PLANTS THAT CHANGED OUR LIVES Sugarcane
One of the plants that have affected people’s
lives more than any other – for good or ill!
Linnaeus gave sugarcane the botanical name Saccharum officinarum: ‘Saccharum’ the Latin word for the reed-like plant; ‘officinarum’ meaning of practical use to man. What an innocuous name to give to a plant which has been dubbed ‘ white death’ and ranked with cocaine, alcohol and tobacco as causing serious ill health to generations of our ancestors.
Life today without sugar is inconceivable, yet for thousands of years civilizations before our own managed perfectly well without it. Most had some sort of sweetening commodity which they used sparingly – honey and sugars made from partially dehydrating the saps of palm and maple trees – but starting in the 17th century it was western Christian civilizations which made sugar into a cheap, daily commodity used by everyone in huge quantities and the basis for great industries. Today about 70 per cent of the sugar we use comes from sugar cane: the remaining 30 per cent is derived from sugar beet; but that’s another story.
The debate about where species of sugarcane originated (there are at least five distinct species) has persisted for decades. Recent evidence from the DNA of plant remains suggests that Saccharum officinarum is native to South East Asia where, some 10,000 years ago, our ancestors found that the pith of the plant was sweet if sucked or chewed. This encouraged both the cultivation of the plant and, carried by canoeing seafarers, its spread around the Eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans. From evidence found on the banks of the River Ganges, in Northern India, some 2,500 years ago people began boiling cane juice then cooling it in flat bowls to make crystals which were easier to store and transport than sugar canes. They called the crystals khandi, from which the present day word candy was derived.
Cane sugar, the name given to the dried sap of Saccharum officinarum, is thought to have become known in Western Europe following the first Crusade (1096-99). For centuries it was valued as a rare and expensive spice and only used in very small quantities as a medicine, but by the 16th century it was being more widely used in wealthy households.
The earliest record of sugarcane being grown commercially in Western Europe was by the Portuguese during the latter part of the 15th century on the Atlantic island of Madeira. During the early 1500s the Portuguese began establishing sugarcane plantations in Brazil, which they had laid claim to in 1500. This was motivated more by necessity than economics. The prevailing principle at the time was that countries could only claim colony status of land they had actually occupied. Sugarcane had been grown commercially in the West Indies as early as 1506 (Christopher Columbus took plants to Hispaniola during his first trip in 1493), so extensive sugar plantations were seen by the Portuguese as an effective way to establish their occupancy of Brazil.
Where sugarcane plantations went, slavery followed: some
12.5 million human beings are estimated to have been transported from Africa to the Americas between 1501 and
1867 to work the plantations.
And there was a knock-on effect. Slaves had to be paid for; copper, brass, tobacco, rum and guns were needed to purchase them