World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 24, June 1997

In this issue:

  1. Reviews
  2. Videos
  3. Recent Publications
  4. Sugar in Java
  5. Sugar Arts

This version of the World Sugar History Newsletter, Number 24, June 1997, has been edited for the purpose of on-line display. The contents remain complete.


Christoph Maria Merki, Zucker gegen Saccharine: zur Geschichte der Küstlichen Süssstoffe (Frankfurt and New York: Campus Verlag, 1993). Pp. 301. DM48.

This book should be translated into English as soon as possible. Interesting and well written, it is an abridgement of the author’s PhD dissertation, presented in 1991 to the University of Berne (Switzerland). It is the result of thorough research in the business and government archives of three countries.

Between a short Introduction and an even shorter Conclusion, there are four chapters in which the author deals with (1) the introduction and increase in consumption of saccharine; (2) the campaign in the Austrian and German Empires against its growing use; (3) the internationalization of the campaign, and saccharine’s market before the first world war; and (4) the final acceptance of saccharine as a sugar substitute during and after the war.

Saccharine, or crystallose C7H5NO3S, produced from coal-originated toluene, was discovered by chance in June 1878, by the German chemist Constantin Fahlberg, in the laboratories of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Eight years later, Fahlberg and his uncle, Adolphe List, both of whom had been connected to the sugar industry, patented the discovery in Germany.

Put on the market initially as a foodstuff for diabetics, saccharine soon became, because of its low cost, a cheap substitute for sugar, the so-called Zucker der armen Leute, the sugar of the poor. It was not only consumed in natura by households, but also by industries, such as breweries, which used it to season dark beer and by starch sweetener manufacturers. In Germany, by the beginning of this century, saccharine had already claimed the equivalent of nine percent of total sugar consumption.

This progress towards large-scale substitution of sugar came to a brusque halt in most of continental Europe with the enactment from 1902 onwards of legislation that prohibited its sale to "healthy" and "normal" consumers. Until the first world war this legislation confined the legal sale of saccharine to pharmacies. The central and east European beet sugar manufacturers’ lobby promoted this legislation with the compliance of governments which feared to lose an important source of taxation.

Prohibition, nonetheless, only brought about a booming black market in saccharine, increasingly supplied by Switzerland, one of the few European countries in which its fabrication and consumption remained legal. Zürich became a kind of Medellín of those days while, not by coincidence, the first synthetic sweeteners cartel, headed by companies well-known today, such as Sandoz, Ciba, BASF, and Hoechst, placed its international headquarters in another Swiss city, Basle.

The first world war changed the situation completely. The decrease in beet production in Germany and the decision of the Austro-Hungarian government to divert a substantial proportion of its production to foreign markets caused a sudden scarcity of sugar in central Europe. Saccharine came back into favour, both with the public and governments, despite the fact that toluene was rationed because of its role in the production of explosives.

The benefits of this substitution, both for the manufacturers of saccharine and for the German state, meant that after the war saccharine began to be treated not only in Germany but also elsewhere almost on the same footing as sugar itself.

Tamás Szmrecsányi
Universidade Estadual de Campinas

P. Ernest Bouvet, The Final Harvest - The Hamakua Sugar Company 1869-1994 (Hong Kong: Private Printing, 1995). Pp. 88. $20 (hardback). ISBN 0-943823-05-6.

"Old-timers, Reunited for the Last Time, Play Winning Game" is a headline that describes the essence of this book. The Hamakua Sugar Company of the island of Hawaii went bankrupt in March 1993, leaving $38 million worth of unharvested sugarcane on 14,000 acres. A state government task force formed to study the situation concluded that a harvest was possible but that a start-up state loan of $8 million was necessary.

P. Ernest Bouvet, a former manager of Hamakua Sugar, was asked to organize this final harvest, a formidable task which he and the plantation employees managed to accomplish over a period of sixteen months, ending on October 10, 1994. They had first to repair the mill, which took two and a half months, then keep it in operating order as crews harvested the field with rundown equipment. The state finally shut down the mill with a little over 500 acres of cane still standing. Bouvet regrets this decision but proudly points out that when the ledger was closed the harvest’s net profit was $4 million. They had beaten the odds.

Bouvet’s book is a bittersweet testament to the courageous effort of the Hamakua work force. It is primarily a pictorial book in which excellent black and white photographs document the earlier times and striking colour ones the last years. However, his narrative furnishes valuable information on the plantation’s history from 1869. He emphasizes the people of the plantation and opens with a short review of the migration of workers to Hawaii. The Chinese began to arrive in 1852; immigrants from Japan, Portugal, and the Philippines were to follow. More than seven ethnic groups were represented on the Company’s final payroll.

Norman Rozeff
Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, Inc.
Santa Rosa, Texas


The following are the first reports on videos in the Newsletter. They were contributed by Norman Rozeff.

Bob Jones, "Long Sugar. The Koloa Plantation Story" (Grove Farm Homestead, P.O. Box 1631, Lihue, HI, 96766). 1996. $22.95 (Cheques payable to the Waioli Corp.)

Koloa means "long sugar" in Hawaiian and is an appropriate name for the second sugar plantation to be founded on the islands and the first to enjoy long-term success. It dates from 1835, the original acreage held on lease from King Kamehameha III. A Bostonian with two partners from Maine were the founders; their first crop in 1837 produced 2.1 tons of sugar which they sold in the United States for $200.

The video draws on archival and contemporary photos and motion pictures to present the plantation’s social and economic history down to its closure in 1996. It traces the expansion of the plantation, the technological improvements in the mill and fields, and the evolution of the labour force.

The video is a valuable contribution to Hawaii’s sugar history.

Maryknoll World Sugar Productions, "Starving for Sugar" (West Glen Films, 1430 Broadway, New York, NY 10018). 1989. $19.95.

The synopsis on the case of the video reads: "For centuries peasant workers have sweated in tropical heat to satisfy the world's sweet tooth. From the Philippines to the Caribbean, sugarcane workers are pawns in a game of world economic and political power. The introduction of sweetener derived from corn, along with the protective market policies in the United States and Europe, has crippled the sugar industry in the Third World, depriving millions of Third World workers of their scant source of livelihood. "Starving for Sugar" tells the human story of a commodity and calls for a sense of social responsibility in our World."

Norman Rozeff comments that "this video, despite its highly coloured viewpoint, does comprise an element of sugar history".


Sugar Beet

Peter Dörheit, "Ferdinand Knauer (1824-1889), der Züchter der ‘Imperialerübe’," Zuckerindustrie, 121:11 (1996), pp. 888-891.

Hans-Jürgen Kaufman, Die Zuckerindustrie der DDR: Ein Zeitporträt der Jahre 1945 bis 1990 mit einem Beitrag von Dr. Franz Hessland "Zuckerrüben-produktion" (Berlin: Verlag Dr. Albert Bartens, 1996). DM80. ISBN 3-87040-060-9.

Alec Douet, "Some aspects of sugar beet production in England, 1945-85," Rural History: Economy, Society and Culture, 7 (October 1996).

Sugar Cane

P. Griggs, "The origins and early development of the small cane farming system in Queensland, 1870-1915," Journal of Historical Geography, 23:1 (1997), pp. 46-61.

John Kerr, Only Room for One. A History of Sugar in the Isis District of Queensland (Childers: Isis Central Sugar Mill, 1996).

Shakarganj Mills Limited. First Thirty Years 1967-1997 (Jhang, Pakistan, 1997) Pp. 16 + tables, published on the occasion of the International Society of Sugarcane Technologists Workshop, Faisalabad, February, 1997. Available from Shakarganj Mills Ltd., Sugar Division, Management House, Toba Road, Jhang, Pakistan.

And forthcoming in December:

William K. Storey, Science and Power in Colonial Mauritius. Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora, Vol. 3 (Rochester: University of Rochester Press; London: Boydell and Brewer, 1997).

Maple Sugar

Claudia Smith, When the Sugar Bird Sings. The History of Maple Sugar in Lanark County (Burnstown, Ont., Canada: General Store Pub-lishing House, 1996). CDN$18.95 Paperback. ISBN 1-896182-47-X.


Margaret Leidelmeijer has recently completed her dissertation for Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. It is entitled "Van suikermolen tot grootbedrift. Technische vernieuwing in de Java-suikerindustrie in de negentiende eeuw" (From sugar mill to factory. Technical innovation in Java’s sugar industry in the nineteenth century). The dissertation has been published in Dutch by NEHA: Amsterdam, 1997), No. 25 in NEHA series 111, pp. 368. Dutch Guilders 52.50. We hope to publish a review in our next issue.

Dr. Leidelmeijer has provided the following summary:

In Dutch colonial history, Java’s sugar industry has always been a favourite topic of research. The discussion, however, has been mainly about political and socio-economic matters. Although the state of technology and technological development have been related to important social issues, technology itself has never been the subject of historical research. The general view in the historiography is that during the Cultivation System (1830-1870), government policies inhibited the mechanization of the industry. Consequently, Java’s sugar industry was unable to compete in the world market. A number of enterprises eventually went bankrupt during the sugar crisis of 1883-84, a crisis which almost ruined the Javanese industry. Ruin was avoided by the conversion of most family-owned enterprises into companies of limited liability that were able to mechanize the industry within a short period of time. Mechanization, combined with scientific support from experimental stations and economic and political re-organization, resulted in Java achieving a leading position in the world market by the beginning of the twentieth century.

The crisis of 1883-84 marked a turning point in the production structure of the Cultivation System. In the historiography, the period following the crisis has been characterized as the start of the "modern" period in the Javanese sugar industry. It might be asked how this transformation could possibly have been realized without problems and within such a short period of time. And what was the role of technology? In order to be able to answer these questions, an understanding of the process of technological innovation in the industry is essential. The central question is: How did Java’s sugar industry change from a traditional mode of production to a fully mechanized, scientifically supported one?

The thesis employs current theories from the history of technology, specifically those which consider technological development to be a social process. Using both primary and secondary sources, it describes the major technological changes in the production system, and then discusses specific parts of this long-term development using detailed case studies of technological innovation.

The major conclusion is that no radical transformation took place in the production system after the crisis of 1883-84. It is true that important changes occurred, but they took place within and on the basis of structures originating from the early period of the Culture System. Because of these structures, a quick assimilation of beet sugar technology was possible.

It is possible to distinguish three ways in which technology and knowledge diffused to Java. First, during the Cultivation System, the colonial government had a key role in the introduction and diffusion of technological innovations. Its role was more evident in the 1830s and 1840s, when Europeans in the Java industry were inexperienced, than after the mid-1850s.

Second, changes in the market were important determinants of technological change. The boom in the beet sugar industry which gathered strength during the nineteenth century had drastic consequences for the cane sugar industry. Until the 1870s, sugar manufacturers were free to adopt beet sugar factory technology, but later, and particularly after the crisis of 1883-84, if sugar manufacturers wished to produce for the world market, they had to adopt the standard technology of the beet sugar industry. Java’s sugar industry had already adopted crucial parts of that technology, such as the vacuum pan, so that the adoption of the full technology was but the continuation of a trend.

The third avenue of diffusion was via a knowledge network which evolved over time. It originated at the beginning of the Cultivation System in the friendships and family ties between the manufacturers and members of the Netherlands-Indies government. During the 1840s and 1850s scientists from the Ministry of Colonial Affairs who evaluated technical and chemical innovations were participants. As companies took over from family-owned enterprises, managers became prominent members. The network became institutionalized in local and regional associations of experts. After the crisis of 1883-84, scientists and engineers from Europe based on the plantations or in experimental stations became part of the network. They were mainly responsible for the transfer of knowledge from the beet sugar industry to Java’s sugar industry.


Those interested should explore the world of cookery books, particularly those dealing with confectionary and pâtisserie.

World Culinary Arts, 1627 R Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009, USA, may be a useful source of information. On November 1st and 2nd of this year, it organized in Washington a conference on "Pastry as Art and International Chocolate Tasting". There were sessions on chocolate confections, chocolate sculpting techniques, and sugar sculpting techniques.

See also:

Scott Hegenbart, "The sweet facts of confection creation," Food Product Design (April 1995), pp. 30-43.

The World Sugar History Newsletter is compiled by Jock Galloway and Peter Blanchard. The subscription rate is $15 for two years (four issues). The date on the address sticker is the subscription expiration date. Personal cheques made out to World Sugar History Newsletter and drawn on Canadian or American banks are acceptable as are international money orders. Correspondence and subscriptions should be sent to Jock Galloway or Peter Blanchard, Victoria College, University of Toronto, 73 Queen’s Park Crescent, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1K7. E-mail: or Back issues of the Newsletter can be found at our website: