Histories of sugar, published by both historians and commercial interests, usually seem to commence with a fascinating leap of imagination.
“It is not known where sugar originated, but it is thought to have first been used in the Polynesian Islands of the Pacific Ocean over 5,000 years ago,” goes the first line of many such commentaries.
A subsequent line, phrased one way or another, however, describes that leap: “Sugar was then taken to the coastal areas of India. In 510 BCE Darius, the Persian Emperor, arrived to conquer the Indian sub-continent and found that the people used a substance from a plant to sweeten food.”
It appears from such commentary that, sometime between about 3000BCE and 500BCE, sugar was transformed into a commercial interest, sufficient to compensate, at least in part, Darius for his invasion; an early form of reparation, perhaps?
So, commentary on the history of this invaluable and still highly profitable commercial product, in passing, would appear to lend credence to those who suspect very ancient, prehistoric, connections between, especially, the east coast of the subcontinent, and international seafaring.
A connection supported by the DNA studies of “indigenous” inhabitants of northern Australia, that suggest linkages, millennia old, to the sub-continent; and that the closest relation to Australia’s famous dingo dog being the Indian dog.
The tales in the second millennium BCE, Mahabharata, of the voyages from, evidently, the lands around the Ganges delta, the lands of today’s Bangladesh, in ocean-going vessels capable of carrying hundreds, appears to further endorse possibilities of such ancient connections, and ocean-going potential.
However, there is no great, or real, evidence in archaeology of any pre-historic human habitation of Polynesia, and certainly nothing to compare with either such evidence of human habitation or domestic agricultural activity, for example, in the very fertile Ganges basin and deltaic lands, of which there is evidence of over tens of thousands of years. Nor is there any evidence of great fertile lands within the islands for the domestication of what was, presumably, originally an indigenous plant.
Which might, in itself raise other questions about the true origins of the cultivation of sugar, from some more prolific, naturally occurring, source.
Whilst there is evidence of sugar eventually becoming a valuable, commercial commodity in Europe, the route by which it reached that developing market is said to have been Arab incursions into the sub-continent as early as the seventh century BCE
Certainly, whilst extravagant claims are made for such origins, including South America, all documentary, archaeological, and empirical evidence, in fact, points to the Indian sub-continent. And given the continuing success of such cultivation in the extraordinarily fertile lands of the Ganges delta, and the agricultural cultivation that can be traced back as far as, for example, domesticated rice over 12 millennia ago, as with so many other staple crop plants, fruits, and flowers -- the lands of Bangladesh would certainly have a strong claim to possible, even probable, origin.
Whilst there is evidence of sugar eventually becoming a valuable, commercial commodity in Europe, the route by which it reached that developing market is said to have been Arab incursions into the sub-continent as early as the seventh century BCE by the Achaemenid Empire.
However, since we are familiar with the interesting trades possible in the sub-continent, bringing traders from across the known world to the Ganges delta from at least the middle of that last millennium BCE, it appears far more likely that it was merchants, rather than soldiers, who spread such sweetness across a wider world, replacing honey for culinary purposes.
Following, it is said, close to a thousand years later, the seventh century CE/AD invasion of Persia by Muslim forces that created the Umayyad Caliphate, both military might and trade, widened the availability. In the ensuing century, the Caliphate spread itself across much of the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Europe; bearing, no doubt, the gift of sugar.
It may be of more than passing interest that there is substantial, and increasing evidence, from such sites in Bangladesh as Wari Bateshwar, Mahasthanghar, Egarosindhur, and even sixth century CE/AD Bhitaghar, of centres of international trade dating from that earlier period, not least silver punch mark coins, which represent clear evidence of trade, more sophisticated than that of earlier barter trade.
Much of the commentary of ancient history, these days, tends to focus on military incursion and conquest. In the light of what we increasingly know about unquestionably the earliest of the famous “Silk Road” international trade routes, especially the earliest of all, the Southern Silk Road between China and the lands of Bangladesh, we might reasonably wonder if such international trade was not carried out more in a friendly trading fashion, along the ancient highways of seas and rivers, than through violence?
Through the Arab linkages, sugar cane and the use of sugar in the diet spread across the developing world, being taken to much of the middle East and the lands around the Mediterranean, but it may have taken a little longer to reach into countries of northern Europe.
In Britain, for example, it is believed that sugar was first introduced by crusaders returning from the “First Crusade,” at the end of the 11th century, though we may well wonder whether the Romans, who were certainly aware of its pleasing quality, or even the Vikings -- famous not only for the colonisation of much of Britain from the later part of the first millennium CE/AD, but also for their trading connections as far as the Black Sea -- may well, also, have enjoyed its use as an expensive substitute for honey.
The household of King Henry lll of England, we know, from court records of 1264, used sugar, and it was certainly in more general use in Britain by the early 14th century.
It was expensive, the more so because, of course, it was rapidly recognised as a source of revenue, from taxation.
Columbus is credited with carrying the crop to the Americas, having collected plants from the Balearic Islands, during a stopover in his famous voyage, for, it is thought, a flirtation with the islands’ first female governor.
There can be little doubt that the East India Company also became one of those responsible for the greater, worldwide development of the crop; transporting it across the Atlantic for faster and safer availability, because of the increasing globalisation of, especially, seaborne conflict.
As a result, its importance in their trades with the east diminished.
Today, overuse of sugar has acquired much criticism from health professionals, and there is little doubt that such criticism is, in fact, justified.
The “home nations” as we might describe those, such as Bangladesh, who were not only the probable origin, but also, still, major producers and per capita consumers of cane sugar, are also sadly at the leading edge of the diabetic and other consequences of overconsumption.
Fascinating to consider just how much the social and economic history of sugar and deltaic lands have affected both today’s nation and people of Bangladesh, and like so many other naturally produced treasures of the land, including rice, cotton, jute, and even saltpetre, even its history and heritage
Those ill effects, however, were noted in other ways long ago. By 1750, production of sugar had become, for Britain, the world’s greatest trading nation, the “go-to” route to wealth for English merchants and gentry.
There were already, at that time, 120 British refining factories in the West Indies, producing 30,000 tons of refined sugar, which was heavily taxed, producing, by 1815, about £3 million in revenue, much needed for continuing to prosecute its global colonisations and maritime warfare.
But its economic benefits, just as today, stretched a long way through society, including practitioners of dentistry.
In 1785, when Thomas Berdmore, formerly dentist to King George lll and author of one of Britain’s earliest works on the subject, “A treatise on the disorders and deformities of teeth and gums,” died, he instructed that his monument should note that his fortune was made by tooth drawing.
His family, with a little more discretion, noted on the monument, “Who acquired a liberal and ample fortune by the profession of dentist.”
There is no doubt at all that the absence of tooth care, and the ever increasing indulgence in sugar, especially after the 1874 abolition of sugar tax by Gladstone, had, from the Middle Ages, been a major contributor to the painful condition of tooth decay for which there is evidence reaching back, now, for at least a thousand years.
And, even today, around the world, politicians wrestle, even more ineffectively than their dealing with the health effects of tobacco, to reduce a continuing consequence to health, economy, and even life, of over indulgence with such a naturally produced treat for the taste buds.
Fascinating to consider just how much the social and economic history of sugar, with its entirely possible origins in the Ganges basin, and deltaic lands have affected both today’s nation and people of Bangladesh, and like so many other naturally produced treasures of the land, including rice, cotton, jute, and even saltpetre, even its history and heritage.
There can be little doubt that sugar was amongst the traded goods from this, one of the world’s earliest centres of international trade. Not least, we either know, or suspect, because of the worldwide development of demand and the readiness throughout thousands of years of commercial organisations to exploit the benefits of such trade, to these lands, its peoples, and its rulers.
Regardless of the price to be paid by so many, from labourers in field, factories, refining plants, and shops, amongst others.
Tim Steel is a communications, marketing and tourism consultant.