The History of Sugar

First broadcast September 29, 2002.

At times, I get temporary obsessions. Last year, I learned that Shakespeare called a magpie a Maggot Pie, and while I was relieved to find that the Maggot in this case was an old form of Margaret (so Mag Pie was just the sister to Jack Daw and maybe Jim Crow), I got curious about pies in general.

I'm a total research slob - I use New Electronic Brutalism whenever possible, so I opened my text file of all Shakespeare's plays, to see how The Bard used 'pie' at different times. That led me to The Winter's Tale, and the Clown's plans to make a warden pie, for which he needs three pound of sugar, five pound of currants, rice, and other items.

This made no sense, I thought. Surely the English got their sugar from the West Indies, and surely they weren't settled until later? A German lawyer, Paul Hentzner, reported in 1598 that Queen Elizabeth I had black teeth, which he said was "a defect the English seem subject to, from their too great use of sugar . . ." So by 1598, sugar was clearly well known in Britain.

In 1552, Thomas Wyndham, master of the Lion, landed in the Canary Islands to mend a leak below the waterline. His crew unloaded 70 chests of sugar to lighten ship, but these were seen by islanders and identified as coming from a ship that had just left port. Wyndham was accused of piracy.

The matter was sorted easily enough when Wyndham's men captured the governor, "a very aged gentleman of seventy", and so made good their departure. That was the norm for trade then, and if Wyndham had taken the cases of sugar, well that wouldn't have been unusual either. It was a seadog-eat-seadog world.

By Wyndham's time, sugar cane was widely grown in the Mediterranean and on the islands of the Atlantic Ocean, but I wondered where had it come from. That turned out to be the most interesting bit because sugar cane is one of the oldest agricultural crops in the world, and it began in Papua-New Guinea.

In the tropics, the term 'wet season' is a limp description of what really happens over several months of the southern summer. Soon after midday, the clouds roll in from the sea and pile up, the only warning of what is to come. When the rain starts, it's no gentle pattering shower but a sudden drumming, mind-numbing onslaught that terrifies and confuses. There's no thunder in the sky, just thunder on the trees as the rain sweeps in, thunder on the ground as it pours off the trees, and thunder in the heads of those trapped in the open by the rain, which descends at the rate of 20 millimetres or more in just 20 minutes. When you're out in rain like this, you only have one thought, to get out of it. Shelter is essential, at least until the rain passes, as quickly as it came.

All you need is a simple open hut of the sort still seen all over the tropical Pacific. It has corner posts of timber, a roof of leaves or grass thatch, a palm-leaf mat resting on a bamboo platform where you can sit comfortably with your feet out of the mud, and places to store food, tools and other items that would otherwise be buried in the mud when the daily torrent begins.

The easy way to harvest wild cane is to chop the long stems off at the base, and carry a bundle of long canes home over the shoulder, where they can be cut into smaller pieces, and shared out to chew on under shelter as the wet season rains beat down. Perhaps, one day, one wet season, nine millennia ago, a piece of cut cane fell from a platform and was trodden into the mud by somebody hurrying to outrun the rain as it roared up the hill, stripping leaves from the trees as it came.

Like all the grasses, sugar cane has a jointed stem, and its leaves and branches come from shoots at each joint. In lawn grasses the joints may be hard to see, because the leaves form a sheath around the stem, hiding the inner workings, but sugar farmers around the world know that you grow new sugar cane by cutting off lengths with two or three joints, and placing these in the ground. They know because somebody told them, just as somebody else told them, in a line that stretches all the way back to that first discovery, somewhere in New Guinea.

Slowly, over time, traders carried the cane, and the secret of growing it, from island to island, until it reached the Hindu empires of Indonesia, whence it leaped to India, where the cane hybridised with one or more other canes, producing a sterile form that was perfect for cultivation.

In India, or maybe in Persia, people learned to make solid sugar by boiling down them juice of the cane, adding ash, and the cane was ready to travel, along with the root words of "candy" and "sugar", as soon as conditions were right.

As the seventh century chugged along, Byzantium and Persia fought each other to a standstill. When Dastagerd fell to the Roman empire, sugar, recorded as "an Indian delicacy" was among the booty. By about 630, the two great powers had bled each other dry, leaving a vacuum into which Islam would enter.

The Muslim expansion joined many lands together in peace, allowing ideas and methods to travel, and before long, sugar cane and sugar making reached the Mediterranean, and spread around its shores and to its islands. When the Crusaders came pillaging, they discovered sugar, and took it back to Europe.

Now back in ancient Rome, Pliny had recorded sugar as a medicine, Buddha had called it a medicine, and the prophet Muhammad had recommended sugars and syrups for the sick. Thomas Aquinas took the view that those who resorted to sugar during Lent did so for health reasons, not for nourishment - and in 1353, a French royal decree required apothecaries to swear never to use honey when sugar was prescribed.

All things change. By 1581 Abraham Ortelius, a Flemish cartographer, would comment that "what used to be kept by apothecaries for sick people only is now commonly devoured out of gluttony". People hungered for sugar, and it was a cash crop now.

So in Shakespeare's time, sugar was still something of a luxury, but that was changing fast. Before he sailed to the Americas, Columbus had transported cane to his mother-in-law's plantation on Madeira, and he carried cane to the West Indies on his second trip. By Shakespeare's time, Brazilian sugar was commonly refined in places like Antwerp and re-exported to the rest of Europe.

Demand grew, more sugar was grown, and the price fell. Slaves were already in the Indies, carried there to work the mines, because the local people sickened and died, mainly of European diseases - and once Africans arrived, of African diseases as well. Europeans and Africans died of foreign diseases as well, but those who were there of their own choice, and who survived, became very rich, especially when the slaves were put to growing sugar instead. There were no human rights.

When the first English settlers sailed for Barbados, in 1627 their ship carried 80 English settlers, and also half a dozen Negroes plundered from a Portuguese vessel 'met' on the way. On the return voyage, the crew captured a Portuguese ship with a cargo of sugar which they sold for £9600, which went to benefit the colonists. While the colony might thus seem to have begun on a combination of black slaves and sugar, it really began with indentured white labour, and with crops other than sugar.

All the same, large-scale sugar production had to face four issues that did not matter when sugar cane was a garden crop, crushed in the olive press and refined in the kitchen. We might call them the four curses of sugar.

It was very demanding of capital, to clear the land, plant the crop, build the mill, with a wait of 15 months for the first crop, feeding the workers all that time, making barrels, importing metal, making pans and other goods, they needed transport to get the cane to where it would be crushed, iron hoops and timber staves for barrels, coopers, carpenters, a blacksmith to make or repair tools, animals and animal drivers, people to gather feed for the animals and to grow food for the workers, and much more.

Once it is harvested, the sugar in the cane degrades rapidly, so there was a desperate need for rapid processing. Workers had to keep going while there was work to be done, and there was no way mills could be shared.

Sugar cane is about 75% water and 15% sucrose, so boiling this down needed lots of fuel. All too often, sugar planters would destroy the forests around their plantations to obtain fuel.

The fourth curse of sugar arose when slavery became a cheap solution to the labour problem.

All the same, sugar was incredibly profitable, so governments taxed it as hard as they could. They took a cut from slaving as well, and a 1689 pamphlet called The groans of the plantations was not about the plight of slaves, but dealt with the needs of the poor, planters, suffering from a wicked, plundering, profiteering company stood between them and buying slaves cheaply on the Guinea coast. And taxes, of course.

There was tax on raw sugar, there was a higher tax on refined sugar, because the home government felt that they deserved to take as much of the industry and profit as possible.

All the same, more and more sugar was needed, for without sugar, tea and coffee and chocolate were all too bitter for most people, and then there were the sweetmeats, the cakes, the puddings and other delights that people demanded

In the collected works of Dickens, sugar is mention 102 times, "tea and sugar" is mentioned 13 times, and rum gets 146 mentions, because sugar was an essential of life. Anybody reading the journal of Marine lieutenant Ralph Clark of the First Fleet will be struck by his complaints at a lack of sugar.

Clark died, fighting over the sugar islands of the Caribbean in one of the many wars that would shape our modern world, all of them having a curious sugar angle to them. In 1763, France lost out to the English in the nearest thing yet to a world war, and in the settlement, in order to get back a few sugar islands, ceded Canada to Britain. The decision was supported by the British sugar interests who held the balance of power in the British Parliament, and who wanted those sugar islands to stay foreign, so their sugar would be taxed as foreign.

Voltaire thought this hilarious - the English had exchanged sugar for snow, he said. The British were happy to get the French out of north America, but once they did, the colonists, chafing under taxes on rum and molasses, decided Britain was no longer needed to help fight the French, and they moved to independence. The distal cause was the French wanting sugar islands, a proximal cause was American resentment over rum and molasses taxes.

During Napoleonic times, a series of complicated moves revolving around the sugar island of Haiti ended in the Louisiana Purchase, which delivered a large part of north America to the USA, and allowed Lewis and Clark to reach the west coast, leading to the spread of English speakers across the continent. More than a century on, that would also be relevant in time of war.

Around the time of the Napoleonic wars, sugar beet crops began delivering good enough yields to allow temperate sugar beet to compete with tropical sugar cane. It could even be used for making alcohol to drive vehicles, or with the addition of some cane-based rum, it could be sold for drinking.

When World War I came, German tankers could no longer fetch the tasty rum, but all that sugar beet alcohol could be used to fuel the German war machine. Perhaps the Kaiser gave time to thank that Prussian ancestor who first encouraged work with beet sugars, but perhaps those whose menfolk died in the mud and blood of Flanders would have been less appreciative of the part sugar played in prolonging a war that nobody could really win.

But then again, sugar had long been killing human beings, and not just the 12 to 20 million sugar slaves who died prematurely, if you listen to the food faddists, but that's another story. For my own part, I want to know more about the different sorts of pies, because that's where I was when sugar became my temporary obsession.


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