Before the Industrial Revolution – that is, throughout the greater part of human history – agriculture was the basis of most economies in the world. Domesticating and cultivating useful plants, as well as perfecting them through interbreeding, was essential for the generation of wealth in pre-industrial economies. Apart from that, technological limitations contributed to high transportation costs. This fact meant that trading the fruits of agricultural labor could only yield high profits if these fruits possessed a high value per unit of weight. As a result, making profits in an agricultural economy mainly depended on growing high-value cash crops for sale. Few of such crops were as prominent and profitable or had such as significant historical impact as sugarcane. As one of the few natural sweeteners, sugar was always in high demand, and sugarcane was and remains the most effective way of producing it. The historical importance of sugarcane reaches far beyond its Southeast Asian origins. Brought to the Middle East by the Muslims and transported to the New World by the Spanish, sugarcane contributed to the development of plantation agriculture in the Americas and promoted the famous triangular trade.
Sugarcane was first domesticated in Southeast Asia, namely, in New Guinea, southeast China, and Eastern India. India was likely the first region to produce crystallized sugar out of it. However, the cultivation of sugarcane was not limited to its place of origin. Upon learning about it, Arab traders who sailed to India via the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea brought sugarcane to the Middle East (Ahmad et al. 342). Moreover, the Arabs have also borrowed the technology of making crystallized sugar as well (Ahmad et al. 342). Muslim conquests of the early Medieval period brought this knowledge further West as far as the Iberian peninsula. People of Northern Africa and Western Europe have borrowed from the Arabs just as the Arabs themselves have learned from other cultures (Ahmad et al. 342). As a result, sugarcane and the technology of producing sugar out of it became one of the Arabic contributions to Middle Eastern and European agriculture. While most of Europe was ill-suited for growing it for climatic reasons, southern regions of Spain began growing it, which was to have a prominent impact on world history in several centuries.
Upon discovering the New World, the Spanish lost little time in uncovering the agricultural potential of the newly-acquired territories. Columbus himself was the first one to introduce sugarcane to the Americas during his second voyage to Hispaniola (Samper 20). Spanish colonists had planted it, and sugarcane quickly took to the soil and began growing rapidly in the warm and humid climate of the Caribbean. New possession of the Spanish Crown proved to be a perfect fit for growing sugarcane: settlers then spread it to the neighboring Antilles, to Cuba, and soon to mainland America as well (Samper 20). The first sugar produced in the Caribbean arrived in Spain in 1515, but it was not going to be the last one (Samper 20). During the early 16th century, the New World easily overmatched Europe, where only Sicily and parts of Spain had grown sugarcane, as the primary producer and supplier of sugar. Thus, the introduction of sugarcane to the Caribbean and then t continental America resulted in a manifold increase in the cultivation of the plant under the new and favorable conditions.
Growing sugarcane in the Caribbean and the Americas had a profound impact on shaping the regional economy. Admittedly, it was not the only cash crop cultivated in the New World – “indigo, cacao, cotton, ginger, limes, pimento, and tobacco” were also in high demand and offered prospects of quick profits (Dunn 188). However, sugarcane was among the first ones to be introduced to the Americas and also enjoyed the widest geographical distribution – Dutch and English colonies grew it on a par with their Spanish counterparts (Dunn 188). As a result, sugarcane became one of the signature crops of the New World and one of the decisive influences on its economic development. Producing sugar required European settlers to use “agricultural techniques radically different from those they knew at home” and also demanded new organizational decisions (Dunn 189). A large estate ran by bonded labor, whether indentured servants or slaves, soon emerged as the most effective way of cultivating sugarcane. Thus, the plantation agriculture characteristic for the islands of the Caribbean and some regions of America emerged, to a considerable degree, because of the sugarcane.
Yet the contribution of the plant to the economic landscape of colonial Atlantic went far beyond promoting plantation agriculture. While sugar itself was in high demand and provided for handsome profits once exported to Europe, the planters had to maintain a sufficient workforce to persist with their enterprises. They satisfied this demand by importing slaves from Africa on a large scale – so large, in fact, that Richard Dunn rightfully calls slavery “the essence of West Indian history” (224). The best option to acquire slaves was trading rum and manufactured goods to the tribes of West Africa, and the primary producers of those were European nations. As a result, “a famous triangular pattern” emerged in the Atlantic trade. Colonies produced cash crops, such as sugarcane, ad exported sugar to Europe, Europe sold its manufactured goods in exchange for slaves, and slaves were then exported to the colonies. Hence, introducing sugarcane to the New World eventually proved to be a primary influence behind the commercial pattern that dominated Atlantic trade for several centuries in a row.
As one can see, the historical role of sugarcane is manifold and by no means small. After its initial domestication in Southeast Asia and the development of technologies allowing to crystallize sugar, both the plant and the related technologies were borrowed by the Arabs. The Muslim conquests of the early Middle Ages contributed to the spread of sugarcane across parts of North Africa and Europe, even though European cultivation was mostly limited o Sicily and Spain. The Spanish acquaintance with sugarcane proved to be of immense historical importance after the discovery of the New World, since, after its introduction to the Caribbean, it became the region’s foremost cash crop. Moreover, the organizational and technological requirements of growing sugar led to the emergence of plantation agriculture as a predominant type of economic activity in the Caribbean and parts of the Americas. Finally, the necessity to sell sugar and, at the same time, keep the plantations staffed with slaves, contributed to the emergence of the triangular trade between Europe, West Africa, and the New World Colonies. Thus, sugarcane had played a [prominent role in the economic and social history of the world.
Ahmad W. et al. “Arab and Muslim Contributions to Medicine and Research – A Review.” Bangladesh Journal of Medical Science, vol. 16, no. 3, 2017, pp. 339-345.
Dunn, Richard S. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. Omohundro Institute and University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
Samper, Maria de los Angeles Pérez. “The Early Modern Food Revolution: A Perspective from the Iberian Atlantic.” Global Goods and the Spanish Empire, 1492–1824: Circulation, Resistance and Diversity, edited by Bethany Aram and Bartolomé Yun-Casalilla, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, pp. 17-37.