The sugar cane plant probably originated on the island of New Guinea. From there, it gradually spread – both through natural means, and carried by migrating humans – through the Indonesian islands and up into South-East Asia. As early as 10,000 BC evidence of sugarcane cultivation and its use as an energy source has been found in north-eastern India, and from 6,000 BC in the South Pacific.[/caption]
By about 500BC, its cultivation had become firmly established in Northern India; and it is here that the first evidence of a sugar industry can be found. Up until then, if it was cultivated this was on a very small-scale, and its juice extracted using very primitive means. However, this juice was now being turned into a crystallized form, capable of being traded rather than simply consumed in the immediate vicinity of its production. By 300BC, official documents indicated the existence of five distinctive qualities of such sugar, indicating the development of sophisticated refining techniques.
It was from Northern India that cane agriculture and sugar industry spread, both East and West. Magadha, in the region that is now Bihar and Bengal, became an important centre (and continues to be so right up to the present). By 250BC , a sugar industry had also been established in Tonkin (in the area now covering Northern Vietnam, North-eastern Laos, and the southern part of China’s Guangxi and Yunnan provinces. From here, knowledge of sugar reached into China.
By 650AD, the Chinese themselves were cultivating and processing sugar cane, the basis of an industry that – although never a significant exporter – continues to make China one of the world’s leading producers of sugar. The industry was also slowly spreading westwards from India, becoming established in Persia and south of the Caspian Sea.
From 700AD, the Arab agricultural revolution spread advances in cultivation technology throughout the Mediterranean basin. Over the ensuing centuries, sugar cane began to become an important crop in the region, its growth stimulated by increasing demand from elsewhere in Europe, as knowledge of sugar’s sweetness spread north partly through trade, but also through the effects of north Europeans travelling through the Mediterranean in the course of the Crusades. Starting in Palestine and Egypt, by 1300 cane was being cultivated in southern Italy and Sicily, and as far west as southern Spain and Morocco.
By 1500, a vibrant sugar industry could be found in the Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Canaries. This began to mark the end of Mediterranean sugar, though. Although the Arabs had developed advanced agricultural techniques (establishing the first examples of plantation farming), they had not developed the industrial side of production. The cane mills of Madeira and the Canaries not only adopted the best of Arab farming practices, they were more open to technological advances. War (both Crusades and Mongol invasion) along with weak governance had weakened the Arab socieities of the Levant and North Africa, with the Black Death of the 14th century hastening the region’s stagnation and decline.
But it was above all competition from the cheaper sugars being produced first in the Atlantic islands, and increasingly from the Americas. The decline of Mediterranean sugar, although not immediate, was rather rapid.
By 1600, Brazil had emerged as a major producer of sugar. Here the plantation system became established in the form that would be reproduced throughout the Americas, not just for sugar cane but other crops too, such as cotton. The sugar plantations and mills that began to become established enabled the increasingly large scale cultivation of cane and manufacture of sugar. These were vertically integrated, agro-industrial enterprises (and indeed the sugar mills of the Americas were small rural industrial complexes, predating – and in some ways presaging and influencing – the industrial revolution that would sweep the cities of Europe and North America from the late-eighteenth century). They were based upon control over large tracts of land, both guaranteeing access to sufficient field-space and enough fuel (in the form of wood) to burn in the mill’s furnaces. Plantations typically took the form of a sugar mill, with living quarters and other buildings, set in the midst of a sea of cane fields, with these in turn surrounded by lands yet to be exploited. What was most distinctive, though, about the plantation system of the Americas was its dependence upon slave labour, with millions of Africans being transported across the Atlantic as labourers.
By 1700, the sugar plantation system had spread through the small islands of the Eastern Caribbean. Barbados in particular was important in this latest spread of the sugar frontier, and an important point of origin of technological developments that were then spread to wherever cane began to be cultivated.
These islands were small, though, and very quickly all available space on them had been taken up, and over exploited, by cane cultivation.
By the mid-eighteenth century, demand for sugar, in particular in Europe, was greatly increasing. There was a need to increase the amount produced for export, and sugar plantations came to be established in the larger islands of the Caribbean (in particular the French colony of Saint-Domingue, on Hispaniola, and the British colony of Jamaica). The Dutch were also keen to produce more sugar, and began to develop sugar mills on the Indonesian island of Java (geographically very close to sugar cane’s point of origin).
The 19th century brought new technological advances, with the increasing application of steam to sugar mills, and new developments in sugar refining that enabled greater and greater quantities to be produced and traded. During much of its history, sugar had been considered a luxury commodity. But by the 1800s it was forming an increasingly central part of working class dies in Europe and North America. By the 1860s, per capita consumption in Britain was more than forty times what it had been at the start of the eighteenth century. It was above all from new centres of sugar production that much of this demand was met: Cuba and Louisiana in the Americas (as well as the increasing spread to other parts of the hemisphere); and Java and Taiwan, as well as India, in Asia.
By 1900, sugar was a global commodity par excellence. Produced in every continent (with sugar returning as a European crop, with the discovery of how to extract it from the sugar beet that could be grown in large quantities in temperate zones), from the Americas, through Africa and Asia, to Australia and Oceania.
Throughout the 20th century, it has continued to be the most important single global food commodity.