Today is the birthday of Franz Carl Achard (28th April 1753 – 1821) German experimental biologist, physicist and chemist who established the first ever production plant for the extraction of sucrose (that’s sugar!) from beets. The presence of extractable quantities of sugar in certain types of beets had been proven by Achard’s predecessor as head of the physical section of the Berlin Academy, Andreas Sigismund Marggraf (1709 – 1782), in 1747 but it was only in 1801 that Achard set up the first beet sugar production plant. Due to the difficulties involved and the low yield the production was not commercially viable despite the very high price of sugar in the 18th century and the commercial production of beet sugar first took off as a result of the Napoleonic war. Starting in 1807 the British Navy blockaded France preventing the import of cane sugar from the Caribbean leading Napoleon to introduce a programme to improve the efficiency of sugar beet extraction and thereby establishing the European beet sugar industry. In 1885 beet sugar overtook cane sugar as the worlds major sugar source. Great Britain, which controlled the Caribbean cane sugar industry, the world’s major source for refined sugar in the 18th and 19th centuries did not seriously invest in beet sugar production until the two world wars of the 20th century and the U-boat war had demonstrated the vulnerability of its sugar supply.
What is fascinating about this brief food chemistry excursus is that refined sugar is a totally useless and utterly unnecessary product. However at the end of the 18th century there was an unbelievably European market for refined sugar that was the major driving force behind the African slave trade. In 1700 Britain was importing 10 000 tons of refined sugar a year by 1800 this had become 150 000 tons per year. Sugar came to Europe from Asia via the Arabs in the High Middle Ages and sugar cane cultivation, which requires a sub tropical climate, was introduced into Madeira in 1402. In 1493, on his second voyage, Columbus introduced sugar cultivation into Haiti. In the 18th century the British introduced large-scale sugar cane production into their Caribbean possessions starting in Barbados. For the extreme hard and tedious cultivation the white British farmers used black African slave labour, establishing the so-called Triangular Trade. Ships would sail from Britain loaded with cheap goods, cloth, guns and gunpowder to West Africa where their cargo was traded for black slaves who they then shipped to the Caribbean and exchanged for a cargo of sugar cane and raw sugar. At the end of the 18th century the life of one black slave was economically equivalent to one ton of sugar in Barbados a very efficient sugar producer and half a ton on Jamaica a less efficient producer. An estimated 550 000 slaves lived and died on Barbados between 1637, the start of British rule, and the emancipation of the slaves in 1834. In 1790 the Triangular Trade was the most important trading activity of the British Empire but would soon go into decline. As the price of slaves rose and the price of sugar fell the Triangular Trade became no longer viable and this was the real reason for the abolition of the slave trade. In fact the naval blockade of 1807 and the need for the shipping provided the necessary excuse for the abolition of the commercial slaving activity.
If you want to know more about the connections between the black African slave trade and the Caribbean cane sugar production then I recommend Henry Hobhouse’s, truly excellent, Seeds of Change: Six plants that transformed mankind.