Friday, October 8, 2010

Saccharum sp--Sugar Cane--Poaceae

At the back of the Tropical House at the UC Botanical Garden grows a small bunch of sugar cane. That grassy stuff in the pic may look 2' tall, but it actually is 20'. It gets really big. This grass is native to Indonesia, and Christopher Columbus introduced it to the Caribbean. The climate there was perfect, and it grew well. Eventually, plantations were established. At first, it was the sugar that the Europeans wanted. The cane was harvested and crushed. Then then juice was boiled to reduce water content and produce sugar. After the crystals were extracted, molasses was left. The molasses was considered a waste product until people realized that it was fermenting in the sun and a new alcoholic drink was born: rum. Rum was very popular with the British Navy, because it was cheaper to produce than brandy, the previous favorite. They couldn't put water on the ships, it went bad too quickly. So they drank alcohol instead.

At the same time that sugar cane plantations were being planted, the Spanish were taking gold and silver from the new world to Spain. The pirates intercepted the ships to steal the gold and silver, and sometimes food and drink. The pirates also drank rum, but they didn't limit the
quantities the way the British Navy did, so they used the rum as a way to recruit new people.

Sugar was part of the triangle of trade that was going on during the US colonial period. The sugar was shipped to England, along with tobacco and cocoa. There, they sold the sugar and bought manufactured goods. The manufactured goods were taken to Africa and traded for slaves. The slaves were taken to the Caribbean to work on the plantations. The shippers made money at every stop.

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