Bittersweet: Saccharum officinarum


Saccharum officinarum, Köhler’s Medizinal Pflanzen 125, by Franz Eugen Köhler

Sugar cane is a stately plant, and a member of the grass family (Poaceae). It is not dissimilar to some of the the Bamboos in appearance, with thick, often striated culms and marked, conspicuous internodes.

'Saccharum officinarum' by Francisco Manuel Blanco (O.S.A.) - Flora de Filipinas

‘Saccharum officinarum’ by Francisco Manuel Blanco (O.S.A.) – Flora de Filipinas

It is incredibly tall (up to four metres) and in flower has a magnificent plume, rather like a giant Miscanthus, It is usually grown as an annual, from cane cuttings. There is an especially beautiful Hawaiian cultivar called ‘Pele’s Smoke‘, a towering grass with glossy, dark purple leaves.

Saccharum officinarum is likely to have originated in New Guinea and the South Pacific, where it is locally known as a ‘Canoe plant’ – the freight transport method of choice in Polynesia. Not quite logistics on the scale of Norbert Dentressangle or Eddie Stobart, in other words.

Image collection Tropenmuseum

Image collection Tropenmuseum, Holland. Cane being loaded onto a tractor, KIlombero, Tanzania 1964

While we’re on the subject of transportation, I once took a bus tour in Cuba, where our antedeluvian bus broke down next to an enormous sugar plantation. While we waited for the driver to FIX HIS OWN BUS (which he duly did), an old couple proceeded to cut a cane with a pocket knife and showed us how to chew the cane for the refreshing juice. It wasn’t a bad way to spend an hour and gave me pause to ponder quite how resourceful people become with so little. Cubans are the ultimate heroes of recycling.


Saccharum officinarum, B.Navez

Sugar cane is an incredibly utilitarian crop – paper can be made of the fibres when all the cane juice has been extracted and is a key crop in the development of ethanol and biofuel. It is also used for thatching, basket making, weaving, and has a variety of medicinal applications.

On a less utilitarian (and more fun) note, you can make rum from molasses and cachaça from fermented and distilled cane juice, both of which I sampled* in Cuba. Party time! Cachaça is the most popular spirit in Brazil – approximately 1.5 billion litres are consumed annually. And the Brazilians know a thing or two about the party spirit.

Wood barrels of cachaça in Ypióca's Museum of Cachaça, Brazil. Photo Eric Gaba

Wood barrels of cachaça in Ypióca’s Museum of Cachaça, Brazil. Photo Eric Gaba

There’s a Yorkshire version of Cachaça (Foggage) made using fermented moss and new fern foliage, which is traditionally made in a peat bog during Whitsun week (ideally wearing clogs). It is particularly popular in the old mill town of Hebden Bridge, but beware, 70% proof is almost too alcoholic even for the rock-hard locals. Foggage goes some way to explaining the common chant of ‘You’re going home in a Yorkshire Ambulance’ on a Friday and Saturday night down Hebden.

Although sugar is a crop grown far afield in tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world in a climate so different to our own, it is enmeshed with the rising and falling fortunes of Great Britain and Empire. 

The British Empire grew from the original  English Empire, first recognised in the early 1600’s when the English settled in the ‘Thirteen Colonies‘ (which in 1776 finally became the independent ‘United States’) Alongside these settlements increasing colonisation and exploitation of the small islands of the Caribbean was also occurring. These smaller sugar plantation islands quickly became Britain’s most profitable colonies.

It is impossible to talk about sugar without mentioning Sir Henry Tate, founder of the Tate Gallery and prolific art collector, was a successful grocer and entrepreneur before making his fortune in the sugar trade, just as the British Empire was expanding and during one of the most rapid periods of economic growth in British history. Tate bequeathed his collection to the people of Great Britain in the form of the original Tate Gallery opened in 1897 (now known as Tate Britain).


Tate Britain, the original Tate Gallery. Photo Tony Hisgett

It is noteworthy that Tate’s success was largely attributed to the patenting of a method of creating the sugar cube, and that our ideas about contemporary art have such strong associations with the white cube, or an inverted white cube – the four white walls of a traditional art gallery interior.

Henry Tate might be in a spot of bother if he was around today. Health professionals and diet and nutrition specialists alike seem to agree that we are pretty addicted to sugar, which is used as an additive in pre-prepared food with abandon and seems to sneak into almost everything

You could certainly include sugar alongside other plants with significant addictive properties; Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) Erythroxylum coca (Cocaine) and Coffea arabica (coffee). The insidious use of sugar as a high-calorie and now nutrition additive in pre-prepared food is squarely blamed for the global obesity ‘epidemic’.

sugar loaf monument sussex

Brightling Park, Woods Corner, East Sussex by Janet Richardson

An ode to sugar, Fuller’s Point in Sussex, (reputedly built by the Squire of Brightling John ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller to win a bet) represents a sugarloaf, which before 1872 – the year Henry Tate patented the sugar cube – was the iconic conical shape in which sugar was traditionally formed for retail. Previously, bits would have been broken off and sold to individual customers in groceries at point of sale. Sugarloaves were rendered obsolete by the event of Tate’s patent on sugar cubes.

John Fuller was an Eton educated member of the landed gentry and was a conspicuous advocate of slavery, having inherited several West Indian plantations on his father’s death, including sugar plantations. He was a notorious drinker, patron of the arts, bachelor and generally a bonkers egomaniac with a penchant for follies and an inexplicable philanthropic streak. His mausoleum is an extraordinary miniature pyramid which looks entirely out of place in the sleepy churchyard of St. Thomas à Becket, Brightling.

‘Local legend had it that Fuller was entombed in the pyramid in full dress and top hat seated at a table set with a roast chicken and a bottle of wine. This was discovered to be untrue during renovations in 1982. Fuller is indeed buried in the conventional manner beneath the pyramid.’
Mad Jack Fuller's Mausoleum

‘Mad Jack’ Fuller’s Mausoleoum at the churchyard of St. Thomas à Becket, Brightling

The mausoleum inscription from the 1791 poem by Thomas Gray ‘Elegy Written in a Country Chutchyard’ is beautifully apt and demonstrates that Fuller was not completely unthinking:

‘The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave
Await alike th’ inevitable hour
The paths of glory lead but to the grave’

The cultivation of sugar cane, along with cotton, indigo and rice, are all crops tainted with the spectre of slavery; the largest forced migration of workers to plantations and processing points of all time. Slavery bound generations of black Africans and West Indian people to a brutal system of obligatory and unremunerated life of toil and hardship, reducing people to articles of property, wrenching families apart and in the worst cases, completely brutalising slave owners and enforcers as well.

Slavery in America began when the first African slaves were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, to aid in the production of such lucrative crops as tobacco’.

Annually, a Slavery Remembrance Day is held on 23 August;  ‘a significant date as it commemorates an uprising of enslaved Africans on the island of Saint Domingue (modern Haiti) in 1791’ (Liverpool Museum of Slavery)

Slavery was not abolished in the UK and the British Empire until 1833 and remained legal in many states in the USA until 1865.

Sadly there are still many problems associated with sugar production, low wages, and cases of unexplained diseases (mainly in Central America) in plantation workers – especially relating to kidney failure – which appear to be connected to cultivation and more specifically, harvest. 

Many medical professionals are attributing the high levels of fatal kidney failure in plantation workers to heat stress and dehydration, while others believe the unrestricted use of chemicals banned in many other parts of the world where sugar cane is cultivated may also be a contributing factor. 

Art Spot

Victor Patricio 'Corte de Cana, 1874' by Habana, Cuba, 1889)

Victor Patricio ‘Corte de Cana, 1874’ Habana, Cuba

Two pieces; Victor Patricio’s painting ‘Corte de Cana’, 1874 (above)

and SIR HENRY TATE’S MAUSOLEUM, 2012,  Brendan Jamison

A perfectly pitched piece by Irish artist Brendan Jamison. A replica of Sir Henry Tate’s Mausoleum in miniature rendered entirely in carved sugar cubes. Well worth a click on the link.

Books of the Month

Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz
Fifty Plants that changed the Course of History, Bill Laws
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher-Stowe

Track of the Month

It has to be ‘Sugar Sugar’, by The Archies

Plant of the Month

Saccharum officinarum ‘Pele’s Smoke’

'Sugarcanes, Tahiti' by Coulon - Clement Lindley Wragge (1906) The Romance of the South Seas, Chatto & Windus

‘Sugarcanes, Tahiti’ by Coulon – Clement Lindley Wragge (1906) The Romance of the South Seas, Chatto & Windus

*Drank copiously


English Heritage
Encyclopedia Brittanica
LIverpool Museum of Slavery
National Tropical Botanical Garden, Hawaii
Missouri Botanic Garden
The Poetry Foundation
BBC News
Guardian News
British Medical Journal

All images Wikimedia Commons. Attributions have been included.


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