Jean M. West
What's not to like about sugar? On the average, modern Americans consume 100 pounds of sugar per year. It's sweet, and it gives a big energy boost. Well, yes, there are calories, cavities, and diabetes, but, in moderation, sugar is harmless ... right? In 1700, English consumption empire-wide was about four pounds of sugar per person per year. That certainly seems moderate. Yet in 1700 alone, approximately 25,000 Africans were enslaved and transported across the Atlantic Ocean. Up to two-thirds of these slaves were bound for sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Brazil to produce "White Gold." Over the course of the 380 years of the Atlantic slave trade, millions of Africans were enslaved to satisfy the world's sweet tooth. A sugar by-product, molasses, was distilled into rum and sent to Africa to purchase more slaves--this is the infamous Triangle Trade in the history books. Sugar's most bitter legacy is that the labor of slaves fueled the enslavement of even more Africans.
Sugar Comes to the New World
Ironically, sugar cane is not a plant native to the Americas. It is a perennial grass whose tropical species seems to have originated in New Guinea, and subtropical species in India. During the invasion of India in 326 B.C., Alexander the Great's soldiers became the first Europeans to see sugar cane; honey was the primary sweetener of the Western world at the time. Arab traders and Moorish conquerors spread the plant throughout the Mediterranean region, introducing it in Spain around 714 A.D.
Centuries later, under Spanish sponsorship, Christopher Columbus is believed to have carried sugar cane stem cuttings from the Canary Islands to Hispaniola on his second voyage, planting the seed-cane in Santo Domingo by December 1493. Subsequent Spanish colonizers spread the crop to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. The Portuguese introduced sugar cane to Brazil and received shipments of sugar from Pernambuco by 1526. Sugar was introduced in the 17th century by the Dutch to the Guyanas, the British to Barbados, the French to Martinique and Saint-Domingue (Haiti), and the Swedes and Danes to other islands of the Antilles. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the first governor of French Louisiana, and French Jesuits both introduced sugar cane from Saint-Domingue to New Orleans in the 1700s; however, the first commercially successful sugar planter in Louisiana was Etienne de Boré, who produced around 100,000 pounds of sugar in 1795.
European settlers also brought with them the methods for growing and harvesting sugar cane. Cane was planted by plowing furrows spaced about a yard's width apart and then placing seed-cane stems flat in the furrows at one-yard intervals. In some cases, seed-cane stems were planted in holes to a depth of six inches. The first crop took from 9-24 months to mature, depending on the climate (sugar can be killed by freezing temperatures), but produced crops for three to six years before declining production yield made it necessary to replant the crop. Yield varied widely depending on climate, from 25 to 100 tons of sugar cane per acre. Jamaican planters might expect a hogshead (around 1600 pounds) of refined sugar to be produced per acre; a typical plantation was around 750 acres in size. The mature sugar cane plant ranges from 4-12 feet in height; its soft interior contains the juice with the highest calorie content of the plant world.
Along with seed-cane and cultivation techniques, Spanish colonists brought the technology to produce sugar. Cane must be cut when it is fully ripened. To release the cane syrup (juice) from the sugar cane, it must be immediately ground in mills, usually located near the cane fields. The earliest mills were probably round millstones, set upright, pushed by humans or animals. The first shipment of milled sugar from the Hispaniola occurred around 1516. Four years later, a water-powered mill that...