The history of sugar is a trail that runs like a bright band from religious ceremonies in India to Europe’s Middle Ages, then onto Columbus who brought the first cane cuttings to the Americas. Sugar was the substance that drove the bloody slave trade and caused the loss of countless lives, but it also planted the seeds of revolution that led to freedom in the American colonies, Haiti and France.
According to Hindu writings, it was used in religious ceremonies and put in a special fire as an offering to the Gods. Originally it was thought to be a medicine and then it gradually gained popularity as a spice until people discovered ways to process it, and so it was revolutionised.
The English word “sugar” comes from the Indian word “sakkara”, and the English word “candy” comes from the Arabic word for sugar, “qand”, from the Indian word “khanda”, meaning “lump”.
When the Abbasid army conquered northern India in 750 AD, the troops brought back sugar cane to the rest of the Islamic empire. Sugar soon reached North Africa and Spain as they were also part of the Islamic Empire. It was such a big hit that farmers began to grow sugar cane all over West Asia and Egypt. Islamic food scientists invented new presses to get more juice out of the sugar cane and Islamic traders also brought sugar to the east coast of Africa, as far south as Zanzibar.
Sugar was only discovered by western Europeans as a result of the Crusades in the 11th Century AD.
Crusaders returning home talked of this “new spice” and how pleasant it was. The first sugar was recorded in England in 1099. The subsequent centuries saw a major expansion of western European trade with the East, including the importation of sugar. It is recorded, for instance, that sugar was available in London at “two shillings a pound” in 1319 AD. This equates to about US$100 per kilo at today’s prices so it was very much a luxury.
‘White Gold’ as British colonists called it, was the engine of the slave trade that brought millions of Africans to the Americas in the early 16th century i.e. wealthy merchants traded sugar and then used the profits to ship slaves across the seas and expand their empires.
Sugar is used in so many of our favourite foods and snacks that it is difficult to imagine life without it. Until the mid-1800s sugar was so expensive, few people could afford it. It must be pointed out however, that refined sugar is an unnecessary, highly addictive food that has played havoc with our digestive processes and our overall health – think diabetes, tooth decay & obesity – yet sugar still remains the world’s largest crop. Sugar cane may however enjoy a kind of redemption as an alternative energy source for fuel, electricity and various ‘green’ products.
One things for sure, sugar is set to be with us for centuries to come.