Europeans soon realized that sugar cane could make them rich, and so the sugar plantations of the West Indies were born. The production of sugar cane was very labour-intensive and so began the slave trade. Ships leaving the ports of Bristol and Liverpool took goods to West Africa, picked up cargoes of slaves and took them to the plantations in the West Indies, and then, later, took sugar cane to be refined in Bristol and Liverpool; both cities prospered from this trade. Sugar production suffered when the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed in Britain in 1833.
Now, 70% of the world’s sugar comes from sugar cane, with the remaining 30% coming from sugar beet. In the production of sugar from the sugar cane, we get a variety of by-products: ethanol increasingly used for fuel instead of petrol; alcohol for the pharmaceutical industry; bargasse, from which paper and chipboard can be made out of the extracted fibres and which can also be used as animal fodder and fertilizer. Molasses and yeast are also by-products of the sugar manufacturing process. We also get lactic acid and butanol (solvents) from it and citrus acid and glycerol, both used in food products.
Molasses were used to distill rum in the 17th century in the West Indies, when they were a haunt for slave traders and buccaneers.
Cane wax is also a by-product of the sugar refining process, and this is extracted from the residue of ‘filtre-cake’ and used as an ingredient in polish and waxed papers.
Sugar cane is used extensively in the cuisines of the subcontinent. In India, tender young sugar cane shoots are steamed or roasted and eaten as a vegetable Its juice is used in cookery as well as being a drink, and gur is also used to flavour dishes.
Different types of sugar are produced from the sugar cane, white being the one that is commonly used, but as this is more refined, it has fewer health benefits than other types of sugar. Less refined sugars are the brown ones we know as demerara and muscovado. Crystallized sugar is known as misri, or rock candy, and gur is jaggery made by boiling sugar cane juice.
In India, sugar cane is given to the Hindu elephant-headed god, Ganesh, as elephants love sugar cane. The sugar cane is also a symbol of a person’s search for his/her true self. The hard outer shell (the ego) has to be stripped away, and this takes some considerable effort, in order to discover the true, sweet nature of the pure self, the sugar cane flesh and juice.
Sugar cane can be chewed and is eaten like this very often on the subcontinent, and is sold on street corners. However if sugar cane is stored in damp conditions it becomes poisonous. A whole village in northern China went down with “mouldy sugar cane poisoning” a few years ago.