Sugar is ubiquitous. It has become so essential in our lives that we produce and consume on average around 170 million metric tons a year! We use it in our food and drinks, use it as a form of medication (seriously), and even use it in the production of essential materials from fabrics to cement. In fact, sugar can be found in up to 74% of products at your local supermarket. Such is its prevalence that it is no wonder that (in America at least) the average individual consumes about 66 pounds of the stuff annually!
But what do we really know about where it comes from (and I don’t mean from the supermarket), how it got shared and introduced to just about anyone and everyone on the third rock from the sun? In this post we’re going to take a trip back in time to see how sugar made its debut on the world stage.
Sugar, derived from the sugarcane plant was first discovered and subsequently domesticated in New Guinea around 10 000 BCE. Natives consumed sugar (or more accurately, the sugarcane’s juices) by chewing on raw sugarcane stems, and primarily during religious occasions or rituals. Through trade and exchanges, sugarcane began to proliferate across Southeast Asia, India and China. During this time, the primary form of sugar came in the form of a liquid extracted from the sugarcane plant, somewhat limiting its ability to be exported in raw form other than by shipping large amounts of sugarcane. Sugar earned its status as a prized commodity thanks to the discovery of crystallization methods developed in India c.350 CE* during the Gupta Dynasty through the boiling of sugarcane stalks and extracting the resulting concentrated solution. Indian traders (and some Buddhist monks) transported sugar with them across trade routes into China, and consequently introduced to the Chinese empire methods of sugar cultivation and processing by the 7th century at the behest of the Emperor Tai Tsung.
The lucrative sugar trade in India caught the interests of Middle Eastern traders, who subsequently introduced sugar to the Mediterranean (i.e. Persia) and began to cultivate and refine the crystallization method into one that closely resembles modern techniques, creating purer products by including lime and egg whites to remove impurities, and carefully washing the resulting sugar crystals. They also created large plantations and refineries, taking advantage of the hot climate, abundant and fertile land (Egypt, for instance) and advanced irrigation techniques, allowing for large amounts of granulated sugar to be produced and consumed or exported by the 6th century CE. Such was the popularity of sugar that it even became used to entertain guests in the form of various sweet treats like marzipan (in fact, a marzipan mosque was commissioned by a caliph for the poor to admire, pray in, and eventually consume). At the height of the Persian Empire’s expansion, the conquering armies brought sugar as part of their supplies, leading to a rapid proliferation of sugar across the lands they had won.
Sugar could be found in Medieval Europe (made available in limited quantities through trade with Muslim traders (aka Saracens) , though not for as long a time as compared to the Persians and pretty much the rest of Asia, depending instead on honey as a natural sweetener. Sugar initially began to make inroads to Medieval Europe around the 12th century CE, thanks to nations that were proximate to the Persian Empire (notably Italy) importing the stuff from Egypt. While this meant that people like the Venetians were able to establish dominance of the sugar market in Medieval Europe, it also meant that for everyone else north of them, sugar was still considered rare and valuable enough to be considered a spice that only the rich could afford to consume in a form other than medicine (i.e. as food). During this time, Pope Urban II had declared the First Crusade to retake the Holy Land from an expanding Muslim empire and while Medieval Europe was engaged in epic battle, the Crusaders came into contact with sugar (which they referred to as ‘sweet salt’) through conquered land and merchants crossing the Holy Land (roughly where modern day Israel is) confiscating and returning to Europe with significant quantities of it.
However sugar production never really caught on in Medieval Europe, given the tropical climate and abundance of water needed to grow sugarcane, leaving only a few small areas in Mediterranean Europe (e.g. Italy, Greece) to attempt to profit from local production. Even these producers had to acknowledge difficulties, particularly in finding labour to work on the plantations and refineries. Refinements in processing techniques by the 1400s enabled the proliferation of sugar (though not sugarcane itself) across Europe, with sugarcane grown in Mediterranean European states transported and refined as far North as Antwerp. However, demand still exceeded the ability to produce enough supplies, and given the rise of the Ottoman Empire, trade became increasingly scarce, leading to a further strain on supplies. This scenario effectively caused the rulers of Medieval Europe to consider what few options were available: wage war with the Ottoman Empire and claim land and sugar (costly and needlessly destructive), put pressure on sugar-producing nations like Italy, Portugal, and Greece (all of whom were already struggling to produce more thanks to a plague ravaging Europe), or find new lands and develop more sugar themselves. This led to the first expeditions overseas to establish colonies where sugar (and possibly other spices) could be produced in greater amounts than was readily available back home.
The expansion and high demand for sugar quickly meant that it had become a very valuable commodity that became heavily involved in the rise and fall of empires post-1500 CE. In fact, European expansion into establishing colonies in Africa, Asia, and the New World was partly spurred on as a means to gain lands that were more suitable to cultivate even more sugar. Unfortunately, we’ve reached the maximum time period to discuss this topic, but do feel free to check out the links below to find out more about the glitz, glamour, and scandals of sugar after the 16th Century CE!
*Disclaimer: Sugarhistory.net, while the information does corroborate with other sources, it does lack proper citations, so tread (the information) with care!