Sunday, September 24, 2023

How Beets Helped Abolish Slavery Worldwide

Beets have been instrumental in helping abolish slavery. When the world learned how to produce sugar cheaply from beets instead of sugarcane, the economic importance of slaves diminished.

Beets are a superfood with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer benefits. They protect the heart, brain, joints, and digestive system. Beetroot juice has a special place in cardiovascular endurance and sports performance.

BeeBeets have also played an interesting role in the abolition of slavery. Here is some light reading about it, taken from my new book (the book is about the health benefits mentioned above; the part below is an extended version of the short opening story).

It is the story of human greed and tastes realigning our world. But first, a brief history of sugar.

A Brief History of Sugar

Here is some sugar chronology:

  • 6000 years ago: Papua New Guineans and Austronesians started using sugarcane.
  • 3500 years ago: Sugarcane spread to Polynesia and Micronesia.
  • 3000 years ago: Sugarcane spread to China and India.
  • 2500 years ago: Indians perfected making sugar granules and then sugar crystals from sugarcane juice. When Emperor Darius of Persia invaded India, he took back the sugar to Persia.
  • 2000 years ago: Persians learned how to cultivate sugarcane and process sugar.
  • 1500 years ago: Arabs invaded Persia, where they learned how sugar was made. They took it to the Mediterranean and North Africa.
  • 1000 years ago: Western Europeans learned about sugar during the Crusades—a series of religious wars.
  • 600 years ago: Columbus took sugarcane plants to grow in the Caribbean.

Europe’s Love of Sugar and Slavery

The real sugar story started five hundred years ago. Around that time, Europe fell in love with sugar.

At that time, sugarcane was a highly labour-intensive industry and transporting it for sugar production was an expensive proposition. So sugar commanded a high price—it was uncommon and exotic enough to be considered a spice and a medicine.

As its consumption rose quickly throughout the continent, Europe needed a way to produce sugar cheaply in large volumes to capitalise on the demand. Sugarcane was the ideal source, but it grew only in flat lands near coastal waters, especially where the soil was naturally yellow. The perfect location was the Atlantic coast of the Americas.

The Imperial powers started sugarcane plantations in the Americas, from where they would ship sugar to Europe.

The Europeans brought millions of Africans from Africa to work in the plantations, initially as slaves and later, as indentured labourers. Slavery thrived in the Americas as it made sugar cheap to produce, though the transportation cost to Europe was high.

Sugar Beets

On the other side of the Atlantic in Germany, in 1747, a chemist named Andreas Marggraf found that the crystals in beetroot syrup were the same as those found in sugar cane juice. He realised that he could produce sugar from beetroots. But who would want red sugar?

So he developed White Silesian, a breed of white beetroot with high sugar content. It is now called sugar beet and is only used in sugar production—not for regular consumption. Since it needed four times less water than sugarcane to grow, beet sugar could be produced economically in Europe itself.

On learning this, the King of Prussia, Frederick the Great, decided to subsidise beet sugar extraction. Soon, a sugar plant came up in Konari, Western Poland and cheap sugar became available in Europe.

But since commercial interests supported importing sugar from the Americas, this was kept a secret until the Napoleonic wars from 1803 to 1816 when Britain blockaded sugar imports from the Americas to France. This was a trigger for the acceptance of Europe-made beetroot sugar.

The Decline of Sugar Trade from the Americas

By 1880, half of the world’s sugar production shifted to sugar beets and sugar prices collapsed worldwide.

The importance of the Americas in sugar production fell, and issues such as slave emancipation became prominent with less money at stake.

One by one, countries of the Americas enacted laws against slavery and bondage. But it was less because the Imperial powers thought of civil rights and more due to the lowly beets making American sugar a less profitable trade.

Undoubtedly, beets played a significant role in the abolition of slavery.

Most of the information in this article is taken from my upcoming book to be published by Macmillan Publishers in Nov 2023. The book discusses a thousand such preventive health tidbits. It covers twenty superfoods, their nutrients, health benefits, recommended amounts and excess levels. It also explains how to select and store and who should avoid them. Some of the superfoods are tomatoes, coconut, capsicum (Shimla mirch), drumsticks, amla (Indian gooseberry), jamun (Java plum), turmeric, cinnamon, flax seeds, asafoetida (hing), and sabja (sweet basil seeds).

To Read More

First Published on: 17th July 2023
Image Credit: vecstock on Freepik
Last Updated on: 21st July 2023


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