Columbus spreads “The Sacred Reed”
The Arabs took sugar cane to Spain and Portugal, and because it was a highly profitable crop, both countries became very active in finding new places to grow sugar cane.
In 1493, the explorer Christopher Columbus took sugar cane to the Caribbean Island of Santa Domingo for trial planting. The crop flourished in the hot sunshine, heavy rainfall and fertile soil.
This was a landmark in the history of sugar cane, because, as Columbus reported to Queen Isabella of Spain, it grew faster in the West Indies than anywhere else in the world.
Sugar in the New World
After Columbus’ voyages to the West Indies, Europeans flocked to this exciting and promising New World. The discovery of how well sugar grew there upset the sugar markets in the Old World and many of the traditional cultivation areas in the Mediterranean were threatened by the competition.
Farmers from Britain, France and Holland made the most of this discovery and grew sugar on plantations in Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and the West Indies. These plantations grew sugar for export and, in the early stages, the local population was employed to tend to the cane.
Later on, because large numbers of workers were necessary, slaves were brought from Africa to farm the plantations. Sugar farming became so profitable that people soon referred to sugar as “white gold”, because owning a sugar plantation was said to be like owning a gold mine.
British people taste sugar
In Britain, and throughout most of Europe, honey was the ingredient used to sweeten food.
The first Britons to taste cane sugar were probably Christian soldiers called Crusaders who fought Muslims in the first Crusade to Syria in 1099.
As cane could not grow in the British climate, sugar was not available to the people of Britain until trading and transport had developed sufficiently for sugar to be brought into the country.
Sugar reaches Britain
It is reported that the household of Henry III was using sugar in 1264, but not until 1319 was sugar in more general use in Britain. It was sold at two shillings a pound (or approximately £50 in today’s money) and was therefore a luxury enjoyed by very few people.
Sugar was such a valuable commodity that it was kept in specially adapted tea caddies which would be locked.
Britain took Jamaica and other parts of the West Indies from Spain in 1655 and from then on became more involved in the sugar industry. By 1750 there were 120 British refining factories, producing 30,000 tonnes of sugar a year from sugar cane. Sugar was heavily taxed and by 1815 the British government had collected a total of £3 million in sugar duties.
In 1874 the prime minister, William Gladstone, removed the tax and sugar could then be afforded by many more British people.
All this time sugar beet was unknown as a source of sugar.
Beet – a new source of sugar
Beet has been grown for food and fodder since ancient times. However, it was not until 1747 that Andreas Marggraf, a German chemist, succeeded in extracting sugar from beet in a form which could be used in cooking.
This crop was highly suited to the temperate climate of Europe.