Sugarcane’s Travels

Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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Sugarcane’s voyage to the western Mediterranean was a slow one that would take more than a millennium. Cane took 700 years to make its way from the Indian subcontinent to Persia by 600 c.e., and from there to the Middle East—notably, Egypt, Syria, and the Holy Land, where it arrived by the eighth century. There, cane and the technology of processing it into sugar became known by the Crusaders, who produced sugar in small quantities. By the thirteenth century, cane had progressed from the Holy Land into the Mediterranean, brought under Islam’s star and crescent. Monopolies rose and fell as Venetians, Genoese, and others vied for control of the increasingly lucrative trade. By the mid-fifteenth century, sugar had crossed the Mediterranean, leaving refineries in Crete, Cyprus, and other outposts, and had reached the Atlantic islands. By 1432 it was being refined in Madeira, around 1480 it was being established in the Canary Islands, and in the last decades of the fifteenth century it was being grown and processed on São Tomé. By then slave labor had been added into the deadly equation, and the die was cast for sugar’s conquest of the New World tropics. See slavery.