Sugar is sweet…

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Yes, roses can be red, violets are blueish, and sugar is undoubtably sweet to taste.  However, as the Revealing Histories project we took part in a few years ago revealed, life for those involved in the sugar trade has not always been so sweet…

Sugar was produced by enslaved Africans on British-owned sugar plantations in the Caribbean for 200 years from the 1600s. The plantations were immensely profitable and boosted the British economy to the extent that sugar was nicknamed ‘white gold’. Most sugar was exported raw and then refined when it reached Britain. Sugar refineries were discouraged in the West Indies; partly because refined sugar didn’t travel well during long damp ocean voyages, and also to afford maximum protection to British profits, as the refinement process considerably increased its financial value.

Life on the sugar plantations was much more hazardous than in the cotton plantations of the USA. Sugar production involved exhausting  labour and long shifts in high temperature and humidity. Many Africans died within five years of arriving in the West Indies, quickly replaced by the slave trade’s plentiful supply of fresh workers.

Specimens of sugar cane specimen collected by P & J A Sillitoe

Sugar cane, noble cane (English), Ikshu, khanda, sarkara (Sanskrit), Pundia, paunda (Hindi), Poovan karumbu (Tamil) has the botanical name of Saccharum officinarum and belongs to the grass or Poaceae family.  The sugar is found in the stems of the plants, which look rather like bamboo, and can grow up to 6 meters tall.

Undated illustration of Saccharum officinarum from Gardener’s Chronicle, from Leo Grindon collection

Below are two jars of sugar which came from Tate and Lyle Ltd, Liverpool.  These specimens were also used as part of the Revealing Histories project.

Bottled sugar specimens from a collection of Cocoa, Cotton and Sugar donated by Cadbury, Horrocks and Tate in 1923
Saccharum officinarum illustration - Leo Grindon collection
Saccharum officinarum illustration - Leo Grindon collection
Saccharum officinarum illustration - Leo Grindon collection
Saccharum officinarum specimen collected by P & J A Sillitoe

2 thoughts on “Sugar is sweet…

    and so are Yew… « Herbology Manchester said:
    February 11, 2010 at 9:35 am

    […] are red, Violets are blue, Sugar is sweet, And so are […]

    Suzanne responded:
    February 11, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    After I wrote this post I emailed Prof Paul Sillitoe, now working at the University of Durham, to see if he remembered collecting the sugar specimens and if he could tell us a bit more about them. Here is his reply…

    Dear Suzanne,

    Thank you for your message. What a surprise to see those herbarium specimens again in your ‘sugar is sweet’ piece.

    You ask for some background information. The plant material was deposited in the Manchester herbarium to serve as a voucher reference collection of crop cultivars from the Was valley in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, to supplement a book that I published with Manchester: University Press entitled /Roots of the earth//: the cultivation and classification of crops in the Papua New Guinea highlands/ (1983) – if you pop into the Rylands Library you will find a copy – I completed the book while I was a Simon Research Fellow in the Social Anthropology Department at Manchester. If you are interested to know more about sugar, see pages 84-88 – you will find a line drawing of the plant there too. If you have a look in the Herbarium catalogue, you will see that we deposited a considerable amount of material with you.

    It is appropriate, I think, that you chose a New Guinea example of sugar cane to illustrate your piece, not because it shows off something from our collection – though that is pleasing to us – but because it is thought that sugar cane was first domesticated on the island, probably from a wild variety of /Saccharum robustum/ found there.

    You also ask for links that relate to our work. I suggest that you add our website: And also a link to our latest book (/Grass-Clearing Man/) at :

    Thank you again for your message. We are delighted that you have included something from our PNG collection in your Valentine’s Day piece.

    Best wishes,


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