When explorer Cristobal Colon—also known as Christopher Columbus—“discovered” the Caribbean island of Hispañola, in 1492, he claimed it for Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, completely ignoring that for thousands of years it had been home to the Tiano, one of the Arawak Caribbean peoples.

“I discovered many islands,” wrote Columbus, “of which I took possession for their Highnesses by proclamation with the royal banner displayed, no one offering contradiction.” This was not surprising, as the Tiano had no concept of territory or private property, and held all things in common.

One of Columbus’ “contributions” to the island was the introduction of a perennial grass—Saccharum officinarum— for cultivation. The Spanish called it caño de azucar after its probable Arabic name, sukkar. We call it sugar cane.

Sugar cane can grow up to 18 feet tall, with stalks that are sometimes 7 inches in circumference at the base. It is grown in tropical climates around the world for the extraction of sugar.

Columbus expected this crop to be cultivated by grateful native Caribs who would become Christianized and willing laborers. While the Caribs had welcomed Columbus’ first visit—even making a treaty of peace—by the time his son, Diego, came to the islands to be Hispañola’s third governor in 1515, ships arriving near Bahia Samana were met with hostile arrows. The site has since been called Golfo de las Flechas.

Also in 1515, Enriquillo, the leader of Hispañola’s Tiano, was defeated. Within 80 years of the Columbus’ initial overture of peace, the natives were broken by enslavement. They languished at the unaccustomed hard labor, were quickly dispirited and died under the lash. African captives were quickly brought in to replace them, beginning a long, sordid history of enslavement that would forge a crucial link with the Chesapeake Basin.

Humanity’s sugar consumption began much earlier in the form of fruit (fructose). Syrup from sugar cane (chemically different sucrose) was consumed as early as 12,000 years ago in New Guinea.

The cultivation of sugar cane spread to India and China, and although sugar became an early trade item between Europe and the tropics, honey (a natural mixture of fructose and glucose) seems to have been the primary sweetener. It was also used to ferment the medieval beverage mead. Like Columbus and sugar cane earlier in the Caribbean, Europeans would introduce the honeybee and its abundant and renewable product when settling the New World.

Sweets were not a significant item in the diet of Native Americans on the mid-Atlantic Seaboard. One exception occurred in New England, where natives discovered that sap from the maple tree Acer saccharum, when boiled to a residue, would produce a delightfully flavored sugar. But this tree is near its southern range around the Chesapeake. (Later, in the 19th century, settlers in Pennsylvania exploited this sap with an annual boiling time called “sugaring off.”)

In the 16th century Caribbean though, as the industry developed and before it was to play a role in the Chesapeake economy, sugar was extracted from cane in a series of processes. The fields were often burned to rid the stalks of their abrasive—almost impenetrable—leaves as well as snakes and insects. It was then cut at the base before being hauled to a central facility for processing at windmills, the ruins of which dot many of the islands today.

Using reliable wind energy, cane was crushed and pressed between rollers. Its sugar-rich juices were collected and boiled using the fragmented stalks as fuel to augment wood fires that successively deforested island slopes around each mill operation. A heavy molasses or treacle syrup resulted and as this cooled, forming sugar crystals.

This raw sugar was separated from the molasses by being slowly drained and consolidated in conical pottery molds a foot or so long. The cone was inverted and the resulting “sugar loaf” removed.

Its distinctive shape, which the sticky raw sugar maintained when stood upon its flat end, led to the naming of a few mountains on Caribbean and South American maps and there is even one in the Chesapeake watershed.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, highly concentrated syrup was allowed to cool into hardened cakes called panela, and shipped that way.

The sugar trade’s connection with the Chesapeake developed as a result of the confluence of several socioeconomic phenomena. First was the explosion of cane agriculture throughout the Caribbean combined with the development of industrial scale extraction capabilities for sugar in the 17th to 18th centuries.

Individual plantations, to remain solvent, had to boost production to at least 200 hogsheads of sugar (about 1,600 pounds each) annually. Some estates produced 320 hogsheads annually when the water supply for cane growth was adequate.

The market for this sugar was assured once it was discovered that the introduction of large quantities of sugar into the English diet boosted workers’ energy.

A significant sideline to sugar production in the Caribbean was the manufacture of rum, which appears to have started soon after the British settlement of Barbados in 1627. “The name Kill-Devill alias rumbullion was given to the first beverages in Barbados which were notably rough and unpalatable and could ‘Overpower the senses with a single whiff’ and were ‘a hot hellish and terrible liquor.’” Other islands followed with their own versions into the 18th and 19th centuries.

The second socioeconomic phenomenon affecting the Chesapeake was the development of a large, heavily exploited slave population to clear land for, grow, cut and transport cane, and later haul its commercial product. Slave labor was ill-spent growing food and this hard-working population required a massive food supply subsidy.

Alternate gluts and collapses in the critical tobacco market in North America created the third factor. When tobacco, as the functional colonial currency of the time fluctuated wildly, restive social conditions occurred. Simultaneous with this economic dislocation was the oppression of restrictive trade practices imposed by the English Parliament.

Pure survival drove a gradual shift from slash-and-burn tobacco agriculture, (with long fallow periods during which land could recover) to the orderly and repeatedly tilled fields of grain agriculture. While the implications of heavy and repeated tillage with accelerating erosion was serious for the Bay and its tributaries, the surplus of grain was a valuable commodity.

In England, “corne” referred to the nutritious seed itself, the wheat seed being a “corn” like the “barley-corn.” This term was carried to the New World, and colonists early on adopted the cultivated Central American varieties of Zea maize grown as a major staple by the natives, which they called “the Indian’s corne.” But they also introduced their own “corn,” which we loosely call wheat.

The colonial wheat was a grain called spelt, (Triticum spelta), which was widely cultivated in Europe as early as A.D. 1390, and is believed to be the original Triticum, principal grain of the Romans. In temperate climates, varieties of Triticum vulgare or T. sativum, which prospered on the flood plain and Piedmont fields of Virginia and especially Maryland, replaced spelt. The shift to grain dominance occurred in the early 19th century; its signal appears in the Bay’s sediments—at different times in different parts—as bands of sharply increased deposition.

Wheat was not only a staple commodity in the colonies and later nation, but a resource for international trade. Pierce Middleton, in “Tobacco Coast,” considers this to have been a significant feature in Chesapeake maritime history. Maryland wheats, in particular, shipped well by sea, either as unmilled grain or barreled flour. This flour fed the Caribbean slaves and was exchanged for sugar shipped to the fledgling United States.

The proliferation of mill ponds and mills run by water-wheels the Chesapeake region was partly driven by this trade, and resulted in the blockage of hundreds of streams that made them impassable for migratory fish.

Wye Mills, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, began operating in 1682, and still grinds and sells flour the first and third Saturday of each month. In its current—largely 19th century—configuration, it’s the oldest continuously operating commercial industrial structure in Maryland.

A fourth socioeconomic factor involved colonial and later U.S. sea trade. Transatlantic shipping was usually in square-rigged sailing ships, which followed prevailing trade winds traversing the globe at differing latitudes.

At first, prevailing winds in the West Atlantic made it difficult to sail to the Caribbean much of the time, because it meant sailing against the wind.

The schooner was refined in the colonies about the first third of the 18th century. The configuration of its sails allowed it to remain full of wind when the vessel’s head was pointed close to the wind—and enabled the ship to sail against it.

The “fore and aft” schooner rig was being developed about the same time as the need to reach the Caribbean and South American markets. This sailing ship rig, was first described as the “Virginia type” or “Virginia pattern.” Later, as hull forms were made more sleek and efficient to windward, it became known as the “Baltimore Clipper.”

Sugar still holds an important place in Baltimore’s commerce. The Domino plant, with its huge neon sign, visible each night near Key Highway and the Inner Harbor, is a visual and industrial landmark. It is also the last big manufacturing plant operating on Baltimore’s harbor and employs slightly less than 400 workers, down from about 1,500 employees. It handles 270,000 pounds of raw sugar hourly, at a cost of about $10,000 an hour.

The current facility, erected between January 1921 and May 1922, has undergone many modifications.
A sugar refining plant, Domino supplies about 35 percent of the refined sugar market. Twenty-three years ago, there were 23 refineries in the United States, now there are only nine.

Sugar arrives at the Domino plant by sea, either in barges or ocean-going bulk carriers of 52 million pound capacity. It comes from places like Brazil or the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean and South America, though, are only two of many sources in a mobile world market often manipulated by politics.

During the World Wars, domestic sugar production became vital to sustaining the nation’s diet, and the cultivation of the sugar beet, a variety of Beta vulgaris, was subsidized heavily. Today about 67 percent of U.S. sugar is from beets.

With the plant processing 42 million pounds a week, ships can be turned around every seven to eight days Raw sugar arrives partially dried and granulated for handling. It’s offloaded by cranes at 7-10 tons per grab and conveyed to warehouse pile, 45–60 feet high containing up to 100 million pounds. An immense front-end loader transports this working supply to the plant for processing.

Molasses and water are added back into the raw sugar during the refining process, then it’s melted into a hot liquor. Calcium carbonate and carbon dioxide are added, in a process that traps particulates present in the raw agricultural product so they can be filtered out, leaving a golden liquid. The residual is sold as an agricultural product, used in “liming” fields.

The golden liquid is passed through “bone char” (activated charcoal made exclusively from beef bones), which removes the color left by dissolved impurities.

(The value of bone charcoal for clarifying was discovered in the 1800s. Its vast activated surface area adsorbs—causes adhesion of—contaminants. A pound of bone char, like coarse sand with a finely porous appearance, has the same surface area as the state of Delaware! The same bone char is used repeatedly, the contaminants are simply burned off to regenerate its activity.)

The solution is then boiled under pressure, crystallized again, centrifuged and tumbled with a flow of hot air in a granulator, from which the final product emerges 95 percent dry.

Stuart Fitzgibbon, process manager for American Sugar Refining Company at the Domino Plant, said the final hours of dehumidification before storage are a measure of quality. “Next time you’re in the super market,” he said, “grab a package of sugar. If it’s hard and reconsolidated, it hasn’t been properly finished.” The granules should be separate and flow free. That’s not the case, of course, for directly marketed “raw” or brown sugars.

It is fascinating to see the speed and facility at which machines create and fill commercial packages: Each machine in the line fills a 5-pound bag every four seconds.

Domino packages its own brand but also labels for a variety of consumer markets, including regional brands like Pocahontas and Dunkin Donuts as well as huge sacks for the baking industry (which have recipes for cake icing printed on the bag: “Take 30 pounds of confectioners sugar, add lard in quantity of…” Confectioner’s or powdered sugar, incidentally, has 3.5 percent cornstarch added (back to the grain connection again) to maintain its smooth texture.

At the end of the production line, whirring past at a speed beyond the human eye’s capability, and visible only in the rapid pulse of a strobe light came billions of hotel and restaurant sugar packets. Bearing labels of Holiday Inn and Dunkin Donuts, they flew like leaves into large cartons for shipment, each packet sealed with a laser-activated glue. Ninety-one billion of them annually!

We may consider sugar to be a quick, high-energy food, but in fact the processes that produce this widely traded commodity are very energy consumptive. I guess you get out, in general, something less than you put in as a result of all chemical and manufacturing processes.

We in the Chesapeake, and elsewhere, like it well enough, however. This Easter/Passover season past, Fox TV News noted that Americans consumed about 7.1 billion pounds of candy. Do we have a sweet tooth or not?

The author would like to thank Stuart Fitzgibbon, process manager for American Sugar Refining Company, who graciously gave a tour of the Domino plant, and Baltimore Museum of Industry for making the arrangements.