Posted in Kafevend Blog
Welcome back to the Kafevend blog. You may remember last week we had a look at how sugar first spread across the globe, and how processing was developed to extract it from sugar cane and sugar beets. Today we are going to pick up where we left off and see where sugar went once the Europeans got their hands on it...
The first European sugar enterprises were established around and just outside the Mediterranean, off the west coast of Africa. They realised early on that cultivating sugar was a very labour intensive exercise. European farmers weren't terribly interested in performing this work, and so began one of the more well known black marks on European history- the widespread use of slavery to produce cash crops.
The introduction of sugar cane to the New World is attributed to Christopher Columbus. After an extended stay in the Canary Islands, the lady whose presence had prompted him to stick around for a while gave him a gift of sugar cane cuttings when he finally departed in 1492. He brought these to Hispaniola, but they didn't fare all that well. They met with some success a little later on when they brought experts from the Canary Islands to administer to the crops.
It was the Portuguese who were the first to produce sugar en masse in the New World. By the 1540s, they had thousands of mills in their colonial holdings around Brazil, Santa Catarina, Demerara and Suriname. This enabled them to dominate the sugar trade for much of the 16th century. Soon though, countries like Britain, France and the Netherlands were setting up shop and competing.
The growing demand for sugar at home in part drove the period of colonisation across tropical regions as European countries vied for prime land to grow it. They weren't as thoughtful about the labour they used as they were about the land of course, as we well know about. At first, indentured servants from Europe (people who paid their way to America with the promise of working for someone once they arrived) were used alongside the subjugated Native American peoples.
Many of the Native Americans were wiped out by disease, which prompted colonists to turn to Africa as a source for more slaves, as the population there was generally more resistant to some of these diseases. Some 12.5 million African slaves were shipped mainly to the Caribbean and South America to work on these plantations from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Even more appallingly, almost 2 million of them never even made it there, dying on the voyage in dire conditions aboard the ships. Although Africans made up a huge number of the slaves brought to America, people from other areas were enslaved too, such as from India and other areas in east Asia. Even Europeans weren't safe, with reports of kidnappings taking place to send more labour abroad.
Thankfully, slavery is no longer a part of the sugar industry. But that hasn't stopped sugar from coming under fire, particularly in recent years as concerns about how it affects our health have been gaining ground. We will have a look at that subject next week- it's sure to be interesting!