** sugar history

Sugar History

Figure 1.--These Puerto Rican boys are enjoying a home-grown treat--sugar cane. Sugar was not native to the Caribbean, but was perfect for growing cane. As a result small aribbean islands became the most valuable agrivultural land in the world. And along with Brazil became the economic basis for the Atlantic slave trade.

The spread of sugar is a textbook example of international commerce. Ironically for a product that brings such pleasure to humans, it has brough untold misery to millions. The story of sugar begins in Oceania. It was the Polynesians who are believed to have discovered sugarcane. Indian traders operating in Polynesia brought it back to India where processes for manufacturing refined sugar were first developed. When the Persian Emperor Darius invaded northwestern India (6th century BC), the Persians encountered sugar bringing it further west. The Arab Islamic outburst resulted in the creation of a vast empire--the Caliphate (7th century AD). The Arabs encountered sugar in Persia and spread it througout their empire as far west as Spain. The word for sugar in English nd other languages has Arab origins. It was during the Crusades, that European elites first became aware of sugar. The Arabs continued to control the sugar trade for several centuries after the First Crusade. Arab control meant that quantities were limited in Europe and hugely expensive. Only a few areas in Europe were suitble for growinging sugar cane. This changed with Columbus' discovery of the Americas and the colonization of huge areas in the tropical zone that were suitable for growing cane. This set in motion both a sugar boom and the Atlantic slave trade. The Spanish first colonized the Caribbean (Spanish Main), but then became more interested in the mainland, both Mexico and Peru attracted by gold and silver. This enabled other European countries to seize Caribbean islands. Large scale production began in Brazil (17th century), but soon spread to the Caribbean. The European sweet tooth made tiny Caribbean islabds some of the most valuable realestate in the world.

New Guinea

The origins of sugar cane are not entirely clear. Some sources claim it was the Polynesians who discovered sugarcane. Other sources claim that sugar cane is native to southern Asia. New Guinea is located between these two areas. And there is evidence that people on New Guinea had begun to cultivate sugar cane (about 8,000 BC). [Daniels and Daniels] The Pauans did not, however, develop processes for refining sugar. It was simply a sweet chew. The people of New Guinea are often seen as primitive savages, but thry had impressive gricultural achievemebts--domesticating not only sugar cane, but also taro, bananas, yam (sweet potatos), and breadfruit. The species domesticated in New Guina was Saccharum robustum which existed in dense stands along the island rivers. While New Guinea is an island, it is one of the world's largest islands. Traders over time spread knowledge of sugar cane to China, Southeast Asia, and India. S. robustum was weaht the papuans found amd over time they selectuveled bred S. officinarum which was sweeter. As the was carried werst, it was hybridized with a local wild species -- S. spontaneum to produce a the hybrid S. sinense. Sweetnes is not theonly imoprtnt trait. To be successful, you need a hardy speces that was ackimsatized to subtropical climates. As a result, the caner groiwn today are complex hybrids, but based fundamentally on the S. officinarum domesticated by the Papuans.


It was in India that the next step in the history of sugar occurred. Some sources claim that Indian traders operating in Polynesia brought knowledge of sugar cane back to India. Indian traders brought Hinduosm to Southeast Asu=ian and Iceanua, long before Islam existed. And these connections meant that knowledgge of sugar was caried West back to Undia. Cane actually grew naturally in India. They used sugar in many ways. At first they chewed the cane to extract the sugar. The first organized sugar production began in India. India had a perfect climate for growing sugarcane. As in New Guina, for millenia, it remained a sweet chew. Just when the asctual production of sugar began is not entirely clear. One author suggests that Indians began squeezing the cane juices (about 1,000 BC). Apparently it was used as a kind of honey or liquid sweetner. We are not sure when the process of produuing refined sugar was developed. One author suggests it was the Indians (about 350 AD). [Gopal] This was important, because it a crstalized form it was more transportable and thus a more valuable trade good. Sugar was transported by sea and land caravans. The secret of sugar did not leek out of India for a long time, although the Greeks knew about the liquid swwtner. Sugar cane brought profits through trade across the subcontinent. It was not, however, and easy cropt to grow.


When the Persian Emperor Darius invaded northwestern India (510 BC) nhe noted a 'reed' which gives 'honey without bees'. This brought sugar further west. The Persins took sugat cane back to Persia and began producing their own sugar. At first, however, the the process of refinement was not known, but was evetually acquired from the Indians. Rulers at the time kept economic secrets. Just as the Chinese kept silk a secret, the Persians kept cane sugar a secret so the refined sugar could be exported for huge profits. It becme a major trade item wuth the West. One report indicates that sugar constituted a significant portion of the trade between the East and Europe (11th centuy AD). . Sugar manufacturing continued in Persia for nearly a thousand years, under a revolving set of rulers, until the Mongol invasions destroyed the industry (13th century).

Greece and Rome

Alexander's soldiers returned home with a knowledge of sugar. They clled it 'honey powder'. One of Alexander's generals writes of 'a reed in India that brings forth honey without the help of bees, from which an intoxicating drink is made, though the plant bears no fruit.'(327 BC) [Nearchus] Sugar was known to the Romans, but was very expensive a result of trde through Red Sea ports. They seemed to have used it as a medicine, presumablkt becuse it was too visdtly for cooking. With the fall of Rome, knowledge of sugar was lost to Europeans.


Knowledge of sugar cane reached southern China from Southeast Asia from a very early point,m priablu about (3000 BC). The first efforts to produce refined sugar appear in China much later. This appears to hve resulted from trade with India, the samne mechanism that introduced Buddhism to China. [Kieschnick] But the Chinese seem to have been especially interested in sugar. Travelling Buddhist Monks from India appear to have brought their crystallisation methods to China at the time Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (626-49). They showed the Chinese how to grow sugarcane. Chinese documents inducated there were at least two missions to India specufucally to obtaining technology for sugar-refining (beginning 647). The first sugar plantation appears in China (about 650 AD). During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), China perfected the process of producing granulated sugar. They decolorizing the pastes through a process called 'yellow mud water decolorization'. This Protugese abd Dutch presumably acquired this technology when they arrived in Chian (16th century).


The Arab Islamic outburst resulted in the wide-spread conquests. This gave the Arabs in a relatively short period to become a major power and createn a vast, at first unified empire--the Caliphate (7th century AD). The Arabs invaded and conquered Persia (642 AD). The result was an agricultural revolution. The Colombian Exchange is well known, the Arab Agricultural Revolution somewhat less well known. When the Arabs conquered Persia, the became aware of all kinds of new crops, most the Persians had acquired fron India. This involved an extensive list of crops that were unknown in Euroope, includung artichokes, bananas, coconut palms, cotton, eggplants, lemons, limes, mangos, rice, spinach, sorghum, sour oranges, watermelons, and yams. The Arab Agricultural Revolution did not only involve the Arabs. Arab Muslim armies not only comquered, but large Christian areas in the Levant and North Africa. And in thise conquered areas these new crops followed. And even in areas not conquered these new crops found their way although it took time. The result was major changes in Mediterranean agriculture. It is at this time that the first Europeans since classical times first encountered sugarcane. The Arabs called it thre Persian reed' and spread it througout their empire as far west as Islamic Spain. Arab chemists improve on the manufacturing process. The Arabs introduced sugar to Egypt (710). Thus Egypt became the a major source of sugar, primarily because the Nile provides the water needed for intensive cultuivation. Producrion peaked during the Crusdader era (1000 -1350 AD). Arab armies of course did not stop at Egypt. Army armies drove across North Africa and into Spain. Arab armies were only turned back in France by Charles the Hammer at the Battle of Tours (732). Sugar cane followed in the wake of these conquests. Significant sugar production began in Morocco (late-9th century), peaking (11th-12th century). Iberian Peninsula production under Muslim control (10th century). Sugar production declined after the Christian Reconquista and the expulsion of the Moors (16th century). The Arabs also introduced sugar to other areas they conquered, including Mediterranean islands, including Cyprus, Crete, and Sicily (9th century), but significant sugar production for the most part did not start on these islands until after the Chistian powers had regained control. Peak sugar production on Cyprus occurred (12th-15th century) during control of Genoese merchants. The peak years in Crete were during Venitian control (15th century). Sicily had a longer period of sugar production. This included a period of Muslim (9th-11 century) Christian Spanish (15th century) control.

Medieval Europe

While the Moors began growing sugar in Spain after they conquered the Iberainn Peninsinsula (8th century), smehow it does not seem to have made an impression on Christian Europe. It was during the First Crusade that European elites first became widerly aware of sugar (11th Century AD). Knights from all over western European went east to free the Holy Land. Crusaders when they returned home described a 'new spice' and how delicious it was. Some called it 'sweet salt'. Small quantities were reported in English (1099). Subsequent Crusades only increased the European interest in sugar. The Arabs continued to control the sugar trade for several centuries. The word surgar (azucar in Spanish) is of Arab origins. Arab land estates in Lebanon near Tyre bergn growing sugsr cane and producung suugar to export to Europe (12th century). [Ponting, p. 481.] Arab control meant that quantities were limited in Europe and hugely expensive. Only a few areas in Europe were suitable for growinging sugar cane. The Arabs tightly controlled exports and sugar was thus enormously expensive. Trade quickened during the late-middle ages, including trade with the Muslim world. Spices including sugar were some of the most prized goods imported by European traders. One source reports sugar being sold in London at 2 shillings per pound (1319). . This would be about US$100 per kilo in modern prices. (This probably understates the cost. While this seems expensive to modern consumers with substantial salaries, it would have been an astronomical peice in medieval Europe. It must be remembered at the time that most Europeans were peasants barely involved in the moneyed economy.) Thus only a few Europeans could aford it, the nobility and rich merchants. Treats like candy, pies, and cakes are modern creations. It was one more produc that created a desire to trade with the East. The first European refining was in Venice (15th century). Europeans began to grow cane and refine sugar. There were, however, only a few places in Europe where sugar cane could be grown. Production began in Cyprus and Kingdom of Castile (Valencia) using slave labor. Sugar cane cuiltivation is labor intensive and is only possible where a labor is readily availalble. Slaves were used because growing and processing sugar was so labor internsive. European labor was used in Andalusia, Algarve and Madeira (Portugal). The Europeans made major advances in sugar production in the late,medieval era. The Poryguese developed presses which doubling the amount of juice that coild be extracted from the cane (late-14th century). was obtained from the sugar cane. [Pearlman, p. 234.] This increased profitability and made possible large-scale production. This first occurre on the Portuguese Atlantic islands of Madeira. At about the same time Colunbus discovered the Americas, some 70 ships were involved in the Madeira sugar trade. [Deerr, p. 100.] Refining and distribution were based in Antwerp. As Portuguese exploers began sailing south along the coast of Africa looking for a maritime route to the East, they began acquiring African captives that could be enslaved for work on sugar plantations. The labor-intensive nature of sugar production soon conected sugar and the developing Altantic Slave Trade. And some believe thy lso disdcovered Brazil, but kept it secret.

The Americas

The European voyages of discovery led by the Portuguese had emense economic consequences. The ability of the Arabs to dominate the sugar trade when Bartholomeu Dias reached the tip of southern Africa (1486) and Columbus withoug knowing it discovered he Americas (1492). This mean that the Europeans has direct access to trade with the East (India, Indonesia, and China). Even more importantly, the Europeans now had access to tropical lands where sugarcane could be grown in quantity. Columbus recordedly brought sugar cane to grow in the new lands he had discovered (1493). The first cane harvest was reported in Hispaniola (1501). [Benitez-Rojo, p. 93.] Even so, a sugar industry did not immediately develop in the Spanish-controlled Caribbean--The Spanish Main. It was a virtual Spanish lake. The Spanish enslaved the Ameri-Indian population as a labor force, but they began dieing and the Spanish did not have the sugar technology possessed by the Portuguse. Ultimately The Spanish were more interested in gold and silver than agriculture and thus the thrust of empire moved west to the great Amer-Induian empires, and founded colonies in Mexico and Peru. Spanish Caribbean agriculture focused primarily on supplying ships sailing back and forth to Spain through the Spanish Main and eventually, ilicitly other European maritime powers. The Spanish had poor sugar refining technology and in addotion had largely wiped out the Native American populations, meaning workers were not available to operate plantations. This was a major problem because sugar cane is such a labor intensive crop. It was in Portuguese Brazil that sugar cane cultivation first began in a big way. There are rumors that the Portuguese discovered the Americas (Brazil) before Columbus) made his discovery and kept it a secret. Whetgher that is true or not, the Portuguese brought sugarcane and sugar processing technology to Brazil. [Deerr, pp. 102-04.] Not finding gold in large quantiities like the Spanish, the Portuguese gradually began founding plantations along the Brazilian coast. Sugar was the first of Brazil's great 'booms'. 8 The Portuguese soon had 800 sugar cane mills operating in the south (Santa Catarina Island) and amother 2,000 mills in the north. [Benitez-Rojo, p. 93.] Like the Spanish, the Prtuguese largly eradicated the Native Amer-Indfian popultion. But unlike the Spanish, they had ready sccess to a replacement labor force. . As part of the series of voyages south along the African coast, the Portuguese set up trading posts. One of the commodities traded was captive Africans sold as slaves. At first the number of Africans traded was relativly small. But as plantations began to be established in Brazil, the demand for slaves increased exponentially. And the value of sugar gave the planters the ability to buy slaves in large numbers. This was the birth of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the Sugar Boom. The Portuguese at first largely controled the slave trade. Unfortunately for the Portuguese, the forced union with the Spanish crown led them into the Dutch-Portuguese War. This affected theur ability to control the slave trade and the Dutch even occupied northeastern Brazil for several decades. When the Portuguese finally expelled the Dutch from Brazil, Dutch planters brought needed sugar technology to the Caribbean (1658). [Deerr, p. 208.] And labor in the form of African slaves was also now available in large numbers. The climate in the Caribbean like that of Brazil was perfect for sugar cane. Thus the Brazilian planters now had competion. The European sweet tooth made tiny Caribbean islands some of the most valuable realestate in the world. The Caribbean sugar islands became the most valuable realestate in the world. Fotrtunes were made. Sugar became a primary Europen import--about 20 percent (18th century), almost all of it came from Brazil and the Caribbean. [Ponting, p.17.] The Spanish weere not a major factor and had lost many of the islands to the British and French. The most valubale colony in the Caribben was Haiti (western Hispniola). The Atlantic Slave Trade and the Sugar Boom became two sides of a trianglar trade that became central to the colonial maritime economy--sugar (often shipped as molasses) and other raw materials to Euope, manufactured goods to Africa, and slaves to the Americas. Planters in Brazil ad the Caribbean shipped sugar to Europe or New England. Much of it was distilled into rum. Some of the profits were then used to purchase manufactured goods that were then shipped to West Africa and used to bartered for slaves. The slaves were then transported across the Atlantic to Brazilian and Caribbean sugar planters. This enabled the planters to produce more sugar to continue the trianguar trade. The basic pattern aws somewhat complicated by colonial trade regulations and the developing North American colonial economy. Developments on two islands would ultimately play a major role in bringing an end to slavery snd much of the Csribben sugar industry. . Residatnce on the smaller islkands were futile. There was no way to run away to. Thre klarger islands were different. Cuba and eastern Hispaniola) had not yet been developed as a sugar islands by the Spanish, but western Hispaniola and Jamaica were by French and Brtish. Slaves in Haiti/St. Dominque (western Hispaniola) revolted (1791). The French were never able to regain control. Escaped slaves on British Jamaica built Maroon colonies in the interior. American and British action to end the Atlantic skave trade hassone impoact (1807). The cost of rooting out these communities combined with a vibrant Abolitionist movement, convinced the British to emancipate the slaves (1835). This began a shift of production fron cane to beets. After British emancipation, sugar production in the Cribbean shited to Cuba and to a lesser extent Puerto Rico. These were the last two Spanish colonies in the Americas and slavery ws still legal ihere. On the other sugar islands, the freed slaves genrally refused to return to the plantaions and work for the wages offered. But with slavery still exusting and with large areas of flat terraine and an ideal climate, Cuba was soon producing huhe uantities of sugar (mid-19th century). Spain finally effectively banned slavery in Cuba and Puerto Rico (1886).

Dutch East Indies

With the end of slavery in the Caribbean -- except for Cuba and Puerto Rico (1830s), sugar production fell. The former slaves had no desire to continue working on the plantations. The Dutch decided to found a sugar industry on Java and exploit the Javanese as their work force. Dutch officials required the Javanese to grow sugar cane for them. They had to grow the cane and deliver it to the Dutch factories. Thry also had to work in the factiries. The whole operation was based on the 'Cultivation System' (1850s). Some 94 water-powered Dutch sugar factories processed raw cane into refined sugar. The Dutch collected detailed information on over 10,000 villages. The Cultivation System was a plan by which catchment areas were identified with a radius of approximately 4-7 kilometers around each factory. The villagers within these catchment areas were then reorganized to grow cane. It wasa system of slavery in all but name.

United States

A German chemist, Andreas Marggraf, identified sugar in beet roots (1751). [Marggraf] It would several decades, however, before Americans began producing sugar. And even when they did, it never fully satisfied the demand for sugar in the United States and imprts from gthe Caibbedn continud. The United States was not significntly involved in the production of cane sugar. The 13 original colonies were too far north to profitably grow sugar cane. America was involved in the triangular trade and produced rum from Cribbean molasses. Sugar cane was intriduced to Louisins by the French (1751). [Deerr, p. 15.] America did not have any sugar plantations until President Jefferson purchased Louisiana from Napoleon after his effort to restablish control of Haiti faled (1803). David Lee Child built the first U.S. sugar beet factory in Northhampton, Massachusetts (1838). [Austin] Commercial sugar beet production began in California (1870s). Sugar beet factories were established in Watsonville and Alvarado (1890s). [Harveson] The Caribbean, however, continued to be a major sorce of American sugar. Ameican planters founded sugar plantaions on the Hawain Islands before the islnds were ammexed by the United States. Japanese workers emigrated to the islands. Working conditions ware oppresive, but far better than conditions in Japan itself--which embarassed the Japsnese Government. When the United States annexed the Islands, the Japanese and other islanders became U.S. citizens (1898). Which is why at the time of World War II there was such a large Japanese population on the Islands.


Austin, Harry. History and Development of the Beet Sugar Industry (National Press Building, Washington D.C. 1928).

Benitez-Rojo, Antonio, The Repeating Island (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996).

Daniels, J. and C. Daniels. "Sugarcane in prehistory," Archaeology in Oceania Vol. 28 (1993), pp. 1-7.

Deerr, Noël. The History of Sugar: Volume One (London: Chapman and Hall, Ltd., 1949).

Gopal, Lallanji. "Sugar making in ancient India," (1964).

Harveson, Robert M. "History of Sugarbeets."

Kieschnick, John. The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture (Princeton: University Press, 2003).

Marggraf, Andreas. "Experiences chimiques faites dans le dessein de tirer un veritable sucre de diverses plantes, qui croissant dans nos contrees," Histoire de l’academie royale des sciences et belles-lettres de Berlin (1747), pp. 79-90.

Nearchus. He wrote a book about the naval expedition, which was also to be a voyage of discovery. The Indikê is now lost, but its contents are well-known from several sources, especially the Indikê by Arrian of Nicomedia and the Geography by Strabo of Amasia.

Pearlman, Ann. The Christmas Cookie Club: A Novel (Simon and Schuster, 2009).

Ponting, Clive. World History: A New Perspective (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000).


Navigate the Children in History Website:
[Return to the Main sugar page]
[Return to the Main food page]
[Return to the Main agricultural page]
[Return to the Main mercantilism page]
[Return to the Main Economics page]
[Return to the Main Cuban economy page]
[Return to the Main Cuban history page]
[About Us]
[Introduction] [Animals] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Climatology] [Clothing] [Disease and Health] [Economics] [Ethnicity] [Geography] [History] [Human Nature] [Law]
[Nationalism] [Presidents] [Religion] [Royalty] [Science] [Social Class]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Children in History Home]

Created: 5:25 AM 10/1/2012
Last updated: 9:45 PM 10/12/2021