When I decided to create The Diasporic Dish and begin blogging, I was guided by my passion for the intersection between food, history, and culture. I knew that I wanted to explore the world’s cultures and cuisines, particularly as it related to the African Diaspora.
As I started to learn more, I realized that the contemporary movement of peoples and foods cannot be separated from the history of trade, conquest and colonialism that has shaped our modern world.
At first, I began my research at a well-known point in history: Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas in 1492. His Spanish-sponsored voyage would change the course of history.
It would lead to the destruction of the indigenous peoples in the “New World” as well as the Transatlantic slave trade. It would set in motion a series of global events that led to me, a descendant of enslaved Africans, penning this post from my family’s home in California.
But I wanted to go further than Columbus, the Spanish Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, and the “God, guns, and glory” maxim that motivated European conquest of much of the world. So I read more.
The Sugarcane Plant and the Spanish Empire
I soon discovered that the atrocities done to the Taino people of Hispaniola was not Spain’s first venture into settler colonialism (i.e. oppressing a native population and exploiting their land).
That title actually goes to the Canary Islands, a chain of islands off the coast of Northwest Africa. Spain claimed the area in 1479, and it became a great source of wealth for the Crown. The islands were used as a site of sugarcane plant plantations. The crop was cultivated by enslaved indigenous people, known as the Guanche, as well as Africans forcibly taken from the mainland.
Before sugar, the only sweetener that humans in Africa, Asia, and Europe had access to was honey; however, since honey bees are not native to the Americas, indigenous peoples there used maple syrup, agave nectar, and mashed fruits as a source of sweetness.
Christopher Columbus took some of the sugarcane plant grown on the Canary Islands with him on his second voyage to the Americas. This would ultimately lead to the development of sugarcane plantations throughout the Western Hemisphere, the proliferation of chattel slavery, and large-scale migration of workers from other nations.
The Impact of Sugar on Our Modern World
According to the 2017 book Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science, “[The story of sugar] is a story of the movement of millions of people, of fortunes made and lost, of brutality and delight—all because of tiny crystals stirred into our coffee, twirled on top of a cake. Sugar, we began to see, changed the world.”
This is quite the statement.
I first encountered sugarcane during my trip to Ghana last summer. A vendor offered me a sample as I wandered through a hectic market in the capital city of Accra. At first I looked at the sugarcane plant with trepidation, but I gave it a try. I bit into the white root and tasted the rich syrup that it held within. It was delicious, like a sweet earthly nectar.
After tasting sugarcane, I could see how, like Helen of Troy, sugarcane was a glory that helped launch a thousand ships.
The questions I have are, where did sugar come from in the first place, and how did such an unassuming root alter the course of history?
Let’s follow the sugar.
Stop 1? Oceania.
Alfred W. Crosby, An Ecohistory of the Canary Islands: A Precursor of European Colonialization in the New World, 1984.
“Peace Treaty of Alcáçovas (Portugal) was signed 541 years ago”, Places of Peace, September 4, 2020.
Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos, Sugar Changed the World: A Story of Magic, Spice, Slavery, Freedom, and Science, Clarion Books: 2017.