The Historic Road of Sugar

In early West Africa, one life was equated with a half-ton of sugar. By 1700 it was one ton, and by 1800 it was two tons. Sugar remains one of the great moral mysteries: in the 18th century it was much more expensive in real terms than cereals. Sugar cane originally came from Polynesia, where it was invested with near magical properties. Indian sugar was made from a variety of can called puri, and it was this kind that spread slowly westward for the next 2000 years, to be joined in the eighteenth century in the New World by strains from Polynesia and Indonesia. Long before sugar was crystallized and distilled, honey was the predecessor as far as the great sweetener.

In ancient civilization before 650 BC is there evidence of control of bee swarming, with the honey usually being “hunted” and stolen from wild bees. Long before they became Christians, the Celts, Germans, and Slavs used honey to make mead. Countries with a vine-growing climate how more of a sweet tooth than those countries that could not produce wine. The first sugar reached England in 1319, Denmark in 1374, and Sweden in 1390. It was very expensive and used in medicines. From 1350 to 1550, the price of both sugar and honey declined dramatically due to increased production in the cane industry. The Portuguese had planted canes in Madeira, the Azores, and Sao Tome, and the Spanish in the Canaries, half a century before there was any production by the Spanish in the Caribbean. Before 1600 Venice gave way to Amsterdam as the great entrepôt for the sugar trade, as for the spice trade.

Biochemically, sugar contains fiber, protein, fat, starch, and sugar. When a large quantity of sugar is consumed it can meet nearly the whole body’s energy requirements. White sugar addiction can lead to obesity, tooth problems, and malnutrition. In England, where heavy consumption of white sugar arose earlier than any other country, the preference for white bread also began as a result of sugar addiction. In 1800 the United Kingdom consumed more than 18 pounds of sugar per head per year and because of the price of sugar, only the rich could afford sugar. What the presence of sugar in the diet is doing to Westerners has been discovered in the past generation; the effects include at least one form of cancer due to a low fiber diet.

In the ancient world, slavery accounted for around two thirds of population of Athens under Pericles, and around half the population of what is now Italy under Julius Caesar. To a poor man in Athens or Rome, to become a slave might be a way to better living in the form of food and shelter. Slavery became a structured part of the institutional sadism of the later Roman State. Though Christianity had been adopted first by the poor and the slaves of the Mediterranean world, the Church was ambivalent about slavery once Christianity became the established religion. In time, feudalism became institutionalized so that the king had a small number of great lords who supplied him with men-at-arms. By the time that the African was enslaved by the European, serfdom had succeeded slavery in most of Europe for nearly a thousand years. The Arabs found serfdom more efficient than slavery, and even though they had a very low opinion of actual physical work m they were excellent planners, managers, and agriculturists.

Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal was a leader who rarely left his castle. Nevertheless, in many ways he inspired, drove, and directed the whole Portuguese maritime effort in the Atlantic, contributing as much as any single other man to make the Age of Exploration what it became. By 1432, the first sugar cane had been pulped and refined in a plant near the modern Funchal. By 1530, there may have been more than a dozen sugar plantations in the West Indies, using imported resources such as animals, machinery, and workers. Prince Henry the Navigator sent many ships along the coast of West Africa, as well as to the East Atlantic islands. The Portuguese also sold slaves in Spain. The Spaniards found that they grew less sugar with more labor. Before the 11th century the Arabs had installed irrigation works in Algeria, Morocco, and southern Spain which were unsurpassed until the 20th century.

Between 1520 and 1570 the Ottoman Turks conquered Cyprus, Crete, the Aegean, Egypt, and much of the North African littoral. Inflation was the partial reason for the rise in price of sugar over the last thirty years of the 16th century which was caused by increased money supply throughout Europe. By 1640, when Spain relinquished its dominion over the country, Portugal had lost forever her premier position as an Atlantic trader, settler, and merchant.

The Spanish conquered in Latin America, except Brazil, in a few years with only a few thousand men. By the time of Columbus’s fourth voyage in 1504, he had discovered most of the West Indies, initiated settlement in at least twenty islands, and already brought back to Spain enough wealth to have paid all his expenses several times over. Though African slaves had been imported to Cadiz and Seville by the Portuguese since 1450, there was not a surplus to permit the required export of twelve with each gentleman adventurer to the New World. In 1514 Bartolome de Las Casas was granted a block of land in the Spanish colony of Cuba.

In the Caribbean, the native Amerindian Arawaks had been superseded on most of the islands by much more aggressive Caribs. The Arawaks objected to their harsh treatment as slaves, and many of themeither pined or contracted white man’s disease’s and subsequently died. Las Casas became Bishop of Chiapa in Mexico and was known as the Apostle of the Andes on account of his work for the underprivileged Indians. By 1548 he was conducting a nationwide campaign against the trade that he himself had started in order to save the Indians. The sugar trade multiplied by 5 percent per year in the seventeenth century, 7 percent in the eighteenth, and nearly 10 percent in the nineteenth. All sugar colonies had a white dominated presugar history.

17th century Europe was dominated by religious conflict, by the thirty years war, by the struggle between King and Parliament in England, and by the expansion of the Netherlands. Barbados had a relatively favorable climate and an abundance of water and timber. By 1660, Barbados had become one of the most densely populated agricultural regions in the world. In the decade 1660 to 1670 Barbados was the greatest sugar producer in the trade, but by then all its timber had been cut down, and the soil had become exhausted in more than a generation of growing sugar.

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