Columbian Exchange Impact on Sugar Cane


The Columbian Exchange was an essential event in the history of world ecology, agriculture, and culture. It included the interchange of plants, animals, and slaves, as well as transmissible diseases, between the Eastern and Western Worlds. This Great Exchange started in 1492. After Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, contact between the Old and the New World began. This research paper aims to examine the political, economic, and social impact of such a commodity as sugar cane. It focuses on the agricultural, ecological, and cultural effects that sugar had upon the new landscapes. It explores how the sugar cane influenced the New World.


Sailors transported the foodstuffs in both directions: from the New World to Europe, Asia, and Africa, and from those continents to the Americas. Many food products, including sugar cane, were shipped from Europe to the Americas. The lands of Native Americans were much smaller than the area of the Old World. Consequently, they had fewer species of plants, crops, and animals. Nevertheless, the achievements of Amerindian farmers were great.

During the Columbian Exchange, no other crop was as important in terms of agriculture, biology, politics, economics, ecology, and sociology as sugar cane. Sugar cane was an international plant. This Asian plant combined European funds, African work, and American ground (Pomeranz & Topik, 2012). Sugar caused the industrial revolution. It stimulated industrialization.


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What is the Origin of Sugar Cane?

Sugar was one of the most important products of the Columbian Exchange. The homeland of sugar cane was New Guinea. Then, it spread across the territory of South Asia through trade routes. The tropical Asian regions facilitated its growth. Then sugar cane came to Portugal and Spain through Arabian conquests. At the beginning of the 15th century, the Portuguese brought it to Madeira. After that, it spread across the Canary Islands and West Africa. In 1493, on his second voyage, Christopher Columbus transported it from the Canary Islands to the land that is now the Dominican Republic. Then, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, sugar cane came to Central and South America, and finally, to the British and French West Indies (Nunn & Qian, 2010).

Sugar cane grew well in warm countries such as Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, the Philippines, Pakistan, Hawaii, and California. The warm tropical climate was the most suitable one for the plant cultivation (McCook, 2011).

Sugar cane was among the crops that quickly adapted to the new tropical climate of the Caribbean. It was valuable. For the first time, the Indian people invented the production of sugar by boiling the juice. At first, it resembled “raw” sugar. Indian dark brown sugar was in demand; that is why the plantations of sugarcane were everywhere. It became a widespread commercial food product. Today, sugar cane is one of the most popular and widely distributed plants in the world.

Who Planted and Harvested the New Plant Brought to the New World?

The production of sugar grew and developed in the New World, and it was wide-ranging. It was troublesome as it required a constant labor force. At the beginning of the 16th century, Europeans used the slaves from West Africa as the free labor. Over 12 million slaves crossed the Atlantic between 1508 and 1885 to work on the plantations (McNeill, 2013). The Columbian Exchange explained why Africans had become slaves on the other side of the ocean. They had to work hard in the fields, growing sugar, tobacco, and cotton. Mainly, only African slaves labored on the sugar plantations, as Native Americans refused to work. The working conditions were dangerous; the plantation system was terrible and it changed the natural landscape.

How did Sugar Influence the Atlantic?

At first, Europeans knew sugar as a rare, expensive, but valuable spice. Then, the sugar production increased in the Mediterranean, and after that in the Atlantic World, which made sugar ever more popular and available. Slowly, sugar began its transformation from the luxury commodity to the widespread product used by everyone. These changes lasted from the middle of the 17th until the 19th century.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, European colonies appeared in West Indies and along the Atlantic coast of South America. Sugar production prevailed on the islands, as the warm climate was acceptable for the sugar cane cultivation. Sugar was among the most successful goods in the Atlantic World. Its production and consumption grew steadily. It was very influential in the trade system that spread across the Atlantic and touched three continents. The sugar commerce was essential to the growth of Britain as a trading empire. During the 18th century, sugar was the most important import in England.

How did Sugar Influence the Pacific World?

In the middle of the 16th century, trade ships brought a large amount of sugar from Brazil to Lisbon. Cultivation and production of sugar spread throughout South America’s Pacific coast. This sweet product immediately became beloved among the inhabitants of the Pacific coast, and its demand grew. As its production increased on the Pacific coast, there were many varieties of sugar cane. They were the species or hybrids of the Saccharum family that, in turn, belonged to the grass family. Almost all of them were for trade.

How did the Sugar Cane Influence the Trade Relationships between the Empires?

The 16th century was the beginning of the stable economic relations between Europe and America. During their double expansion, Portuguese turned westward and started colonizing Brazil. At the beginning of the 16th century, Portuguese established the earliest sugar cane plantations in Brazil. Sugar production in Brazil grew quickly because of the labor of African slaves. This form of tropical agricultural production became prevalent in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the southern part of North America. Brazil supplied Europe with relatively cheap sugar. Thereby, transatlantic relations became stronger.

What were the Effects of Sugar Cultivation?

Sugar cane had a serious impact on the world. Firstly, it had political and socioeconomic effects because of the extensive trade between the continents. At the very beginning of the 16th century, sugar cane changed the whole commerce largely. It caused the increase of the trade routes from the Canary Islands to South America. Everyone wanted sugar due to a new popular tradition of tea drinking. Large plantations began to emerge everywhere in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. Nowadays, sugar cane is the most widespread plant in the world.

Soon, sugar became available for the majority of people; almost all socio-economic population groups purchased this product at the reasonable price in Europe. However, one problem existed. It was impossible to grow sugar in Europe. Hence, the cultivation of sugar was moved to the colonies.

Obviously, there is a connection between the fast production of sugar and the increase of slave trade. The growth of the sugar industry caused the extensive use of African labor. Europeans relocated Africans for labor purposes. This form of sugar production developed within the economic organization of the trading empires in the 17th century. It was synonymous with the institution of slavery.

Secondly, the sugar production system had a cultural impact on Native Americans as well. The sugar production prospered in the Caribbean Islands. Therefore, the New World became a place where the culinary traditions of many different cultures merged. The gastronomic habits of African, European and, Native American cultures combined and created the unique Caribbean cuisine. The process of “creolization” took place, in which several old traditions united and created a new tradition (Prieto, 2013).

Thirdly, it is important to mark an ecological effect of sugar. For the Americas and India, it became an essential export. However, the cultivation of sugar cane prevented the growth of other important crops. Politics and economics managed and supported sugar production. Unfortunately, their direction was not practical. The sugar production was mainly the issue of the political economy instead of ecology or demography.

Was the Sugar Production Harmful to the New Environments?

Besides the fact that it hindered the cultivation of other plants, the entire sugar production caused depopulation of the African population. Many slaves died during long and tiring transportations, many of them died at the plantations. However, it did not cause any hardship to replace them with the new slaves from Africa. As a rule, slaves were from the North Africa.


To sum up, the Columbian Exchange of plants, especially sugar cane, transformed American, European, Asian, and African ways of life. It was not only agricultural but also a social and cultural interchange between those continents. Sugar, like no other commodity, caused the slave trade in the Americas. It played a great role in provoking the industrial revolution. This global exchange affected almost every society on Earth.

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