How sugar coated the world
We all know what sugar is - that granulated stuff in the bowl on the counter. But where does it come from? I bet you didn't know that the story of sugar takes you around the world, that sugar was once considered a spice as precious as gold, and that sugar was at the center of an infamous trade route for nearly 300 years.Skip to next paragraph
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The story of sugar begins about 8,000 years ago on the remote island of Papua, New Guinea, north of Australia. Sugar cane, which can grow up to 15 feet high, is a member of the grass family. So is bamboo. And like bamboo, sugar cane has segmented joints. At some point, islanders found that if you cut off a piece of cane and sucked on it, it tasted sweet. They also figured out that sugar cane could be cultivated by planting segments of the cane. New shoots grow out of the joints.
Slowly, sugar cane made its way westward until it reached northern India. About 500 BC, the Indians discovered a way to produce crude sugar, and taught the Chinese. A hundred years later, the Chinese were boiling sugar cane juice to make "stone honey."
Arab traders brought sugar cane to the Middle East. Muslims spread it from Persia to Egypt, then to North Africa, southern Spain, and Italy. Sugar cane grows best in subtropical or tropical climates.
After the cane is cut, the stalks are pressed, chopped, or ground up to extract the sweet sap. The sap is about 75 percent water and 15 percent sucrose. The sap is boiled to remove the water until it becomes a thick liquid called massecuite, in which the sugar crystals form.
Modern sugar-refining operations separate the sugar from the blackstrap molasses by whirling the massecuite in a centrifuge at high speed. In earlier times, the liquid was put into cone-shaped pots and allowed to drain for days. At this point, the sugar crystals are brownish in color and require further refining (more boiling and cooling) before it looks like the white sugar you're used to.
Our word "sugar" is probably related to the Sanskrit (Indian) word "sarkar" ("grain"). The East Indian word for it was "shekar"; in Arabic, it was "al zucar," adopted in Spanish as "azucar." In French it became "sucre"; Germans say "Zucker."
Producing sugar is very labor intensive. Cane fields need to be prepared, the cane planted, and then tended and watered for 15 months until the first crop can be harvested. The cane must be cut, crushed, and boiled. The large evaporating pans had to be tended constantly to make sure the sugar crystals didn't burn.
At first, sugar was considered a rare spice. During the crusades (about AD 1000-1300), when European soldiers tried to "reclaim" the Holy Land from Muslim settlers, crusaders brought knowledge of sugar to England from the markets of Baghdad. For years, all the sugar trading from the Middle East was then funneled through merchants in Venice. They had figured out a way to further refine the sugar.
For decades, sugar was available only to royalty. It was so rare that a teaspoon of it might cost the equivalent of $5 today. (It costs less than a penny now.) The demand for sugar began to grow, and merchants looked for ways to increase the supply of it to sell more.
Christopher Columbus carried sugar cane to the West Indies on his second voyage to the New World. Sugar plantations soon spread throughout the New World, notably in the Caribbean and Brazil.
The climate was perfect for growing sugar cane, but the large plantations needed laborers. Thus began the notorious "triangle trade," which brought slaves from Africa to the Americas. The slaves were traded for molasses and sugar, which were shipped to Britain. Profits from the sale of these goods were used to buy hardware and textiles. Then the merchants sailed to Africa, where the manufactured goods were traded for slaves.
Sugar became so lucrative that control of Caribbean sugar-producing islands produced wars and land deals. In the Treaty of Paris of 1763 that ended the Seven Years' War, France ceded all of Canada to Britain. In return, Britain gave back to France the tiny sugar-growing islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique it had captured. (At the time, knowledgeable people thought the British were crazy to make such a deal.)