Saccharum officinarum

Sugar is sweet…

Posted on Updated on

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