Origin and History of Sugar

Hacienda La Fortuna. A sugar mill complex in Puerto Rico, painted by Francisco Oller in 1885. Brooklyn Museum

Sugar was first manufactured in northern India sometime in 4000 BCE. The origin of the word “sugar” is from Sanskrit शर्करा (śarkarā), meaning “ground or candied sugar,” originally “grit, gravel”. 

Sanskrit literature from ancient India presents the first documentation of the cultivation of sugar cane and the production of sugar in the Bengal region of the Indian subcontinent. The Sanskrit name for a crudely made sugar substance was guda, meaning “to make into a ball or to conglomerate.”

The history of sugar has five main phases:

  1. The uprooting of sugar cane juice from the sugarcane plant, and the consequent domestication of the plant in tropical Southeast Asia around 4,000 BCE.
  2. The discovery of the manufacture of cane sugar granules from sugarcane juice in India a little over two thousand years ago, followed by changes in refining the crystal granules in India in the early centuries AD.
  3. The expanse of cultivation and manufacture of cane sugar to the medieval world together with some changes in production methods.
  4. The extent of cultivation and manufacture of cane sugar to the West Indies and tropic parts of the Americas beginning in the 16th century, followed by more accelerated improvements in production in the 17th through 19th centuries in that part of the world.
  5. The evolution of beet sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and other sweeteners in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Sugarcane in Ancient India

Sugarcane originated in the tropical Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Originally, people chewed sugarcane raw to remove its sweetness. Indians learned how to crystallize sugar during the Gupta dynasty, around 350 AD although literary testimony from Indian books such as Arthashastra in the 4th-3rd century BC indicates that refined granulated sugar was already being manufactured in India.

Indian sailors, consumers of purified butter and sugar, carried sugar by various trade routes. Traveling Hindu and Buddhist monks brought sugar crystallization methods to China. During the reign of Harsha (r. 606–647) in North India, Indian diplomats in Tang China taught sugarcane cultivation methods after Emperor Taizong of Tang (r. 626–649) made his case in a sugar known, and China soon installed its first sugarcane cultivation in the seventh century. Chinese documents confirm at least two missions to India, initiated in 647 AD, for obtaining technology for sugar-refining. In the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and China, sugar became a staple of cooking and desserts.

Evolution of sugar in other parts of the world

The Indian traders brought sugar to the middle east and the Greeks.

There are records of knowledge of sugar among the ancient Greeks and Romans, but only as an imported medicine, and not as a food. For example, the Greek physician Dioscorides in the 1st century (AD) wrote: “There is a kind of coalesced honey called sakcharon [i.e. sugar] found in reeds in India similar in consistency to salt and brittle enough to be broken between the teeth like salt. It is good when dissolved in water for the intestines and stomach, and [can be] taken as a drink to help [relieve] a painful bladder and kidneys.” Pliny the Elder, a 1st-century (AD) Roman, also described sugar as medicinal: “Sugar is made in Arabia as well, but Indian sugar is better. It is a kind of honey found in cane, white as gum, and it crunches between the teeth. It comes in lumps the size of a hazelnut. Sugar is used only for medical purposes.

During the medieval era, entrepreneurs from different kingdoms across the middle east and Europe learned sugar production techniques from India and developed the industry. Medieval Arabs in some cases set up large plantations equipped with on-site sugar mills or factories. The cane sugar plant, which is fundamental to a tropical climate, requires both a lot of water and a lot of heat to thrive. The cultivation of the plant spread throughout the medieval world using artificial irrigation. Sugar cane was first grown widely in medieval Southern Europe around the 9th century.

The volume of imports rose in the later medieval centuries. Its price per pound in 14th and 15th century England was about equally as high as shipped spices from tropical Asia such as mace (nutmeg), ginger, cloves, and pepper, which had to be moved across the Indian Ocean during that era.

Evolution of Sugar in the New World

The Portuguese drove sugar to Brazil from India. By 1540, there were 800 cane sugar mills in Santa Catarina Island and there were another 2,000 on the north coast of Brazil, Demarara, and Surinam. The first sugar season happened in Hispaniola in 1501, and many sugar mills had been constructed in Cuba and Jamaica by the 1520s.

During the 18th century, sugar became enormously popular. Great Britain, for example, consumed five times as much sugar in 1770 as in 1710. By 1750, sugar surpassed grain as “the most valuable commodity in European trade — it made up a fifth of all European imports and in the last decades of the century four-fifths of the sugar came from the British and French colonies in the West Indies.” From the 1740s until the 1820s, sugar was Britain’s most expensive import.

Changing Technique

Starting in the late 18th century, the creation of sugar became increasingly mechanized. The steam engine first powered a sugar mill in Jamaica in 1768, and soon after, steam displaced direct firing as the source of process heat.

In 1813, the British chemist Edward Charles Howard invented a method of refining sugar that required boiling the cane juice, not in an open kettle, but a closed vessel heated by steam and held under partial vacuum. At decreased pressure, water boils at a more moderate temperature, and this expansion both saved fuel and reduced the amount of sugar lost through caramelization. Further gains in fuel-efficiency came from the multiple-effect evaporator, invented by the United States engineer Norbert Rillieux (perhaps as early as the 1820s, although the first working model dates from 1845). This system consisted of a series of vacuum pans, each held at a lower pressure than the previous one. The vapors from each pan served to heat the next, with minimal heat wasted. Modern industries use multiple-effect evaporators for evaporating water.

The method of separating sugar from molasses also received mechanical attention: David Weston first applied the centrifuge to this task in Hawaii in 1852.

Source: Wikipedia, Indian History Archives

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