Saccharum Officinarum

Date: 1742
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images


This variety of sugarcane, a natural hybrid of Saccharum officinarum and S. barberi was the only type of sugar grown in the New World until the late eighteenth century Enlightenment, and was therefore just called "Creole" cane. (The fact that this cane was actually a hybrid and not pure S. officinarum was not discovered until the 1930s, thus the author of this source can be forgiven his error in classification). The increased demand for sugar in the international economy and the emphasis of the Bourbon reformers on creating more revenue led American planters to seek out better varieties of the plant and, in 1780, a French explorer discovered pure S. officinarum growing in Tahiti. This variety, known as "noble" cane, was brought to Jamaica in 1791 and spread from there to the Caribbean and Brazil. The new "noble" cane gave a huge boost to the sugar industry: Alexander von Humboldt noted how it yielded up to 20 percent more sugar than Creole cane and each plant was about twice the size.

As often occurs, technology adapted to and facilitated new agricultural practices. Whereas Creole cane had a softer stalk that could be milled with wooden rollers, the harder stems of pure S. officinarum broke traditional mills and new iron sugar presses had to be created. Just like Enlightenment reforms in mining and the other useful arts, science was used to make agriculture better and, as sugar was the most profitable crop in the Americas, it received much attention from modernizers.

The introduction of "noble" cane was indicative of how closely knit international economies and biota had become by the late eighteenth century. That a Tahitian plant could revolutionize an American product in order to enrich European empires gives us some sense of the worldwide relationships. The downside, however, was that growing only pure S. officinarum precluded biological diversity, and thus the entire sugar crop was subject to ruin by one disease, pest, or blight. The huge crop failures due to the mosaic sugar disease in the early twentieth century Caribbean was a direct result of such biological homogenization (see the Agriculture and Science topic for more on this blight).

Reference: McCook, Stuart. States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

CITATION: [left] Fueille de Canne. [right] Partie d'une Canne. In: Labat, Jean Baptiste. Nouveau voyage aux isles de l'Amerique...tome troisieme. Paris: Chez Guillaume Cavelier Pere, Librarie, au Lys d'or, 1742. Accession no. 35892. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.