Sugarcane is first said to have been cultivated in New Guinea, around 10,000 years ago. From there, knowledge relating to cultivation of this plant spread to southeast Asia, southern China, and then India. In 510 BC, Emperor Darius of Persia invaded India where he found ‘the reed which gives honey without bees’.
During the Gupta dynasty, Indians found ways to boil the juice of the sugarcane, refine it and derive sweet, solid crystals. The knowledge of making sugar and its properties are detailed in several texts from ancient India, including those on medicine, written between 1500–500 B.C.
This ‘sweet spice’ soon became the basis of profitable trade with surrounding countries, and the knowledge of sugar production began to spread to the Middle East or China. European invaders, who travelled to Asia during the Crusades, took back with them some very expensive ‘sweet salt’, which was initially so expensive that only rulers and high-class citizens could afford them. Sugarcane was cultivated was begun in parts of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, but sugar remained expensive as it was a labour intensive process.
By 1750, there were 120 sugar refineries operating in Britain but sugar was still a luxury and called ‘white gold’. In 1874, when the British government abolished the tax on sugar, it became a commodity that could be afforded by ordinary citizens. Another important development was the identification of sugar beet as a source of sugar in 1747—which led to increased production and, subsequently, lower prices for popular sweetener.