History of Sugarcane and Columbian Exchange
Over ten thousand years ago, sugarcane was first cultivated and since then, it has spread throughout the world and a big factor of this was the Columbian Exchange. The Columbian Exchange was a trading system that lasted from the 1400s to the 1800s, consisting of a large trade of goods between the New World and the Old World. European countries started to establish colonies in the Americas, setting up different businesses and plantations where goods would be produced and then shipped back to Europe. Sugarcane was grown mainly on the Sugar Islands which consisted of Jamaica, Barbados, and other Caribbean Islands.
After the Columbian Exchange, sugarcane became a large part of both the New World and the Old World. The global spread of sugarcane as a result of the Columbian Exchange impacted Europeans by improving their economy, Africans by putting them through a lifetime of cruel slavery, and Native Americans by putting them through slavery and wiping them out with diseases.
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Sugarcane is a carbohydrate and a large grass that is found in the Gramineae family that grows with one bud (Mintz 21). The crop grows one inch every day for six weeks and when it is fully ripe it will be two inches wide and twelve to fifteen feet tall. In order to grow sugarcane, you need a subtropical or tropical climate, which means that it must be very humid because it needs to be watered regularly. Irrigation is one way to stay on top of all of the watering that sugarcane needs. Once sugarcane is ripe and ready to be harvested, it needs to happen fast because it goes bad fast. Sugarcane requires a lot of labor to be grown, so a lot of people were needed in order for it to be cultivated.
In 8,000 BC, sugarcane was first grown in New Guinea. Soon after this, the process was spread to the Philippines, India, and Indonesia. By 800-900 BC, sugarcane was grown all throughout Europe and was soon to be spread to the Americas. . Back then, they used they cultivated the sugarcane the same way that they did in the Columbian Exchange. With this new crop they could make their meals sweeter and even use it as medicine for stomach sickness like they did in ancient Greece and Rome (The Sugar Association).
In 1493, Christopher Columbus traveled to the Canary Islands with sugarcane on his second voyage and this was start of the hundreds of years of sugarcane production in the Americas. . The Europeans were looking for the perfect, tropical climate to produce sugar in the Americas and the Sugar Islands had that. The Sugar Islands, which included Jamaica, Barbados, and other Caribbean Islands, was where the majority of the sugar was produced. Enslaved Africans and Native Americans were forced to harvest the sugarcane. First, they planted the sugarcane seeds in the fields and then waited for them to finish growing. Once they were ready, they chopped them with a machete and removed the leaves. The sugarcane was then sent to be grinded and melted in the boiling room so there would be more of a sucrose concentration.
When the English first came to Barbados, they were led by Captain Henry Powell. The English told thirty-two Native Americans that they could come with them as free people, and because of this, they then converted their children to Christianity, started a trade with the English and gave them land. Shortly after, the English took them, along with the Africans that they brought with them, as slaves and forced them to grow and harvest the sugarcane that the Europeans would be eating (Dunn 27).
The Native Americans only wanted to show kindness to the Europeans, but instead the Europeans just wanted to exploit them for their resources. As well as forcing them to work, Europeans brought many sicknesses with them including smallpox and measles. Because the Native Americans had no exposure to these diseases, they became even more deadly. Thousands of Native Americans contracted these diseases and died. As a result of this, Europeans turned to Africans and enslaved them..
9.5 million Africans were transported to the Americas by the end of the slave trade and forced to live their lifetimes in the inhumane conditions of slavery (Dunn 229). Life on the plantation consisted of cruel treatment and many long, harsh hours of work. One of the jobs in the fields was a weeder. Weeders were required to bend down in the sweltering heat for the whole day. This caused many health issues in the Africans on the plantations.
Enslaved Africans very frequently cut themselves on the sharp edges of the sugarcane that had already been cut in the fields and this would lead to terrible infections. Another terrible task that the enslaved Africans were forced to do was feed the sugarcane into the grinding machine. Sometimes, they would get their arms or hands caught in the machine which would lead to it getting amputated with a hatchet that was kept near the machines. The grinded sugarcane would then go to the boiling house where enslaved people would stand barefoot in the sweltering heat for their entire shift. This would lead to even more health problems that the enslaved people had to deal with.
Plantation owners did not care about the health and wellbeing of the enslaved Africans that lived on the plantations because it cost less money to buy new slaves then to pay for their care. (Civitello 126). Enslaved Africans with health problems from the tasks of their days were left untreated because plantation owners didn’t want to spend the money to help them. This led to the deaths of many. Most slaves on a plantation could not read or write and plantation owners told them that they should not speak (Aronson 25).
The Europeans did not consider the enslaved people to be people, they considered them objects , “On the contrary, the Englishmen who planted in the islands immediately categorized the Negroes and Indians who worked for them as heathens brutes and very quickly treated them as chattels” (Dunn 227). Enslaved people were treated as objects and were not cared for at all. As slavery went on and more slaves began dying, the children of slaves became slaves themselves and this continued on the Sugar Islands until slavery was abolished in 1807(Dunn 228-229).
Sugarcane grown in America was then shipped to Europe, where it would be sold all throughout the continent. In the beginning, sugar was a luxury in Europe, but as more of it was produced in the Americas, this changed. As people in Europe wanted more sugarcane, the price was beginning to decrease. This led to
both wealthy and poor people buying sugarcane frequently in their everyday lives, “Sugar became extremely popular commodity, representing 20% of all European imports toward the end of the century, the British and French colonies in the West Indies produced 80% of the sugar” (The Sugar Association).
Sugar boosted the European economy because so much was being bought and used all throughout Europe. There was a constant flow of sugar being shipped to Europe and then bought and this flow continued giving Europe more and more money. Boycotts of sugarcane began to happen in Europe because of the backlash of still using slaves to produce it. These boycotts hurt the economy and the steady flow of sugarcane being bought in day to day life.
Sugarcane had a huge impact on European economy and an even bigger impact on the Native Americans and Africans who were forced to cultivate it. Sugarcane first started in New Guinea, but spread to the rest of the world mostly through the Columbian Exchange. Sugarcane left a huge impact on all of the enslaved African and Native American people who were forced to grow it, many of which died on plantations. In Europe, sugarcane became available to both rich and poor and the constant flow of money from sugarcane being bought boosted the economy. . Today, sugarcane is used all around the world and is very common in cooking.
Sugarcane is now grown in places in the United States including Louisiana, Florida, and California. Sugarcane still is produced all throughout the world and shipped to other parts to make their foods sweeter. There are still locations around the world where sugarcane is eaten by chewing the cane to get the sugary water and then spitting it out. Sugarcane, which started almost 10,000 years ago, left a huge impact on the Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans.