History Of Sugar Cane

History of sugar cane, which was once a rarity & difficult to harvest. Once it hit Europe, demand continually grew, encouraging the slave trade and enriching pockets while it played a detrimental role in nutrition.

Sugar, the sweetener that makes mornings more palatable in easing the bitterness of coffee, and desserts that tempt diners, has been an elusive plant for most of history.

The Bay of Bengal is the most likely starting point, spreading into India and then westward to Persia. Arab traders brought it further west, as they did with many other foodstuffs. Returning Crusaders also brought it back to Europe, where it was enjoyed by the very wealthy.

Marco Polo mentions that Venice was importing refined sugar in the 13th century; by the 15th the city was doing its own refining, and thus sugar became more available throughout Italy. The rich enjoyed creating sculptures of sugar to decorate their tables. When Henry III of France visited Venice, a party given in his honor featured plates, silverware, and linens all made of spun sugar.

Sugar, given its expensive nature, was often assumed to be medicinal. Many of the medical guides of the 13th through 15th centuries recommend giving sugar to invalids to bolster their strength.

Venice lost its monopoly in 1498, when Vasco da Gama went to India and established trade. It was however, the discovery of the Americas that changed the world consumption of sugar.

Columbus brought the plant with him to the West Indies, where the perfect climate for cultivation was found; the West Indies economy was based on its cultivation from then on. Hispaniola, Cuba, and Mexico soon followed. Cortez operated a sugar refinery, a profitable activity amongst his more daring exploits.

Sugarcane, however, is a very labor-intensive plant to care for, and plentiful, cheap labor was required. And sadly, no labor was considered as cheap as that of slaves. 1512 saw the beginning of the importation of slaves from Africa to the West Indies. The drain on Africa's West Coast was severe, leading kings there to plead with Portugal to stop the slave trade. Backed by the Pope, however, the slave trade continued.

Colonies in what would become the United States sold food, lumber, horses to the West Indies, since they would grow nothing but sugar on their plantations. Ships carrying food (often cod) to the West Indies returned bearing sugar and molasses. Molasses was turned into rum, and carried to Europe and Africa for the purpose of acquiring more slaves.

Despite this traffic in sugar, most in the US ate maple sugar, as it was cheaper and did not require importing. Some sugar can, and is, grown in the United States--small pockets of favorable climate can be found in Georgia, Louisiana, and Florida. Most of this sugar is made into sugar syrup.

America, however, loves sugar, as does Britain, Australia, and Ireland. From a nutritional standpoint, it does provide energy, but very little else in the way of nutrition--in other words, a fine food if you're starving, but not otherwise.

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