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Sanjida O’Connell

Virgin Books, 25th November 2004


It was thought singularly impolite not to wear a hat. In fact, the whole uniform, pith helmet and white suit included, was a requisite. I was watching a dying breed – the last great white sugar farmers from a bygone era – on a flickering reel of black-and-white film in the stables of a Jacobean mansion on Barbados. The film was taken in 1935 by plantation owner Laurence Cave but only discovered 45 years later by his grandson. These ten precious reels documented the final days of nonautomated sugar production. They depicted a windmill made of coral with canvas sails that small Barbadian boys climbed aboard for a hair-raising home-grown roller-coaster ride as the internal wooden cogs crushed sticks of sugar cane to extract its molasses-dark syrup; guinea fowl wandered in front of the mill, and horses toiled through the fields, pulling carts laden with freshly harvested sugar cane; sugarcane juice bubbled in taches – huge, round copper pans almost as high as a person.

I had come to Barbados to research the story of sugar cane from its origins ten thousand years ago to the present day and, as I sat and watched this amateur film, I realised that Barbados was the history of sugar cane, in microcosm. I had driven through a tunnel created by the heavy branches of age-old mahogany trees to reach St Nicholas Abbey, a Jacobean mansion, complete with an English knot garden crammed with herbs and overblown roses, and fireplaces and chimneys, requested by an owner as yet unaccustomed to the heat of the Caribbean. The house had been built in 1650, less than 25 years after the English had seized Barbados and around the time they had decided that sugar was to be their main cash crop. Sugar cane, however, had probably been on the island long before it was reintroduced. It had probably been brought by tribal peoples, just as they had originally transported it around the world at the dawn of its domestication. On Barbados the people who brought it were the original inhabitants, the Amerindians, who were wiped out by the Spanish before the English appropriated the island.

Until recent technological innovations, sugar cane was an incredibly labour-intensive crop that needed to be planted, weeded,  manured, irrigated and harvested by hand, before it was crushed for its juice, which was then boiled to extract crystals of sugar. In order to make this economical, the English, like other colonial powers, sent African slaves to Barbados. The majority of Barbadians alive today are descended from these original slaves and some of the remaining white plantation owners are related to the first white settlers. St Nicholas Abbey, like many other wealthy plantations, had its own windmill for crushing the sugar jane and its own factory for boiling the sugar-cane juice to extract unrefined muscovado sugar. The remnants of these buildings are still here today. The house itself feels dark, hemmed in as it is by the giant mahoganies, grown to house and furnish the descendants of the plantation; but also because the house, the factory and windmill still exist today in a charmed circle, surrounded as they are by 220 hectares of sugar cane, a grass that can reach heights of six metres, with a jointed bamboo-like stem and thick tassels of creamcoloured flowers.

Today the island itself is still covered by vast fields of sugar cane and the history of the island is laced with the story of black slaves, white plantation owners and sugar. In the Barbadian Museum is an appeal for a runaway slave, which was published in the Barbados Mercury on Saturday 12 April 1788. It describes her as ‘silly looking’ with ‘slim legs and a round belly’. Later, in 1834, the slaves were emancipated in the British Empire; in 1838 they made up the following song (‘Jin-Jin’ means Queen Victoria, ‘licks’ are beatings and ‘lock-up’ is a jailing):

Lick and lock-up done wid,
Hurrah fuh Jin-Jin;
Lick and lock-up done wid,
Hurrah fuh Jin-Jin.
God bless de Queen fuh set we free,
Hurrah fuh Jin-Jin;
Now lick and lock-up done wid,
Hurrah fuh Jin-Jin.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the horrors of slavery, places like the Caribbean and the southern states of America now have a multicultural society; without sugar, it could be argued, we would not have the blues or rock and roll, musical genres that had their birth in the slave-owning counties of the USA. It is also no surprise that Barbadians, surrounded by sugar, have one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world. When I had a traditional meal, which included sweet potato pie made with added sugar, followed by a four-tiered sponge cake with butter cream and fondant icing, I could see why.

Without sugar, whole areas of land, be it in Barbados, Thailand or Australia, wouldn’t have been altered so dramatically as native forests were felled to make way for field upon field of sugar, with the concomitant rise in pollution from the pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser this hungry crop requires. Today Barbados, a coral atoll in the Caribbean, still has its cap of sugar cane but, like many small countries facing pressure from imminent changes to EU legislation, sugar cane soon will no longer be economical to grow and export to its traditional sweet-toothed importer – Britain.

‘People complain to me the whole time. They feel demoralised and demotivated. The sugar industry is running at a loss,’ Harm de Boer tells me. A lean man whose ginger hair is greying, originally from Holland, he speaks English with a Dutch accent and a Scottish twang. A trained agronomist, he arrived in Barbados in 1981 to discover that the legacy of slavery still hung over the sugar-cane industry. Some Barbadians are still racist, referring to their workers as ‘niggers’, he adds. As soon as Barbados became independent in 1868, yields plummeted and have never recovered. Now de Boer, thinking of the imminent legislation and falling yields, has other reasons to be concerned.

De Boer’s office is the nicest he’s ever had. It’s on the top floor of an old plantation house, and has a wooden floor, cream walls and cool jalousies – small roofs over each window so they can be kept open even in a storm without the rain running in. There are windows on three sides overlooking acres of sugar cane. But these are no ordinary fields of cane: de Boer works in the Agronomy Research and Variety Testing Unit and stretched below him are 3,500 experimental strips of sugar cane. An unusual mixture of quiet precision and enthusiasm, he’s hoping that these plants will rescue Barbados.

Once sugar cane was a wild grass that contained very little sugar at all. Over many generations, people bred it to become sweeter and sweeter and learned to extract crystals of pure white sugar from its sap. While de Boer’s colleague Dr Anthony Kennedy is scientifically continuing this process to create the world’s sweetest sugar cane, de Boer is hoping that sugar cane will also yield other products, such as lignin, a chemical valued by pharmaceutical companies, or fibre to fuel power stations or make paper and cardboard.

People once desired sugar so badly that whole nations were wiped out, countries went to war, cultures were destroyed, trade blossomed and multinationals bloomed. Now there are surplus sugar mountains and sugar lakes; people in the West have grown obese through sugar indulgence. It is a quiet irony that the very plant we have manipulated for centuries to provide us with the maximum amount of sugar could well now be used to generate electricity and shore up our medicine cabinets.

As I watch the island of Barbados spinning out of view from the plane window, with its idyllic beaches, fields of sugar cane, jagged limestone outcrops and houses the colour of boiled sweets, modelled directly on the chattel houses the slaves once dwelled in, I realise how much sugar cane has changed us. More than any other crop, be it cotton or cocaine, sugar has shaped our culture, landscape, politics, geography, economics, race, music, health, the very food we eat and what we drink in a way that no other commodity has throughout human history. This is the story of sugar.