From Ronald Hoffman, MD, ANH-USA Board President and Medical Director
In 1425, Henry, a Portuguese duke, ordered the planting of a new crop on one of his territories. It was a crop that would change the world: sugar cane. The location was the formerly uninhabited Atlantic island of Madeira off the coast of North Africa.
In prehistoric times, the only source of sugar in the Paleolithic diet was honey—usually obtained at great peril of bee stings. Fruit provided the only sugar that humans consumed.
Domesticated sugar originated in the South Seas, probably Papua New Guinea, reaching India around AD 350. One of Alexander the Great’s generals reported on “a reed in India that brings forth honey without the help of bees, from which an intoxicating drink is made, though the plant bears no fruit.” Small amounts reached the Mediterranean world where it was lauded as a medicine in the Middle Ages, addressing a variety of ailments—for which there exists no substantiation of its purported benefits (notwithstanding the popular Mary Poppins song).
Under the Arab caliphate that dominated the Middle East after Muhammed it was dubbed “Al-Sukar”. Originally worked by slaves in Iraq, it was later transplanted by Arabs to Sicily and then to Moorish Andalusia—Spain. But when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in the 1400s, its importation from the East was curtailed.
Henry brought sugar saplings from Sicily and planted them on sunny Madeira. Originally Italian and Portuguese workers were used, but they were soon joined by slaves, probably Berbers from Morocco.
Later, Henry’s daughter married a young Genoese sailor—Columbus—who ranged through the Caribbean, slaughtering the indigenous inhabitants, or alternatively enslaving them. The conquerors brought smallpox, which decimated the islanders; in turn, it is believed that the Amerindians transmitted a new disease—syphilis—to their European oppressors.
The ensuing Age of Discovery created an extraordinary convergence: demand for sugar surged, amid new inroads by Europeans in America and the African continents. In 1530, Portugal exported a novel crop to their burgeoning colony in Brazil: sugar cane. At first, indigenous natives were put to work in the cane fields. Then a new pattern emerged.
Historian Simon Sebag Montefiore writes:
Sugar changed the world. It was not just a product, it was a destroyer and maker of worlds on both sides of the Atlantic. The trade now expanded into a vast diabolic enterprise. Portuguese planters migrated to Brazil, where they were enriched by the sugar and slave industries. By 1600, this involved 30,000 Portuguese with 15,000 African slaves; by 1620, there were 50,000 Portuguese ruling the same number of African and Amerindian slaves. After that, African slaves started to outnumber Amerindians and the trade became frenzied: by 1650, a total of 250,000 had been brought to Brazil and in many areas 75 per cent of the populations were African slaves.
Other European colonizers soon got into the lucrative trade—England, Spain, Netherlands, and France.