Sugar is the universal name for a variety of sweet-tasting carbohydrates, derived from various sources. Sweetmeats, confectionaries, chocolates, alcoholic liqueurs, sweet beverages, etc. use sugar for sweetening.
The English word ‘sugar’ is derived from the Arabic word سكر sukkar, which came from the Persian شکر shekar, itself derived from Sanskrit शर्करा śarkarā, which originated from Tamil சர்க்கரை Sarkkarai. Thus, the etymology of the English word ‘sugar’, in a way, reflects the spread of sugar from India to the western world.
Rich Cohen in his article “Sugar Love” (A not so sweet story) published in the National Geographic says:
“In 1700 the average Englishman consumed 4 pounds a year. In 1800 the common man ate 18 pounds of sugar. In 1870 that same sweet-toothed bloke was eating 47 pounds annually. Was he satisfied? Of course not! By 1900 he was up to 100 pounds a year. In that span of 30 years, world production of cane and beet sugar exploded from 2.8 million tons a year to 13 million plus. Today the average American consumes 77 pounds of added sugar annually, or more than 22 teaspoons of added sugar a day.”
Most plants have sugar, but only sugarcane and sugar beet have sufficient concentrations for efficient extraction. Around 80% of the world’s sugar is derived from sugarcane.
Sugarcane is any of several species of tall perennial true grass of the genus Saccharum, tribe Andropogoneae, native to the warm temperate to tropical regions of South Asia, and used for sugar production. They have stout jointed fibrous stalks that are rich in sugar. They grow six to 19 feet (two to six meters) tall. All sugar cane species interbreed and the major commercial cultivars are complex hybrids.
The crop has been cultivated in tropical climates in the Far East since ancient times.
Eight thousand years ago, sugar featured prominently in the food of the inhabitants of the island of New Guinea, the world’s second largest island, after Greenland. During sacred religious ceremonies, their priests sipped water sweetened with sugar from coconut shells.
The use of sugarcane spread gradually from island to island, and around 1000 BC reached the Asian mainland.
By 500 BC, the Indians were processing crystalline sugar from sugarcane. In India sugar is used as a medicine for headaches, stomach flutters, impotence, etc. The art of sugar refinement passed from master to apprentice and remained a secret science. From there sugar travelled with migrants and monks to China, Persia, northern Africa and eventually to Europe in the 11th century.
Sugar found its way to Persia around 600 AD and as luxury rulers entertained their guests with a variety of sweets. From there the Arabs carried the knowledge and love of sugar, perfected sugar refinement and made it into an industry. “Wherever they went, the Arabs brought with them sugar, the product and the technology of its production,” wrote Sidney Mintz in Sweetness and Power. “Sugar, we are told, followed the Koran.”
The first Europeans to know about sugar were the British and French Crusaders that went east to wrest the Holy Land from the Arabs. Having their taste buds excited by sugar the Crusaders returned with stories and memories of sweets. Unfortunately, they found the temperate climates in Europe unsuitable for cultivation of sugar cane, which needed tropical, rain-drenched fields to grow.
The sugar that reached the West through a trickle of Arab traders was rare and was classified as a spice. Due to its high cost only by the nobility consumed it.
With the spread of the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s, trade with the East became more difficult for the Europeans. To the Western elite who had fallen under the spell of sweets were propelled to develop new sources of sugar.
So, it was the age of exploration for the Europeans – the search for new territories around the world.
Infante Henry, Duke of Viseu (March 4, 1394 – November 13, 1460), the third child of King John I of Portugal, better known as Henry the Navigator, was an important figure in the early days of the Portuguese Empire and the Age of Discoveries in total. He was responsible for the early growth of European exploration and maritime trade with other continents. In 1419, Portuguese sailors in the service of Infante D. Henrique claimed Madeira, an archipelago about 250 miles (400 km) north of Tenerife, Canary Islands, in the North Atlantic Ocean. In 1425, Infante Henry sent sugarcane with an early group of colonists who settled in Madeira.
Sugarcane found its way to other newly discovered Atlantic islands such as the Cape Verde Islands, and the Canaries.
In 1493, when Christopher Columbus set off on his second voyage to the New World, he too carried the cane. He planted the New World’s first sugarcane in Hispaniola.
From then on dawned the era of mass sugar production in the slave plantations in the Caribbean islands.
Within decades the Portuguese and the Spanish expanded sugar cane plantation to Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Cuba and Brazil. They cleared the rainforests for sugarcane plantations. The Portuguese turned Brazil into an early boom colony, with more than 100,000 slaves producing tons of sugar.
The harvested crop of sugarcane was crushed and ground and then pressed to extract the cane juice, which was thickened into a syrup by boiling. This produced sugar crystals, which were dried before storage. The raw sugar was piled in the holds of ships and carried to Europe for refining.
Until the 15th and 16th centuries, sugar was classed with nutmeg and cardamom as a luxury spice enjoyed only by the wealthy upper classes.
The original British sugar island was Barbados found by a British captain on May 14, 1625. Tobacco and cotton were grown in the early years, but sugarcane overtook these two on the island as it did wherever it was planted in the Caribbean. Sadly, however, the fields got depleted, the water table drained within a century, and the ambitious planters had left Barbados in search of other island to exploit.
In the 17th century the British established large-scale sugar plantations in the West Indies. The price of sugar fell. Sugar changed from a luxury to a staple item. Since the fall in price made it affordable to the middle class and the poor, the demand for sugar increased.
But the sugar trade was tarnished by its colonial heritage of inhumanity and exploitation. Profits from the sugar trade helped build the British Empire. When the enslaved native population dwindled due to disease or war the planters replaced them with more slaves brought from the west coast of Africa with the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade.
By 1720 Jamaica became number one in the sugar market.
Until the slave trade was banned in Britain in 1807, more than half of the 11 million Africans shipped to the New World ended up on sugar plantations.
The slaves from Africa found the life hard. In the Caribbean millions died in the fields, pressing houses, or while trying to escape. Gradually the people in Europe came to know and understand the hardship of the slaves. While reformers preached abolition, housewives boycotted cane sugar produced by the slaves.
In 1759, a slave in Voltaire’s Candide, ou l’Optimisme, missing both a hand and a leg, explains his mutilation:
“When we work in the sugar mills and we catch our finger in the millstone, they cut off our hand; when we try to run away, they cut off a leg; both things have happened to me. It is at this price that you eat sugar in Europe.”
William Johnson Fox (March 1, 1786 – June 3, 1864), an English religious and political orator in An Address to the people of Great Britain on the propriety of abstaining from West Indian sugar and rum. [London], 1791 wrote:
“So necessarily connected are our consumption of the commodity, and the misery resulting from it, that in every pound of sugar used, (the produce of slaves imported from Africa) we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh…A French writer observes, ‘That he cannot look on a piece of sugar without conceiving it stained with spots of human blood.'”
Fox’s pamphlet was widely circulated, and helped promote the idea that sugar was contaminated with the blood and flesh of the suffering slaves who produced it. Nonetheless, production of sugar never stopped.
Current Production of Sugar
The use of sugar beet as a new source of production was developed in Germany in the early 19th century. By the end of the century, production of beet sugar had spread across Europe and beet had overtaken cane as the primary source of sugar there.
Sugarcane is indigenous to tropical South and Southeast Asia. Different species likely originated in different locations. Saccharum Barberi originated in India and Saccharum edule and Saccharum officinarum from New Guinea. Almost 70% of the sugar produced globally comes from Saccharum officinarum and hybrids of this species.
At present, Brazil and India are the world’s two largest sugar producers. For the past 40 years, these two countries have accounted for over half the world’s production of canesugar. The European Union is the third-largest sugar producer and accounts for around half the world’s production of beet sugar.
Fast facts: the sugar lowdown (Source: fairtrade.org.uk)
- Sugar is one of the most valuable agricultural commodities. In 2011 its global export trade was worth $47bn, up from $10bn in 2000.
- Of the total $47bn, $33.5bn of sugar exports are from developing countries and $12.2bn from developed countries.
- The sugar industry supports the livelihoods of millions of people – not only smallholders and estate workers but also those working within the wider industry and family dependents.
- Around 160 million tonnes of sugar are produced every year. The largest producers are Brazil (22%), India (15%) and the European Union (10%).
- More than 123 countries produce sugar worldwide, with 70% of the world’s sugar consumed in producer countries and only 30% traded on the international market.
- About 80% of global production comes from sugarcane (which is grown in the tropics) and 20% comes from sugar beet (grown in temperate climates, including Europe).
- The juice from both sugarcane and sugar beet is extracted and processed into raw sugar.
- World consumption of sugar has grown at an average annual rate of 2.7% over the past 50 years. It is driven by rising incomes and populations in developing countries.
- The top five consumers of sugar use 51% of the world’s sugar. They include India, the EU-27, China, Brazil and the US.
- Brazil plays an important role in the global sugar market, as the world’s largest sugar producer, the world’s major exporter and one of the highest per capita consumers, at around 55 kg a year.
Next → Sugar – Part 2: The Different Avatars of Sugar
- Sugar – Part 2: The Different Avatars of Sugar (tvaraj.com)
- Sugar – Part 3: Oh Sweet Poison, Thy Name is Sugar! (tvaraj.com)
- Sugar (en.wikipedia.org)
- Sugarcane (en.wikipedia.org)
- Sugar Love: A Not So Sweet Story (ngm.nationalgeographic.com)
- FAIRTRADE AND SUGAR (fairtrade.org.uk)
5 thoughts on “Sugar – Part 1: History of Cane sugar”
Another excellent article, and thank you for mentioning how sugar and slavery were intertwined.
The better choice– stevia! Jungles don’t have to be razed for it, it doesn’t affect your blood sugar, and it’s even something you can grow in your own yard if you don’t want to buy the processed version.