Terms of endearment: Sugar. Honey. Sweet.
Holiday treats: Halloween candy. Christmas cookies. Valentine chocolates.
Whether you love sugar or avoid it or both, it’s hard to imagine a time without it. Honey has been around pretty much forever. But outside Asia, the familiar product from sugarcane—granular, confectioner’s, brown, white—is of more recent origin. The art of turning sugarcane juice into granules spread gradually from India in the past 2,000 years, eventually to change the world. Our words “sugar” and “candy” come from Sanskrit sharkara and khanda.
Arabs carried sugar production into North Africa and southern Europe, to sell as a luxury good in parts of Europe too cold to grow their own. Portugal introduced commercial sugar farming to islands near Africa in the 1400s, and soon afterwards to Brazil. In a vicious cycle, the increased supply turned sugar in Europe from a luxury to a necessity, creating ever-greater demand. To maximize profit in this lucrative trade, the Portuguese developed a plantation system based on huge acreage and backbreaking labor. Low life expectancy among masses of captive workers was no deterrent since Africa could always provide more.
“Sugar completely revolutionized European [and Euro-American] society,” Howard W. French writes in Born in Blackness (p. 6; words in italics mine). Its countless impacts include the transatlantic slave trade; French-English wars for Caribbean islands with sugarcane potential; the rum industry of colonial New England (made from Caribbean molasses, a sugar by-product); the plantation model later used for American cotton; molasses and sugar taxes that helped motivate the American Revolution; and racial inequities that persist today.
Sweets to the sweet. Enjoy your dessert!
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.