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Sugar day

October 12, 2010

It was in 1802 that first refinery would produce sugar from beats, that “most serious of vegetables,” capping the work of Prussian chemist Franz Karl Achard. Prior to that, sugar cane was the only source for this key ingredient to the baker and confectioner. That it grew only in tropical climes, and was labor intensive to process, made it an expensive commodity in Europe.

Columbus was hoping to bring back gold and spices from the Indies, writing on October 19th of his first voyage:

This island appears to me to be a separate one from that of Saomete, and I even think there may be others between them. I am not solicitous to examine particularly everything here, which indeed could not be done in fifty years, because my desire is to make all possible discoveries, and return to your Highnesses, if it please our Lord, in April. But in truth, should I meet with gold or spices in great quantity, I shall remain till I collect as much as possible, and for this purpose I am proceeding solely in quest of them.

But his second voyage included a more certain plan for generating wealth: Columbus brought colonists and sugar cane to Hispaniola. Slave labor to cultivate it came soon after. England and France joined the game, and the Atlantic triangle trade was born. By the 18th century, molasses, sugar, and rum from the west Indies were a significant fraction of Europe’s economy. Sugar imports to Britain went from 10,000 tons in 1700, to 150,000 tons in 1800. The conquistadores’ gold was more exciting, but it was this white gold that shaped the north Atlantic economies and determined the course of the Caribbean.

We drove by some cane farms in south Texas this weekend past. Refined sugar is a pure luxury, completely unnecessary to our diet. Most of us would be healthier without it. The photo left is Starbucks vanilla bean scones.

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