THE HISTORY OF SUGAR
Cane sugar is very old. Scientifically, the first taxa of sugar were Saccharum robustum, but in more common parlance it was sucrose. Once domesticated, it was known as saccharum officinarum. From there, it continued to be hybridized to suit the soil and climate of cane growing areas throughout the world.
Historians vary somewhat in their temporal estimates but are generally agreed that it originated in Southeast Asia, cultivated by natives of Papua New Guinea as early as 8000 BCE (Before Current Era). It may have spread throughout the southern Pacific as early as 6000 BCE, then to India about the same time. Its appearance in Indonesia is controversial; it may have been either imported from another source or more likely cultivated from wild indigenous plants.
In the oral tradition of those early Asian societies, cane sugar took on multiple personalities, one as the origin of the human race resulting from sexual consort between the first man and a stalk of cane—producing the human species. A similar myth exists within the cultures of certain Pacific peoples: one, that the primogenitor parents of the race were two sprouts of the same cane sugar shoot which after mating produced the human race. Another, that humans began their existence as separate cane shoots from different plants, both male and female.
The significance of India is that mention of sugar appears in one of the first written languages of mankind—as a food and drink additive. The Sanskrit word for “sugar” is sharkara which can also be translated as “gravel” or “sand” an appropriate description of the granulated product. Later, with the establishment of trading routes between the east and west, India was the first country to produce sugar in granulated form, by drying cane juice sometime around 350 AD.
With a granulated product that could be stored and easily carried, Indian sailors, Arab traders, and traveling Buddhist monks began to spread sugar across their known world into the Mediterranean. With the product, traders brought information about the technique of refining cane.
But opportunities to grow, harvest and refine cane sugar were limited by geography because the cultivation, processing and growing of sugar requires two climatic elements: hot weather and lots of rain (or readily available water). For example, in Florida, it takes between 520 and 680 pounds of water to produce one pound of sugar, which calculates to between 62 and 81 gallons. The Arab world, with warm temperatures and irrigation, was an ideal place to grow and process sugar during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, with merchants and traders selling it throughout Europe as a luxury item at prices similar to spices from the Orient.
In his second voyage in 1493, Christopher Columbus carried seeds of the sugar plant to the new world where, in the Caribbean, it would grow and thrive. The spread of sugar throughout the Caribbean was swift. Introduced into Brazil by Portuguese traders around 1500 AD, that country quickly became the most dynamic cane producer in the western hemisphere. By the mid-sixteenth century, there were over 2,000 operating mills in Brazil and another 1,000 in the Caribbean including the British Indies and Virgin Islands.
The British eventually controlled the most rapidly developing parts of the North American continent and found that sugar was one of the most lucrative resources to come from the Caribbean. But, the work of growing, cutting and processing sugar cane was labor-intensive and European diseases brought by the Spanish and British were decimating indigenous people who had been enslaved and ruthlessly used for sugar production. The declining population of locally available workers eventually led to the African slave trade and the notorious Triangle.