Sugar – the reeds which produce honey without Bees

From the earliest times humans have used and traded in sugar. “Egyptian hieroglyphics dating back at least 3,000 years indicate that the art of sugar confectionery was already established.”(1) This early form of sugar was in the form of honey.

Sugar in the form of a grass, was originally used by the natives of New Guinea for thatching the roofs of their huts. They discovered its sweet taste and started planting the sweetest for food. This desire for sweetness came from our hunter gatherer forebears who needed a very high calorie diet because of the amount of energy expended in their daily life. This also applied to a taste for salt.

The knowledge of the sweet grass spread, travellers, sailors and merchants carried it into Polynesia and Asia. Later the Arabs improved the strain and started growing it in North Africa.

This may have been due to Alexander the Great (356-232 BC) introducing sugar cane to the Mediterranean countries, from whence it spread down the east coast of Africa. It was grown largely in Spain and the Canary Islands, and the Crusaders took a part in introducing it to Europe and England.

It became an important commodity not only because of demand for it, but because it was taxed. But demand outpaced supply, and King Henry III of England had difficulty in obtaining as much as 3lbs for a banquet in 1226. However, from 1685 until 1874 its use did not become widespread. For instance, individual yearly consumption in Britain in 1800 was estimated as 10kg/22lb per person. In 1985 the estimate was 50kg/110 lb. per person.(2)

Crusaders had developed plantations in Mediterranean countries, and used slaves for cheap labour. But through destruction of trees through using them for fuel to process the sugar cane, the sugar trade in the Mediterranean collapsed. The production and slave trade was then carried to the Caribbean, creating a hell for the black slaves.

It was the demand for sugar that was a powerful stimulus to the black slave trade. The Encyclopedia Britannica suggests that during the whole of the eighteenth century it was also the direct or indirect cause of many an Anglo-French naval battle in the Caribbean. The fact that sugar was taxed, also made it an economically important commodity.

Although old records show that raw sugar cane was being milled in Dublin and Belfast in the middle of the seventeenth century,(3) in general Britain’s connection with sugar cane was linked irrevocably with black slavery. However, slavery was not a practice started by white Europeans. It had existed throughout history and in most cultures. In the Americas the Spanish started importing African slaves in 1517. They had originally forced the local native people to work in the mines and fields as slaves, but these easily contracted European diseases and died. The first slaves to be used in an English colony arrived at Virginia in 1619.

During the nineteenth century Britain’s relationship with the growth and economic factors relating to sugar became complex. Several changes have arisen in understanding this period. For instance there were two viewpoints about the period. One was that humanitarian ideology triumphed in connection with the use of slave labour, and this undermined the production of sugar cane. Another viewpoint was that slavery became economically unsound, and it was this that really undermined continued use of slave labour. However, recent information suggests that the situation was less simple. To paraphrase Alison Grant, more emphasis has in recent years been given to the social complexities of humanitarianism, and also, the British West Indian slavery has come to appear more resilient and flexible as an economic institution than was stated by other authors such as Williams. (4) (5)

Another factor was that the cultivation of sugar beet became more extensive in this period, possibly escalated by the conflicts between Britain and other European countries. When Nelson was victorious at Trafalgar in 1805, a blockade followed, cutting off supplies of cane sugar to continental Europe. Napoleon had heard that a new technique had been developed for extracting sugar from beet. He therefore decided that sugar beet should be the source of sugar for Europe. This meant that sugar cane and sugar beet were developed in parallel, and often in a competitive manner. Some idea of this is gained from statistics on sugar production. In the 1830’s, for instance, when the world population was 1,000 million, recorded sugar production was 800,000 tonnes a year.(6) This was virtually all from sugar cane. But by the mid 1970’s, when the world population had reached over 4000 million, sugar production was recorded as 80,000,000 tonnes. The comparison between beet and cane is now that presently there are approximately 22.25 million acres of sugar beet grown throughout the world, and 32 million acres of cane.(7)

Britain’s blockade of French ports is thought to have been the stimulus behind Napoleon’s order for large areas of land to be given over to sugar beet cultivation. He also directed French scientists to work on the problem of refining the raw beet sugars into something usable in the household. Benjamin Delessert, a French researcher, was the first to arrive at a usable solution. On January 2nd 1812 Napoleon went to the village of Passay to congratulate Delessert and see for himself. The French newspaper Moniteur Universal reported Napoleon as saying, “A great revolution in the economy of France has started today!” (8)

Sugar in its various forms, was therefore interwoven into the various aspects of society in very powerful ways. Some of the most obvious of these are that it was a commodity which became of increasing economic value; its economic fluctuations and possibilities both created and possibly destroyed the black slave trade; it was a major nutritional component of British diet, the molasses being rich in iron and some of the B vitamins and of course an energy food; its social influence stimulated not only a change in diet and cooking in Britain, but also powerful anti-slave movements; it was a factor in politics and international conflict; not only in connection with the growing of beet, but also in the development of milling processes, sugar was a part of the technological and agricultural changes in the 19th C.

Therefore, to summarise, the history of sugar in the 19th C. is an example of how a commodity that is largely to do with the kitchen, although sitting quietly on a kitchen table, is linked with major political, social, technological and economic events. The growing demand for sugar preceding and during the 19th C. gradually injected it with more power and effectiveness in human affairs. It is, of course, still potently connected with international economics, and the quality of life for thousands of workers in the industry.


Alison Grant, Bristol and the Sugar Trade. London: Longman, 1981.

Belinda Coote. The Hunger Crop – Poverty and the Sugar Industry. Oxfam. 1987.

Encyclopedia Britannica on CD ROM.

Infopedia UK Ltd. Hutchinson New Century Encyclopedia on CD ROM.


(1) Encyclopedia Britannica. CD ROM version. Search for ‘sugar history’.

(2) Infopedia UK Ltd. CD ROM. Search for ‘sugar’.

(3) Encyclopedia Britannica. CD ROM version. Search for ‘sugar history’

(4) Alison Grant, Bristol and the Sugar Trade.

(5)Eric Williams. Capitalism and Slavery 1944.

(6) Encyclopedia Britannica. CD ROM version. Search for ‘sugar history’

(7) Infopedia UK Ltd. CD ROM. Search for sugar

(8)Belinda Coote`. The Hunger Crop. Page 47.

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