The History of Sugar from Ancient India to the Caribbean Slave Plantations

How would our modern day to day life would be like, in a world without sugar?

I’m very pleased to have Neil Buttery on the podcast today, the food historian and author of “A dark history of sugar”, who’s book is out now and traces the origins of all the above, sugar’s production and consumption especially during its darkest parts between the 16th and 19th century.



Once, it was called Indian Salt. Or white salt. The Chinese lay claim to be the first to make it; among their many inventions.

It seems the art of making it though, came from India.


Sugar cane is a giant grass that once was native to the island of New Guinea.


This is the history of sugar, and sugar cane, the plant Saccharum officinarum which today is found growing in many places around the world, but crucially used in so many of our foods that it certainly makes it ubiquitous …

Darius the Persian King is said to have discovered in India a reed that gives honey without the aid of bees. And brought it home with him.


A spice -as it was considered in the ancient world- more expensive than any other, and used for medicinal primarily purposes.


Dioscorides, a Greek contemporary of Augustus, remarks that: ‘There is a kind of solid honey called saccharon, which is found in the reeds of India and Arabia the fortunate. It resembles salt in consistency, and crunches in the mouth.’


Sweet foods are very rare in nature indeed. And exactly why before the age of sugar, honey was the no1 sweetener in the world, eaten and used by people all over.

Energy giving, it was the only sweetener available in a pure and natural state.


We describe people as sweet when they’re nice, polite and so on.

Clearly sweetness is something we desire, something we need, something we revered as sacred since our deep ancient past. Honey and sugar have religious connotations too.

But we also need high energy for our development. As a species our need for sweet and sugar led us to develop ingenious ways to make things sweeter. From the development of sophisticated apiculture to agriculture and breeding selectively fruit bearing plants that have more sugar.


But how did sugar as we know today come to the forefront of our lives? And how it created and was shaped by the transantlantic slave trade, colonialism and exploitation of humans and nature?


If you want more archaeogastronomical content, and the extra bits from our conversation with Neil, please subscribe to the Patreon page here:

You can buy Neil Buttery's "A Dark History of Sugar" book in every good bookshop.

Music by Pavlos Kapralos.

If you want to get your hands on some delicious Greek products go to Maltby and Greek website and use the code "delicious" at the checkout to get a lovely 15% discount!


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