(POSTED: July 28, 2004)
History of Sugar
The history of sugar is a fascinating one. Using cuttings preserved from previous voyages to Asia, European entrepreneurs planted sugar cane in the tropical heat of the Indies,
and a new cash crop was born.
Before Christopher Columbus made his fateful voyage in search of Asian trade routes, most Europeans were hard pressed for lumps of sugar for their tea. Until the 16th century, sugar was primarily imported from Asia where it was cultivated by China and India.
And thanks to the Ottoman Turks, imported sugar commanded high prices, well above those afforded by the average European. Ottoman Turks controlled much of the known sea trading routes that led directly to the Asian continent. With a little muscle, they extracted high tolls as intermediaries in the trade of Asian goods such as sugar, silks and spices. European traders began to view the Ottoman Empires fees as mere extortion and a new effort was put underway to circumvent their well-controlled sea routes. Thus out of frustration many European mariners risked their lives in search of alternative routes to Asia. One of those mariners -- Christopher Columbus -- utterly failed, missing Asia and instead bumping into the Americas in 1492, at what is today known as the West Indies. But his discovery was the impetus for a flurrying of exchange between Europe and the Americas, which eventually led to colonization.
In terms of sugar, these new islands possessed the perfect climate to cultivate sugarcane. Using cuttings preserved from previous voyages to Asia, European entrepreneurs planted sugarcane in the tropical heat of the Indies, and a new cash crop was born. Sugarcane belongs to a family of perennial herb grasses that grow anywhere from eight to twenty feet in height.
Their thick stems contain crystals of sugar that after a period of refinement are preserved into what is commonly known as table sugar. Sugar plantations were soon established all over the islands, aided by the forced labor of the island natives.
The cheap labor kept production costs low, and the price of sugar fell, making it accessible to nearly all stratums of European society.
Although sugar cultivation today has benefited from modern advances in technology, it still remains a highly labor intensive industry. Sugarcane is grown from cuttings and after one year to eighteen months, the plant is ready for harvesting.
Special cane cutting machines have been developed over the years but have proven less effective than hand cutting. The canes are then transported by truck to the sugar mill where the leaves are stripped and the cane is mashed between serrated rollers. The mash is then pressed to extract the raw sugar juice, while the leftover pulp is sold as fuel. Lime is added to the raw juice, which is heated to its boiling point to extract any impurities. Sulfur Dioxide is added as a bleaching agent. A special vacuum invented by the American Creole, Norbert Rilleux, then evaporates some of the juice leaving behind crystals and thick syrup known as molasses. The two are separated in a centrifuge. The molasses is sold for use in baking or to distill rum. The sugar crystals are then packed off to the refinery. At the refinery, the crystals are granulated, powdered, or lumped into cubes for consumers.
Sugarcane is not the only source of sugar. Sugar beets are cultivated in more temperate climates where sugarcane will not grow. The beets are harvested and their roots are cuts into chips, which are pressed, rolled and refined in much the same way as sugarcane. The leaves and stems of the beet plant are used as animal fodder. The molasses from beets is not sold to the public due to purification difficulties. Oliver de Seres first introduced beet sugar to the European in 1590. There is no difference between beet crystals and sugarcane crystals.
However, the majority of sugar today comes from sugarcane. Over the years sugar has become more useful than just a simple sweetener. Sugar is used in curing tobacco and other food products. It is also an essential ingredient in the production of ethyl alcohol, butyl alcohol, glycerin, citric acid, and levulinic acid. (Sugarcane, Microsoft, Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000).
If the Europeans had much to gain from Columbus discovery of the Americas, the natives did not. Slave labor flooded the Europeans with cheap goods, but destroyed much of the native population who was ravaged by disease and neglect. Luckily today, the colonization horrors of the past have subsided and sugar continues to be a strong source of income for much of the West Indies and other tropical countries around the world. Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean all cultivate sugar as a major export crop. Barbados also has a strong sugar industry linked to their famous rum distillers. French Guyana in South America also has many sugar plantations. In North America, the southern states of the United States, such as Florida, take advantage of their semi-tropical conditions to supply their country and the rest of the world with the sweetener.