A Brief History of Foods: Sugar
Updated: Mar 27
Sugar is one of the world’s oldest documented commodities, and at one time it was so valuable that people kept it safe under lock and key (The Sugar Assoc.). While chewing sugar cane for its natural sweet taste was likely done in prehistory, the first indications of the domestication of sugar cane were around 8000 BC in Papua New Guinea. From then on, between 8000 BC and AD 600, sugar cane production spread across Southeast Asia, China and India via seaborne traders (The Sugar Assoc.).
From The Sugar Association’s information, we can produce a map of the world showing where and approximately when either sugar cane or sugar beet was first introduced.
Early Sugarcane cultivation
India’s climate was proved to be perfect for cultivating sugarcane. Around AD 350 a way was devised to crystalize the liquid sucrose within sugarcane into a more portable form. With this exclusive ‘sweet spice’, India started its profitable trade with surrounding countries, spreading the knowledge about sugar production wherever they went, on sea trading ships or by land caravans to the Middle East or China. Both of those areas quickly learned everything to know about sugar, and adopted it into their cuisine and culture. By AD 650 China had their plantations of sugarcane.
Medieval Era and Sugar
The secret of sugar production was discovered during the widescale expansion of Islam in the 7th century AD. When Persia was invaded in AD 642 the Arabs found sugarcane being grown and learnt how sugar was made. As the expansion continued sugar production was established in the lands they conquered including North Africa and Spain.
During the Arab Agricultural Revolution, a Muslim chemist substantially improved sugarcane’s manufacturing process leading to sugar being adopted into Middle Eastern cuisine. By contrast the kingdoms of Mediæval Europe had little or no access to sugar. Then, beginning in the 11th century, a series of crusades were launched into the Holy Land whereupon the West’s warriors first encountered ‘sweet salt’. With their conclusion, sugar was finally brought back to Europe, but access to this incredibly expensive product remained the preserve of monarchs, the nobility and only the wealthiest citizens. Sugar was first recorded in England in 1099. Unsurprisingly, the lucrative profits to be made importing sugar saw more and more European traders heading to the Middle East, most notably the Venetians but also Italian and Spanish merchants. Sugar remained a luxury item such that in AD 1319 it cost ‘two shillings a pound’ in London which, according to sucrose.com, equates to about US$100 per kilo at today's prices. The 14th and 15th centuries saw a rise in European sugar production in Cyprus, the Kingdom of Castile (Valencia), Andalusia, the Algarve and in Madeira (Portugal).
Sugar in the New World
Having ‘discovered the ‘New World’, it is recorded that in 1493 Christopher Columbus took sugarcane plants to the Caribbean. There the climate was highly advantageous for its growth and a fledgling industry was quickly established. By 1501, sugar was being produced on the island of Hispaniola (Cuba), and in short order over 2,800 sugar mills were established in Brazil in the coastal areas, Santa Catarina Island, Demarara, and Surinam. The demand for so many mills to meet sugar production needs led to the development of new industrial processes and an increase in iron manufacturing in the region. By the mid-1600s sugar production had spread across Spanish, French and Dutch lands in the New World resulting in a price drop and for sugar to finally become more widely available on the tables of more Europeans.
By 1750 there were 120 sugar refineries operating in Britain, but their combined output was only 30,000 tons per annum. As a consequence, sugar remained a luxury and with such vast profits to be made sugar was called ‘white gold’. Unsurprisingly, governments recognised significant revenues were to be made from sugar and taxed it highly. In Britain, for instance, the sugar tax in 1781 raised £326,000, a figure that had grown by 1815 to £3,000,000 (sucrose.com). High taxation kept prices artificially high until 1874 when the British government, under Prime Minister Gladstone, abolished the tax and brought sugar prices within the means of the ordinary citizen.
As sugar production increased in the North American colonies held by the French and the British, the need to acquire a new and larger workforce heralded the age of slavery. Working on sugarcane plantations was hard and dangerous and resulted in a high mortality rate amongst Native American and African slaves and consequent deaths of over 3 million people (sugarhistory,net). From the inception of the slave trade over 4 million African slaves were shipped to the British West Indies. Full emancipation for all enslaved people throughout the British Empire and its colonies was legally granted on August 1st, 1838 . Before this, the high influx of slaves had made Caribbean the largest worldwide producer of sugar. Low prices of sugar from Guadaloupe, Barbados, Jamaica and Saint-Domingue (modern day Haiti) effectively ended the sugar trade between Europe and India in 18th century. By the century’s end the price of sugar had dropped to such levels that it became available to nearly everyone, everywhere in the world.
Introduction of Beet sugar
By the mid-1700s German scientists and chemist Andreas Marggraf had identified sucrose in beet root. Soon after Franz Achard built the first sugar beet processing factory in modern day Poland. Undoubtedly to protect the interests of sugarcane plantations, sugar beet remained largely a curiosity until the first quarter of the 19th century and the Napoleonic Wars. When Britain blockaded sugar imports to continental Europe, the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was forced to implement the local production of sugar, eventually managing to produce 30% of European sugar from beet. Thus began a trend away from sugarcane to sugar beet whereby the latter replaced the former as the main source of sugar on continental Europe by 1880. In Britain, its historic links to sugarcane delayed the introduction of beet sugar to England until the First World War when Britain's sugar imports were threatened.
Sugar Knowledge International Ltd, ‘How Sugar is Made - the History’, www.sucrose.com, Available online (accessed August 24th, 2022).
Sugar History, (2022), ‘History of Sugar’, www.sugarhistory.net, Available online (accessed August 24th, 2022).
The Sugar Association, ‘History of Sugar’, www.sugar.org, Available online (accessed August 24th, 2022).
1. After over twenty years of campaigning, the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed by the British Parliament in 1807. The Act made it illegal to buy and sell enslaved people throughout the British colonies. The act did not end the use of enslaved labour across the British Empire. Plantation owners were still able to use their existing enslaved labour force meaning that some people in the Caribbean, and elsewhere in the British Empire, remained enslaved. The abolition of enslavement in the British Empire was not wholly achieved until 26 years later with the signing into law of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. Yet protecting profit remained a crucial factor in what happened next. Plantation owners across the British Empire received a share of £20 million, (around £17 billion in today's money) in compensation. In contrast, the newly emancipated people received no compensation and were forced into a new apprenticeship scheme, which tied them to their plantations for up to six further years. In reality, little had changed for enslaved people.