My Cart

The Unnatural, Dark History of Sugar


In my first posting I talked about the natural history of sugar or the taste of sweet.  I explained how plants and humans evolved in a mutually beneficial way using sweet to signal nutritional goodness for humans and ensuring seed distribution for plants that were sweet. 

For all of pre-human and human evolutionary development the taste of sweet was only experienced in fruit, sweet vegetables, and the rare, and difficult to harvest, wild honey. 

Then, about 8,000 years ago, the people of New Guinea figured out how to domesticate, or farm, a tropical cane, a grass, sugar cane.  This cane, chewed raw to extract it’s sweet tasting juice, quickly spread throughout Southeast Asia, Southern China, and into India.

It was in India, around 350 AD. during the time of the Gupta Dynasty, that people figured out how to crush, or grind, the sugar cane to extract the sweet juice, and then, boil it down, or dry it in the sun, to make granulated sugar, manufacturing for the first time a sweetener that could be added to other foods.  Indian sailors, and traveling Buddhist monks spread the knowledge of the sugar manufacturing process to China, South Asia, and the Middle East.  By 650 AD sugar had become a staple in cooking, in sauces, (think Sweet and Sour Soup, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Col. Tao’s Chicken, etc), and deserts, in much of Asia. 

Sugar cane, a tropical plant, needs a lot of water and heat to grow.   Because of this, it’s cultivation spread into Egypt, and Mesopotamia, where it could be irrigated and to Mediterranean Islands and a few coastal areas on the Mediterranean sea.

Sugar was known in Europe, but only as an exotic “spice” or medicine, brought in at great expense from foreign lands.  Dioscorides, the Greek physician wrote in the first century AD. about sakchoron, “A kind of honey from reeds, similar to salt in consistency, and beneficial  when dissolved in water for the intestines and stomach.”  Pliney the Elder, a Roman, about the same time, also described the supposed medicinal use of sugar.


The Crusaders encountered the “sweet salt” along with so many other things, including the ancient Roman and Greek Classical Philosophers, in the “Holy Lands” and brought their new found knowledge back home.


Here, the darkest side of sugar begins to emerged.  The problem with sugar production was, it was labor intensive, both in it’s agricultural production and its industrial refining.  It took a tremendous amount of cane to produce sugar. The weight, and bulk of the cane made its transportation, especially over land, prohibitively costly, so each sugar plantation required its own factory.   


The growing and harvesting of the cane required a large work force and the milling of the sugar needed many more workers, including many workers to obtain the vast amount of wood needed for fires, to reduce cane juice to granular sugar.  Because of the environmental demands of sugarcoat and wet, the work was brutal and grueling.  When local populations prove unable, or unwilling to provide the hard labor, a new solution was required,  The Arab world, with it long history as overlords of African slavery, was fully equipped to implement slavery in the profitable cause of sugar production, and this production was enough to feed Europe’s growing sugar hunger for a while.


The Crusades introduced sugar to Europe, but when a resurgent Islam took back the “Holy Lands” the new market lost its supply.  Crusader aristocrats and Venetian merchants provided a solution by establishing a sugar production base on the island of Cyprus, which was soon expanded to other Mediterranean and Atlantic Islands


In the 1390s, a new improved cane press was invented that significantly increased production, and this created a great new demand for more slaves, as sugar products expanded to costal Spain and Portugal.  Sugar’s introduction of vast numbers of African slaves into Spain and Portugal on the cusp of their colonial expansion into the new world, set the stage for a monumental, world-wide tragedy that continues to reverberate today.


Sugar and Slavery will be the topic of my next positing. 




Leave your comment

Comments have to be approved before showing up