Sugarcane Story

Cut sugarcane. Wikipedia

Have you ever heard of “Amazing Grace”? This hymn was constructed by John Newton (1725–1807). From his self-penned epitaph, he described himself as

clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.”

Quote Wikipedia, ‘John Newton was an English Anglican clergyman who served as a sailor in the Royal Navy for a period, and later as the captain of slave ships. He became ordained as an evangelical Anglican cleric, served Olney, Buckinghamshire for two decades’, and also wrote hymns such as “Amazing Grace” :

•Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)

•That sav’d a wretch like me!

•I once was lost, but now am found,

•Was blind, but now I see.

Because carbohydrates are the main source of energy, humans developed a taste for sweetness as an instinct of survival. Beside fruit and malt, people in Europe mainly used honey as the sweetner before the 10th century. However, the techniques of beekeeping did not allow beekeepers to reuse the beehive after honey was harvested, so the production of honey was limited.

Called ‘the reed that gives honey without bees’ by Darius of Persia, sugarcane (Saccharum spp.) was not known by the Europeans until the first Crusades of the 11th century AD. Sugarcanes were grown in Mediterranean regions before the Age of Discovery and sugar consumption was a display of wealth. Sugar was combined with almond oils, rice, scented water and various gums to make marchpane (marzipan) used in sculpture forms for banquets of the nobles and riches. Consuming large amounts of sugar without teeth-cleaning, cavities became an epidemic for the nobles and riches during that time. A traveler from Germany recorded that the teeth of Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth I of England, 1533–1603) are ‘black’:

The Queen, in the 65th year of her age (as we were told), very majestic; her face oblong, fair but wrinkled; her eyes small, yet black and pleasant; her nose a little hooked, her lips narrow, and her teeth black.

After the Age of Discovery, sugarcane was started to be grown in the West Indies, the Carribeans, and the Americas. The first batch of sugar (sucrose) from Barbados arrived in England in 1655. Then the price of sugar quickly dropped to about one-third of what it was before, and sugar became more and more like food (additive) than medicine.

Medicine? Oh yes, sugar was believed to have healing power before. In Circa Instans, a twelfth century medical book, sugar was used to treat “fever, dry coughs, pectoral ailments, chapped lips, and stomach diseases” (S. W. Mintz). Some even believed that sugar can be used to treat bubonic plagues and others believed that sugar can be used to treat any ailments! In light of this, there’s a saying “an apothecary without sugar” meaning a person is completely helpless. Some medicine book regarded sugar having far superior healing power than honey, suggesting patients only use honey when they certainly cannot afford sugar.

The extraction of sugar is not an easy task, however. To avoid fermentation, sugarcane juice extraction and concentration process must be completed within 24–48 hours after harvest. The extracted cane juice is sent to the boiling house to be concentrated by boiling in a series of vats. After five times of concentration, finally the lime is added to help with the crystallization and the concentrated juice was placed in a cooling pool to make raw sugar. 4.5 liters of cane juice can be made into 0.45 kg of sucrose. The boiling house has a temperature of up to 60 ° C during the day and 49 ° C at night, with the intense heat and high humidity, the working condition is unbearable.

Of course it’s hard to find Europeans to work under this condition. Portuguese and Spanish started importing slaves from West Africa since 15th century. They were planning to use the natives of the Caribbean and Americas, but the natives abhor the labor and the epidemics brought by the Europeans wiped out 95% of them. So the Europeans started to import slaves from Africa to the Caribbeans and Americas.

To cut the cost of slave trade, the situation aboard the slave ship is so bad that it’s hard to imagine. Sick slaves were left to die and dead slaves were abandoned to the sea. In documents they were referring to as “black cargo”. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the number of slaves boarding in Africa was estimated at 11.7 million, but only 9.8 million people arrived. Before the eighteenth century, a slave’s life could be exchanged for about half a ton of sugar; in the eighteenth century, it was about a ton of sugar; by the nineteenth century, it was reduced to about two tons of sugar. The increased amount of sugar was the result of cheaper prices, not the improvement of working conditions. A slave can only live for ten years on a sugarcane farm, less than half of other farms.

John Newton was working on several of those slave ships from 1748–1755. After his retirement, he slowly came to realize what he did was wrong and wrote a pamphlet Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade. He sent it to every member of parliament and soon he was acquainted with William Wilberforce (1759–1833), leader of the Parliamentary campaign to abolish the African slave trade. They worked together and finally the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807. Ironically, slavery were still legal in United States until the end of the American Civil War (1865) and the true emancipation only came much later, when machines can be used for sugar extraction and processing.

Although United Kingdom banned slave trade, illegal slave trafficking was still going on. To suffice the shortage of labor, owners of sugarcane plantations even imported 140,000 coolies from China. Chinese people went to the U.S. under the perception that they are contracted workers without knowing that they are going to work on the sugarcane plantations as slaves. The working condition was so horrible that a lot of them committed suicide, which attracted attentions of the Qing Empire to investigate.

Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) encouraged the making of beet sugar. The embargo to France made Napoleon I cast his eyes on sugar beet. Initiated by Andreas Sigismond Marggraf, the method of extraction and processing of beet sugar was established later, and the production of beet sugar exceeded cane sugar for the first time in 1885. Beet sugar remains the main source of sugar in Europe and North America ever since.

On the other side of the Earth, sugarcane is not a novelty. Originated in Asia, India and New Guinea, Chinese people have known sugarcane since the 4th century BC. It was named “zhe” (柘) in Verses of Chu (Chu Ci, 楚辭) and Fu on Sir Vacuous (子虛賦). The species grown in China during that time was probably not S. officinarum but S. sinense. The technique of making granulated sugar was established during the Han Dynasty. The method of making rock candy (冰糖) was invented during Tang Dynasty (around 766 AD- 779 AD) and Chinese believed that rock candy and brown sugar (黑糖) have healing powers. The species originated in India, S. barberi, was spreaded to China together with Buddhism religion around 645 AD.

The first record of sugarcane farming in Taiwan is around 1349 A.D. in Daoyi Zhilüe

(A Brief Account of Island Barbarians, 島夷志略) by Chinese traveller Wang Dayuan (汪大淵). He mentioned that the aborigines “Cook sea water to get salt, make spirit with sugarcane juice.” Dutch introduced S. officinarum from Indonesia around 1625. Sugarcane production was neglected during the Kingdom of Tungning (1662–1683) established by Koxinga (Zheng Chenggong).

During Qing rule, the production of cane sugar increased despite no encouragement from the government. Thirty to forty percent cane sugar produced was exported to Mainland and Japan. Anping, Lukang and Beigang are important sugar export ports, and Kaohsiung became the most important sugar export port in Taiwan in 1863.

It is probably the production of cane sugar that made Japanese interested in Taiwan. Since the Era of Oda Nobunaga (織田信長), Japan wanted to take over Taiwan. The increasing importation of cane sugar from Taiwan only made Japan want to take over Taiwan more and more. In 1860, Taiwan’s export of Japanese sugar accounted for 70% of Japan’s imports; from 1885 to 1895, it exceeded 90% (up to 10 million yen).

After 1895, Taiwan became a colony of Japan through the signing the Treaty of Shimonoseki (馬關條約). Japanese government slowly drove both the local and international competition out by formulating new regulations like “Taiwan Sugar Industry Reward Rules”(臺灣糖業獎勵規則) in 1902. They also established the Bank of Taiwan in 1899 and unified the currency so they can provide better support to Japanese entrepreneurs. The memorial stamp of the opening of the Bank of Taiwan signified seven important plants for Japanese government: rice, pineapple, sugarcane, banana, coconut, tea and camphor.

Japan uses Taiwan as their raw material supplier. Therefore, production of refined sugar is not allowed in Taiwan. This affected the profit of Japanese businessmen, so they negotiated with the Japanese government and finally they are allowed to produce partially refined sugar(耕地白糖).

Most sugarcane farmers in Taiwan are tenants exploited by landlords and sugar merchants. Sugarcane seedlings are sold at high price and their harvest is acquired at a low price. After Japanese took over Taiwan, they set rules that sugarcane farmers can only sell their harvest to the refinery of an appointed company, making the conditions even worse. There’s a saying in Taiwan “Growing sugarcane for the company is the most foolish one.”(第一憨,種甘蔗給會社磅)

The exploitation of sugarcane farmers lead to Erlin Incident (二林事件) between 1924 and 1925. Farmers protested the company and over four hundred protesters were arrested. The “Association of Taiwanese Farmers’’ (台灣農民組合) was established in 1926 and Ji Jian (簡吉) was elected as the chair. They started to work together with the communists in 1928, leading to the February 12 Incident (二一二事件), the raid and arrest of twelve persons including Ji Jian.

After the construction of Wushantou Dam (烏山頭水庫) and Chianan Irrigation (嘉南大圳), farmers in Chiayi and Yunlin can grow rice on their land. The breeding and selection of Taichung 65 (T65) by Eikichi Iso (磯永吉) influenced Japanese government’s attitude toward growing rice. As a consequence, more farmers planted rice instead of sugarcane after 1930.

Because molasses can be used to make ethanol and butanol by fermentation, the sugar refineries were bombed heavily by the Allies. 34 out of 42 sugar refineries were out of operation after the surrender of Japan in 1945.

Taiwan Sugar Corporation was founded in 1947. Sugar and rice were important exportation resources during the 1950s-1980s, then the competition from Brazil drove Taiwan out from the international sugar market. Now there’s only two refineries still operating in Taiwan, one in Shanhua, Tainan and the other in Huwei, Yunlin. Huwei (虎尾) is called the city of sugar. It was established for sugar refinery workers and farmers in September, 1920.

Located in Guangfu, Hualien, Hualien Tourism Sugar Factory was established in 1913. It was converted to a tourist attraction in March, 2002, selling popsicles and other regional specialties.

Brown sugar was believed to have therapeutic powers in Taiwan. Some people even thought that the browner the sugar is, the better the therapeutic value will be. Therefore, the producers started to make browner brown sugar by cooking sugarcane juice longer and keeping the cooking temperature higher. However, higher temperature will result in the production of acrylamide, the product from asparagine and reducing sugar. Acrylamide is on the list of IARC Group 2A carcinogens, with limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans as well as sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. When the news of brown sugar containing carcinogen broke out in 2015, it caused panic in the general public and the price of brown sugar plummeted. Setting aside the therapeutic value of brown sugar, the level of acrylamide in it can be almost undetectable if it is cooked under 120 degree Celsius.

On a final note about the therapeutic value of sugar and honey, I was hospitalized several years ago. One of my colleagues brought me some honey, insisting it is good for the body. Looking back on the history of sugar in the world and in Taiwan, it is ironic to see the role of honey and sugar in medical history reversed. Perhaps what we need to do is to have a clear mind to examine these evidences and don’t value the effect of alternative medicine too much.



黑手老師、科普作者、資深書蟲 Educator, popular science writer and bookworm.

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葉綠舒 Susan Yeh

黑手老師、科普作者、資深書蟲 Educator, popular science writer and bookworm.