How and when was sugar invented

From cane and turnip: the history of sugar

There would be no sweets without sugar. Mass-produced goods today, extremely valuable in the past
Source: © Tatyana Vyk, Shutterstock.

Sugar cane probably comes from the South Seas, where it was taken as provisions on boat trips as early as 15,000 years before Christ. It was also grown very early in India and China. In the Mediterranean countries sugar cane was already known in Roman times, but it was probably not very common. In the Middle Ages, sugar cost a fortune. In 1370, for example, two fattened oxen were exchanged for one kilo of sugar.

What does sugar have to do with slavery?

In 1493 Columbus brought sugar cane to Central America. The European conquerors forced the indigenous people living there to work in sugar cane plantations. Since the Indians were not up to the hard work under catastrophic conditions, the Europeans soon abducted Africans to America and made them slaves for their sugar cane plantations. Slavery no longer exists, but working conditions in sugar cane fields in India, Thailand, South Africa, the Caribbean islands and Brazil are still poor.

The beetroot - a sweet fruit

But from the 18th century onwards, sugar no longer came only from exotic countries. In 1747, the Berlin scientist Andreas Sigismund Markgraf discovered that beetroot contains sugar that is chemically identical to the sugar obtained from sugar cane. For more than 50 years, Markgraf's successor, Franz Karl Achard, bred beetroot, thereby increasing its sugar content from 1.6 to 5 percent. Today the sugar content of this plant is 15-20 percent.

Achard also informs his sovereign, the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III. about the possibility of making sugar from beets. With the help of the king, the first beet sugar factory was built in Silesia in 1801.

Napoleon and the sugar beet

The cultivation and processing of sugar beet in Europe became economically interesting when Napoleon imposed the continental barrier in 1806. Napoleon ruled over large parts of Europe at this point in time, just not Great Britain. In order to weaken this opponent economically, Napoleon forbids trade with England. This also cuts off continental Europe from the supply of sugar. After all, cane sugar is grown in the English colonies.

So it came about that sugar beet cultivation was intensively practiced in Germany, Russia, Austria and France in the years up to around 1813. When the economic blockade was lifted and cane sugar was reintroduced from overseas, sugar beet was no longer worthwhile. With the exception of France, all European countries gave up their sugar production again. France, on the other hand, continued to grow sugar beet and thus became a pioneer for the resumption of sugar production in Europe from around 1830.

Today 90 percent of the sugar requirement in Europe is met with beet grown here. In total, around 120 million tonnes of sugar beet are produced in the EU each year. This produces 14 to 16 million tons of granulated sugar. Due to high tariffs, the import of cane sugar in Europe is hardly worthwhile. However, around 55 percent of sugar worldwide comes from cane.

You can find out more in WAS IST WAS Volume 5 Great Explorers. Your travels and adventures