Sugar cane - history
|In the 1400s and 1500s in India, cows belonging to the Sultan of Mandu were fed sugar cane for weeks to make their milk sweet for use in puddings.|
Sugar cane originated in New Guinea where it has been known since about 6000 BC. From about 1000 BC its cultivation gradually spread along human migration routes to Southeast Asia and India and east into the Pacific. It is thought to have hybridised with wild sugar canes of India and China, to produce the 'thin' canes. It spread westwards to the Mediterranean between 600-1400 AD.
Arabs were responsible for much of its spread as they took it to Egypt around 640 AD, during their conquests. They carried it with them as they advanced around the Mediterranean. Sugar cane spread by this means to Syria, Cyprus, and Crete, eventually reaching Spain around 715 AD.
Around 1420 the Portuguese introduced sugar cane into Madeira, from where it soon reached the Canary Islands, the Azores, and West Africa. Columbus transported sugar cane from the Canary Islands to what is now the Dominican Republic in 1493. The crop was taken to Central and South America from the 1520s onwards, and later to the British and French West Indies.
Sugar in South AsiaSugar cane has a very long history of cultivation in the Indian sub-continent. The earliest reference to it is in the Atharva Veda (c. 1500-800 BC) where it is called ikshu and mentioned as an offering in sacrificial rites. The Atharva Veda uses it as a symbol of sweet attractiveness.
Sugar cane was originally grown for the sole purpose of chewing, in southeastern Asia and the Pacific. The rind was removed and the internal tissues sucked or chewed. Production of sugar by boiling the cane juice was first discovered in India, most likely during the first millennium BC.
The word 'sugar' is thought to derive from the ancient Sanskrit sharkara. By the 6th century BC sharkara was frequently referred to in Sanskrit texts which even distinguished superior and inferior varieties of sugarcane. The Susrutha Samhita listed 12 varieties; the best types were supposed to be the vamshika with thin reeds and the paundraka of Bengal. It was also being called guda, a term which is still used in India to denote jaggery. A Persian account from the 6th century BC gives the first account of solid sugar and describes it as coming from the Indus Valley. This early sugar would have resembled what is known as 'raw' sugar: Indian dark brown sugar or gur.
At this time honey was the only sweetener in the countries beyond Asia and all visitors to India were much taken with the 'reed which produced honey without bees'. The Greek historian Herodotus knew of the sugarcane in the 5th century BC and Alexander is said to have sent some home when he came to the Punjab region in 326 BC. Practically every traveller to India over the centuries mentions sugarcane; the Moroccan Ibn Battuta wrote of the sugarcanes of Kerala which excelled every other in the 14th century; Francois Bernier, in India from 1658-59, wrote of the extensive fields of sugarcane in Bengal.
Sugar in literatureIndian literature abounds in references to the sugarcane: early Tamil literature describes sugarcane along the banks of the River Kaveri, and indeed sugarcane was usually cultivated in river valleys. Early Indian kings set aside land for pleasure gardens, groves and public parks, and gardens were attached to palaces and grand mansions. The Kamasutra, an early erotic treatise written by Vatsyayana (c. 2nd century AD - c.4th century AD), recommended that a cultivated and wealthy man should surround his house with a garden.
The garden would be under the care of his wife who would dictate the layout of the garden and its planting, while the physical labour was left to professional gardeners. The Kamasutra spoke of pleasure gardens and practical gardens and was specific about what should be planted in the gardens. The practical garden had to include beds of green vegetables, sugarcane, fig trees, mustard, parsley and fennel. The great goddess Kamakshi of Tamil Nadu is portrayed in art holding in her four hands lotus blossom, sugar cane stalks, elephant goad and noose.
British ruleUntil the 1930s, the main types of sugar cane grown in India were the 'thin' canes. They were well suited to the north Indian climate, though yields were fairly low. In the southern or tropical zone of the country, where the climate was more suitable for sugar cane cultivation, thicker 'noble' canes were more important.
Thicker varieties of sugarcane were brought in from the West Indies and the area under sugarcane was greatly expanded. Various hybrids were developed leading to a doubling of cane production in the Indian subcontinent.