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The Spread of Sugarcane in the Old World

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In the last post we looked at what sugarcane is. Now we'll see where it came from and how it traveled around the world.

 

Sugarcane is a tall grass native to the region of the India and Southeast Asia. It was first domesticated in New Guinea, perhaps independently in Indonesia.

 

In 325 BC Alexander the Great’s general Nearchus said, “A reed in India brings forth honey without the help of bees, from which an intoxicating drink is made though the plant bears no fruit.”

 

Around the same time, sugar was referred to as khanda, from which we probably derive the word candy.

 

In China there are references to sugar in 286 BC. Sugar spread with Buddhism and the Buddha was even referred to as the “King of Sugarcane.”

 

Sugar loaves were probably first produced in India 2000 years ago. Sugar loaves are hardened in ceramic molds or cones from which the more liquid molasses was drained, leaving behind the dark-brown, crystalline loaf.

 

Dioscorides (circa 40—90 AD) wrote, “There is a kind of concentrated honey, called saccharon, found in reeds in India and Arabia Felix, like in consistence to salt, and brittle to be broken between the teeth, as salt is. It is good for the belly and the stomach being dissolved in water and so drank, helping the pained bladder and the reins.” This shows he was familiar with the crystalline form of sugar. 

 

Sugar making in Egypt probably came before Arab conquest. The Arabs were experts at irrigation and used their skills to grow sugarcane and spread it to new places. Arabs spread it to the Mediterranean, Sicily, Cyprus, Malta, Morocco, and Spain. 

 

During the First Crusade (1096-99) Christians discovered Arab cane farms. Soon they were growing and transferring sugar cane to new locations.  

 

From the Canary Islands it traveled to the New World. We'll pick up sugar's spread to the West in the next post. 

 

 

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