Thursday, February 21, 2013

Sugar changed the world

Just recently my mom has made me read a book called "Sugar changed the World" It was a good book, it went in great detail about sugar plantations. There was a section of the book that I thought was unnecessary though. My mom made me write a paper on the book. It took me forever to fix all the things that needed to be changed, but in the end  I think it turned out to be a pretty good paper.

What I thought was amusing was that I was learning the same exact thing in history. So some of the information (although not a lot) came from my history lessons. 

                                      by Ryan Langston
Sugar, it is in most of what we eat. It is the driving force that put millions of Africans in chains and sent off to distant lands. Yet it was sugar that let us hear what the slaves had to say about freedom and eventually lead us to believe that ALL men are equal.

Sugar cane (where sugar originates) was said to be first discovered by a Greek captain named Nearchus whom stumbled upon “Sweet reeds” along India's coast around 510 BC while serving Alexander the Great. Long before the Greeks set foot in India, the native people of India first used sugar cane to use in special ceremonies, rituals and even burials.

Years later after the Greeks, sugarcane was used in India to treat injuries. They discovered that sugar was an energy booster.  They made patients eat sugar as well as rub it on wounds. The Sanskrit, (some of whom lived in India) called sugarcane “Khanda” once the word got to England Khanda was turned into “candy”.  The first University in the world used sugar as a large part of medical training.

After that, huge discoveries were being made with sugar. After several years Muslims found a way to mill and refine sugarcane into the powder we now know today as sugar. Yet this was no ordinary sugar, it was brown! While this was happening Egypt became a sugar laboratory, experimenting new ways to use and refine it. After several decades of experimenting the Egyptians found a way to turn the unappetizing brown sugar to nearly pure white. They did this by draining the molasses from out of the sugar several times, making it near pure white.

In Europe, dukes, counts, kings or just wealthy merchants set up fairs. These fairs were focal points for foreign trading in Europe. When Muslim merchants came in with expensive and exotic sugar, trade exploded. Everyone wanted sugar. This new exotic spice was not cheap. In fact, in 1226 even kings had a hard time purchasing just three pounds of sugar. At the time just three pounds of sugar cost an estimated whopping 450 modern dollars. The reason sugar was so expensive was due to the fact  that it was shipped from far away and had gone through several places to refine and whiten it. Anyone who tasted sugar at the time quite literally tasting India, Egypt and everywhere in-between.

After awhile Spain and Portugal got sick of the unfair pricing of the Muslim merchants in the fairs and turned their attention westward. They sent explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan to find a short sea route  to the Indies. They did not find short a route to the Indies, but what they did find is a whole different land full of mysterious creatures and hostile natives. Or more importantly acres upon acres of fertile soil to plant sugar cane.

At first, they used the natives as slaves but after awhile they all died off from disease and beatings. That left only the plantation owners, who did not want to toil in the sugar fields. So they started to trade slaves from Africa. An estimated million and a half slaves died just from the boat ride, not to mention the actual plantations.

After many years the Europeans created a system called the transatlantic slave trade. It starts out as manufactured goods from Europe which then gets traded for slaves in Benin or other African kingdoms. Then the slaves go to places like Brazil, Jamaica or the dreaded Caribbean sugar islands. From there the sugar goes back to Europe in bulk and thus the triangle continues.

Owning a sugar plantation in the 1500s was a very profitable business. So profitable that sugar was in fact called “white gold”. It was the desired job to become a plantation owner. Back then people  did not care about the millions upon millions of slaves who lived the harshest life imaginable and died due to intense beatings, hunger, disease, and overwork.

In 1565, sugar was so common and so inexpensive that even common people could afford this “white gold” compared to 1226 where kings had trouble purchasing just a few pounds. Once the public in Europe had heard of such mistreatment they (although not immediately) began to protest slavery and finally in 1807 a bill was passed in England that all men were equal. In the 1850s, slavery came to an end, but only to rise to a new form of labor, Indenture.
In the 1850s people wanted inexpensive labor for their sugar plantations. Indenture was not really freedom but wasn't really slavery. Indentured servitude is when someone convinces you to sign a legally binding contract saying you will work for a good wage and fair hours for a period of one to four years. Most of contract you signed was a lie, what really happened was that they worked like slaves for a really cheap wage, and those who spoke out were immediately eliminated or thrown in jail for violating the contract.  

During this time sugar was going out of business, and merchants were no longer making a profit. So at this point there wasn't much reason to continue the sugar plantations. New things were taking sugars place such as beet sugar which is cheaper to make and does not need so many slaves. This brought an end to the age of sugar.

Sugar was the driving force that caused many good and bad things that have played out over the centuries. It permanently altered our diet, introducing candy and other sweets. It caused some of the biggest movements of people in history. It made us realize the horrors of slavery and it revolutionized farming into plantations. Sugar has made a lasting impression in the world, I guess you could say that sugar changed the world.


  1. Great paper I nominated you for a blog award

  2. Great report! I learned a lot from it. Thank you!

    Suburban Farm Girl