
Further knowledge in Europe about sugar was spread during the Crusades of the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. Many people from various European nations and social levels fought in this series of 28 campaigns. Some records show that large cane plantations belonged to various Christian orders in the region. Shipping and trade between the Mideast and Europe during this period was almost exclusively in the hands of Venetian merchants. There are indications that, besides raw sugar trade, the Venetians also developed some primitive form of sugar refining. There is evidence that in the middle of the fourteenth century the Venetians were manufacturing and trading “sugar loaves” with their customers. Sugar was one of the first pharmaceutical ingredients, as it is still used today, to mask the bitter or unpleasant taste of medicines. Special jars of “rose’ and “violet” sugars, flavored with aromatic substances and extremely expensive, were made for sickly royal children. Sugar was so rare that a teaspoon of it in the sixteenth century commanded the equivalent of five dollars. According to English records from the seventeenth century, one could purchase a calf for four pounds of sugar.
England, because of its separation from the continent of Europe, saw very little sugar before the early fourteenth century. Its scarcity is indicated by an order, written in Norman French, from King Henry III to the Mayor of Winchester in 1226, to provide 3 lbs. of Alexandrian sugar for a banquet–“if so much is to be had.” The first regular seabome trade to England began in 1319 when Venetian traders sold some 50 tons of sugar for £3,000–the modem equivalent of over 11 million (at today’s prices, that amount of sugar could be purchased for $23,650).
From the mid-sixteenth century, much of the sugar consumed in England was bought from “Barbary”, now called Morocco. The Barbary Company was created in 1551; one of its founders was Thomas Wyndham, a Vice-Admiral in King Henry VIII’s Navy, who traded in a vessel called the Lion to the port of Agadir.
Barbary sugar had a very bad name for quality; Queen Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State, Lord Burleigh, actually complained about it to the Grocers’ Company. Before it ceased to exist, the Barbary Company became the stepping stone for later British ventures afield. It pioneered the West Indian Trade which began to develop the seventeenth century and later became of very important in the eighteenth century.
On his second voyage to the New World, Columbus brought cane cuttings from the Canary Islands to Hispaniola, the island now composed of the Dominican Republic and The Republic of Haiti. The first attempt to grow cane there faded, but by 1509 sugar was being produced in profitable amounts.
Sugar shaped a good deal of history of the New World. By 1520 cane was grown in Mexico, and the Spanish explorer Cortez established the first North American sugar mill there in 1535. Cultivation soon spread to Peru, Brazil, Columbia, and Venezuela. Puerto Rico had a mill by 1547. By the year 1600, sugar production in the subtropical and tropical Americas had become the world’s largest and most lucrative industry. The “sugar islands” of the West Indies brought great wealth to England and France. Queen Elizabeth displayed her wealth by putting a sugar bowl on her table and using sugar as an everyday food and seasoning. Great Britain took a commanding position in the sugar trade, and consumption of tea in the English diet increased tremendously with the use of sugar. By the end of the seventeenth century, this new beverage was in general use. By the eighteenth century, the demand for sugar was so great that it became a matter of active public interest.
Sugar was a minor, expensive luxury until the 16th century when two things happened to change this:
(1) Supplies of honey, the regular sweetener, declined because of the Reformation campaign against the monasteries. They were the major honey producers although honey was a by-product of beeswax production, used for making candles.
(2) The supply of sugar became more available, although not necessarily cheap.
Two discoveries soon followed which greatly increased the demand for sugar in Europe: The discovery that fruit could be preserved in sugar and the making of jam with sugar. These uses of sugar had been known by the ancient Indians, Chinese and Arabs who had greater access to crystalline sugar.
When sugar became more plentiful but was still very expensive, a new passion arose–sugar sculpture. In 16th century Italy, intricate spun-sugar sculpture became the rage for the tables of the rich. Majestic set pieces of sugar icing were a part of the ostentatious display of wealth throughout Mediterranean Europe.
While the often futile scramble for gold and treasure in the New World was going on, the wealth of another kind was slowly being developed in the West Indies and southward into South America sugar, at first, mainly from the Spanish. In the early years from 1620 to 1640 of the British colonization in Barbados, for example, sugar was of no importance, only tobacco, indigo and cotton were planted. In 1700, after sugarcane was introduced, although the population was then only about 30,000, there were some 1,300 sugarcane plantations and nearly 500 factories driven either by windmills or by animals. Barbados was soon producing about 8,000 tons a year (15 tons per factory on average. Today, a single factory in Brazil produces 30,000 tons per day). The newer captures and acquisitions, like Antigua and Jamaica, became important sources of sugar. The French also began to produce sugar in their colonial islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
British and French sea captains brought in new varieties of cane to replace the original strains introduced by Columbus. One of these men, Captain Bligh, only three years after the mutiny against him in H.M. S. Bounty, sailed into St. Vincent carrying a cargo of cane plants and breadfruit trees from Oceania.
There was, however, a sinister reason for the breadfruit: it was intended as a form of food suited to Africans living and working as slaves in the plantations. Earlier settlers had tried importing agricultural workers from England. As the demand for sugar grew so did the demand for labor, and it became the custom to “transport” political dissidents, felons, and other undesirables as an alternative to hanging. Oliver Cromwell “barbadoed” hundreds, and these were later joined by the remnants of the Army of the Duke of Monmouth, sent there after the Battle of Sedgemoor by Judge Jeffreys in 1686. Few survived in the climate, and although some of their descendants can still be seen in Barbados, where they are called “redlegs”. Another source of labor was sought, and it was found in Africa.
There was nothing new about slavery in the New World. Columbus is traditionally reported to have taken slaves with him, and by 1526 the use of slaves in Cuba was officially approved, a licence or asiento being granted by the King of Spain. This asiento later became a British monopoly in 1713 after the Treaty of Utrecht, as one of the spoils of Marlborough’s wars. The practice was finally abolished in 1789.
If the growth of the sugar industry paralleled that of the slave trade in the Caribbean, then so did the anti-slavery movement. There were many plantation owners who objected to the trade, partly for humanitarian reasons and partly because of fears that the importation of large numbers of Africans would upset the balance of the local population. However, as the Council of the island of St. Kitts wrote to the House of Lords: “It is as great a bondage for us to cultivate our plantations without Negroes as for the Egyptians to make bricks without straw.”
The sugar planter was only one link in a chain, and not the most profitable; he bore the risk of drought, heat, hurricane, insurrection, plague, and insect pests as well as isolation from home. The trade, in fact, was triangular. Ships left Europe with goods such as textiles, hardware, and toys, which were bartered in West Africa for gold dust and slaves. The coastal tribes would supply the latter from among their opposite numbers or enemies inland. On arrival in the West Indies, these would be sold and the money used to buy sugar and rum for Europe.
Early on there were movements, particularly in England, against the slave trade. John Locke, the philosopher, described the practice in 1689 as being “opposed to the generous temper and courage of our nation.” Thanks to the efforts of William Wilhefforce, begun in 1789, the Royal Assent was ended by a Parliamentary Bill abolishing slavery in 1833.
Afterwards, the affranchised slaves were often unwilling to work on the sugarcane plantations although there was still a huge labor demand. There was another search for labor, this time from Portugal, China, and India. In the end, the major replacement became the “indentured” labor from India, imported in “Companies” under regulated conditions. (The Portuguese and Chinese soon contrived to escape from sugar and set up shops and businesses). South Africa today, has the largest population of Indians outside of India, brought in to work the cane fields.
In the Far East, slavery continued long after 1833 and this created a certain amount of “negative press” in the early nineteenth century. An advertisement in England offered for sale an Assortment of Sugar Basins, handsomely labeled in gold letters “East India sugar, not made by slaves.”
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of sugar in history two centuries ago. It was no longer a luxury as it had been in the Middle Ages, although it still cost six or seven times as much as it does now, and then it was only readily available from the Caribbean. So, for nearly a century, that area became the Cockpit of Neptune, the naval equivalent of Flanders. Among those islands, the Navies of France and England fought for control.
Horatio Nelson spent much of his naval career in the West Indies. In 1805, he pursued the French fleet from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean just missing it. The French Admiral, Villeneuve, although posing a threat to the British sugar islands, was very nervous and sailed back to Europe just before Nelson reached the Windward Islands. The Battle of Trafalgar was nearly fought off the island of Barbados.
Admiral Vernon, also known as “Old Grog” because be always worn a boat cloak of grosgrain, a French material anglicized as grogram, found while serving in the West Indies that sailors, issued with half a pint of neat rum every day were quite incapable of manning the ship. Therefore he introduced a Fleet Order in 1740 that the rum must be diluted with three parts of water (“grog” is still rationed in the British Navy today).
Admiral Sir George Rodney, whose statue in the robes of a Roman Senator, stands in Spanish Town Square, Jamaica, fought there twice. The end of his first period of service in 1762 coincided with the end of the Seven Years War England had won, capturing Cuba, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Canada from France.
When the terms of peace in the Treaty of Paris were under discussion, there was much argument about what should be retained as spoils of war. Lord Bute, the Prime Minister, said “Some want me to keep Guadeloupe and some Canada. No one will tell me which I shall be hanged for not keeping.” In the end, the enormous land mass of Canada was kept, not the tiny sugar island of Guadeloupe.
Sugar was still an expensive luxury in the early 19th century in Europe, when the famous chef-historian, Brillat-Savarin made the observation that “Sugar won’t hurt you, but it will make a hole in your pocket.”