PLANTS THAT CHANGED OUR LIVES Sug­ar­cane

Derbyshire Life - - Homes & Interiors -

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

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