World Sugar History Newsletter

Number 46, September 2016

In this issue:

  1. From the Editors
  2. Book Review
  3. Metropolitan Sugar Refineries
  4. Phd Theses
  5. Publications


This issue could be headed “back from the ashes”. When Bill Albert and Adrian Graves decided to bring the Newsletter to a close in 1991 after eighteen issues, Jock Galloway approached me about taking on the task and over the next several years we managed to keep the Newsletter alive with book reviews, publications, reports on conferences, sugar resources, and the like through the input of numerous contributors around the globe. But, as I wrote in issue Number 45, it seemed as if the time had come to bring the Newsletter to a conclusion as Jock was no longer able to collect the necessary information and I was only marginally involved in the subject.

However, the soil in which sugar grows is fertile and interest had obviously not died, for within months of my thinking I had closed the book on the Newsletter for good, David Lincoln of the University of Cape Town and a long-time follower and supporter of the Newsletter offered to step in and take the lead in the production of another ten more issues at least. Given the green light, he was collecting “copy” almost immediately, and Number 46 is really all his work, including the following paragraphs.

This issue has been assembled relatively quickly. It might not be as packed as usual but that is expected to change with future issues. If readers would keep us notified about collections, conferences, publications, doctoral theses, and anything else that widens our knowledge of the history of sugar in all its forms, we would be most appreciative. We are thinking about initiating review essays as well as publishing entire thematic issues, potentially stemming from a particular publication or debate, or concerning the historical background to current matters, or along the lines suggested below in the piece on metropolitan sugar refineries. Current concerns in the world sugar economy include the ending of the EU’s sugar regime in 2017, the redoubled campaign against sugar consumption, the substantially diminished sugar output of historical sugar icon Cuba as it resumes relations with the US after more than a half-century apart, and the milling of Hawaii’s last sugar cane crop this year after a century-and-a-half of commercial sugar production. All of these should stimulate interest in sugar and its past.

We sadly note that four colleagues in the network served by the Newsletter have died in recent years, namely Sidney Mintz, Tamás Szmrecsányi, Jerry Hagelberg, and Ed Beechert. They contributed to the World Sugar Economy Conferences and each had a remarkable presence in the community of sugar historians.


Andrew F. Smith, Sugar: A Global History (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2015). 159 pp.

Andrew Smith’s latest book on the history of sugar is part of the EDIBLE series of books dedicated to food and drink. Each of these books reveals the global history and culture of one type of food or beverage. Smith claims that the subject of his book is the history of how our ancestors worked out how to process cane juice so it could be preserved and how the implementation and improvement of this process affected human history.

This small book (only 159 pages; less if the select bibliography and index are removed) is split into nine short chapters. The Prologue provides brief details about the chemical composition of sugar or sucrose and how it can be obtained from sugar cane. The period up until 1492 is covered in the first chapter. New World Sugar to 1900 is the focus of the second chapter. The third chapter considers the rise of beet sugar production, the spread of sugar production to Africa, Asia, and Oceania, and very brief details about sugar production after World War II, the focus being on the United States and Cuba. Using sugar to create sweets, candies, chocolates, and processed foods, such as breakfast cereals and ice cream are the focus of Chapters Four, Five, and Six. The concerns about the health effects of consuming sugar and the growth in sugar substitutes is covered in the seventh chapter. A few comments relating to the current concerns about sugar production and consumption (e.g., environmental damage from growing sugar cane; treatment of contract workers) make up the Epilogue (pp. 134-136). The book then contains some recipes using sugar (no explanation as to why they were selected), a select bibliography, and a list of websites and associations that are associated with sugar production.

Given the size of this book, many sugar-related topics are covered far too briefly or omitted entirely. A major oversight in this account is details about just how raw sugar is produced and then refined into white sugar, although aspects of the process are shown in some of the book’s excellent photographs (see pp. 61 & 62, for example). I am not suggesting that the author needed to go into comprehensive technical detail about the sugar-making process, but it is not clear in this book how brown sugar emerges after the cane juice is clarified and boiled, and then further processed to remove impurities through refining to make white table sugar, icing sugar, or caster sugar. In fact, the material on refining discusses where sugar refineries were located (e.g., Antwerp and Bristol), but does not explain what went on in these factories (i.e., filtering the clarified liquor through granulated carbon or animal charcoal). Moreover, I could find no details on the different types of sugar produced throughout history, such as mill whites, muscovado sugar, or Demerara crystals.

For a book claiming to be a global history of sugar, I was surprised to find that there is no mention of sugar production in Java. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Java was one of the main global producers of industrial sugar. Details about sugar production in Taiwan, Malaysia, Fiji, Argentina, Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique are also absent. The chronologies about the spread of sugar production in this book are very incomplete (i.e., Chapter Three).

The absence of details about Java is also surprising as the island was a major centre for the breeding of sucrose-rich varieties of sugar cane during the early twentieth century. Indeed, the entire topic of manipulating ‘noble’ varieties of sugar cane to produce more sucrose and withstand frost, low amounts of water moisture, and diseases (e.g., gumming) is also entirely absent in this book. Again, I am not suggesting that the author needed to go into extensive technical details on these topics, but one of the key features of the history of sugar in the twentieth century has been the creation of these new sugar cane varieties that have yielded higher amounts of sucrose. Both mill owners and national governments where sugar cane was extensively grown (e.g., Australia, Mauritius, and South Africa) have invested heavily in this activity.

As an Australian, I was interested to read what Smith had to say about my national sugar industry. I was very disappointed. The short paragraph about Australia on p. 52 concentrates entirely on the pre-1900 period when Australia was a minor sugar producer. During the twentieth century, Australia emerged as one of the top five global producers of raw sugar, a major and reliable global supplier of raw sugar whose scientists and engineers have developed numerous innovations in the production of sugar. None of this detail is examined in the book.

The strength of the book is its details about the use of sugar in sweets and candies. However, in my opinion it cannot claim to be a comprehensive global history of sugar as there are far too many omissions. This book is a good introduction to the topic but readers seeking more depth in the topic will need to look elsewhere.

Peter Griggs
Peter Griggs is a veteran contributor to the Newsletter. He has published extensively on sugar history and is the author of Global Industry, Local Innovation: The History of Cane Sugar Production in Australia, 1820-1995.


Since the mid-nineteenth century, ships carrying raw cane sugar from the tropical islands and other colonies have usually discharged their cargo at metropolitan dockside refineries. Two of the most prominent of these have been Brooklyn’s Domino refinery, built in the 1850s, and London’s Plaistow Wharf refinery, built in the 1880s. Generations of employees and their families’ lives were shaped by these vast industrial plants as were the rhythms and routines of their surrounding neighbourhoods. Commercially mighty and technologically progressive, they represented the crest of the international sugar wave which backwashed into even the most remote corners of the world of sugar-making. Something of their presence and purpose has been captured in images, including an aerial view of Plaistow in 1951 (, and photographer Paul Raphaelson’s record of Domino’s industrial remains ( Paul Raphaelson on his website mentions that he is working on a book, telling Domino’s story with the help of an architectural historian, a photo editor, and some former refinery workers. Meanwhile, artist Lucio Zago is producing a graphic novel about Domino and its neighbourhood ( If Domino and Plaistow were two of the earliest and most prominent, other industrialised countries have also imported raw cane sugar and refined it in dockside plants, notably Toronto’s Redpath refinery, ( which opened in 1959.). If Domino and Plaistow were two of the earliest and most prominent, other industrialised countries have also imported raw cane sugar and refined it in dockside plants, notably Toronto’s Redpath refinery ( which opened in 1959.

The Newsletter would be interested in other contributions to the history of metropolitan sugar refineries.


The University of São Paulo has accepted several PhD theses on sugar-historical subjects in the past few years:

Roberta Barros Meira, A quimera da modernização: do terceiro distrito de engenhos centrais ao complexo agroindustrial sucroalcooleiro paulista, mineiro e fluminense, 1875-1926. [The chimera of modernization: from the third district of central mills to the agro-industrial sugar-ethanol complex in São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro, 1875-1926.] PhD in Economic History, 2013.

Mateus de Almeida Prado Sampaio, 360º - O périplo do açúcar em direção à macrorregião canavieira do centro-sul do Brasil. [360° - The sugar periplus toward the sugarcane macro-region of South-Central Brazil.] PhD in Human Geography, 2015.

Vanessa Moreira Sígolo, A contrapelo: autogestão, recuperação de empresas e a Usina Catende em Pernambuco. [Against the grain: self-management, recovery of enterprise and the Catende sugar refinery in Pernambuco.] PhD in Sociology, 2015.

From Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit, whose doctoral theses are produced in book form, comes:

Tijo Salverda, Sugar, Sea and Power: How Franco-Mauritians Balance Continuity and Creeping Decline of their Élite Position. (Amsterdam: VU University Amsterdam, Faculty of Social Sciences, 2010). 285 pp.


Journal Articles

H. F. Akers, M. A. Foley, P. J. Ford, and L. P. Ryan, “Sugar in mid-twentieth-century Australia: A bittersweet tale of behaviour, economics, politics and dental health,” Historical Records of Australian Science 26:1, 2015, pp. 20-35.

Ming-sho Ho, “Manufacturing loyalty: The political mobilization of labor in Taiwan, 1950-1986,” Modern China 36:6, 2010, pp. 559-588. [This is a case study of workers in Taiwan’s sugar industry.]

Author-published book

Jerry Gosnell, Gallic Thunderbolt: The Story of René Leclézio and Lonrho Sugar (Pinetown, South Africa: published by the author, 2004). vii, 307 pp. ISBN 0-620-31944-5.

Book re-issued online

Robert Wiles, Cuban Cane Sugar: A Sketch of the Industry, from Soil to Sack, together with a Survey of the Circumstances which combine to make Cuba the Sugar Bowl of the World (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1916). vi, 85 pp. [This scanned version of the original book, which is no longer under copyright, was given to the Biodiversity Heritage Library by the University of California Libraries.]

This issue of the World Sugar History Newsletter has been compiled by David Lincoln and Peter Blanchard. Correspondence should be sent to David Lincoln, Department of Sociology, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch, Cape Town, 7700, South Africa, or to Peter Blanchard, Department of History, University of Toronto, 100 St. George Street, Toronto, ON, Canada M5S3G3 ( 1K7