The Snare of Sugar: on growing sugar cane & on sugar, molasses, and rum, from the Nov 28, 1920 LA Times  

The Los Angeles Times,
    November 28, 1920, p.X8:

The Snare of Sugar.


    Of all the tropical and semi-tropical economic products, sugar has snared more human beings to the gamble for great wealth, with ruin as the probable result of a lifetime's work.
    Go to any of the West Indian Islands and amidst an over-growth of luxurious vegetation can be seen the rotting copper pans and the rusting boilers lying beside ruined walls, where once a prosperous sugar factory had stood...

    And why has sugar proved such a snare? Firstly, because it requires a vast amount of time and labor to bring the cane fields into good bearing; secondly, because the machinery for making the sugar is very expensive to set up, and then to keep it working at high pressure during the rush of crop, and, lastly, because sugar has always been subject to a great deal of gambling on the part of the merchants and to the sudden alteration of the conventions of the countries that imported the produce.

    The chief cause of the decay in the West was the abolition of slavery, for without unlimited labor sugar became unworkable, and even today the West Indies are slow in adopting such modern means of mechanical cultivation as have been evolved in Louisiana and other of the sugar-producing southern states of North America.
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The Lordly Elephant Has a Very Decided Sweet Tooth.

    In the early days of civilization man had to resort to honey and the sweet juices pressed from certain fruits for what few sweetmeats he partook of. It was not till the middle of the present era that the crystals of sugar began to be used.

    It came from the East, where in the damp jungles it flourishes in rank profusion. The lordly elephant loves above all things to crush up the succulent canes in his great jaw, and, if a wild herd happens to find an unprotected patch, they will make short work of it.

    Cattle thrive on its leaves, which contain a certain amount of sugar. And there is nothing the African negro loves more than to chew a piece of cane with his strong white teeth. He will also drink the fresh juice as it is expressed from the cane, and a very refreshing and nutritious beverage it makes, one on which the creole laborer in the cane fields can work his best, and which is often served with the addition of a dash of rum in the same way as beer or cider is served to toilers in the harvest fields of Europe.

    In Brasil it is a favorite drink with the upper classes, and special fountains for its cooled sweetness are to be found all over Rio.

    Many varieties of cane have been bred by selection, of which perhaps the old Bourbon was the most famous of its day. Now, however, it has been found possible to breed new and better varieties from plants raised from seed. The preserving of the seed and the difficulty of getting it to germinate had always been a difficulty to contend with, which modern science has overcome.

    The cane is planted by means of sections from the cane laid in the soil, and fresh plants will spring from the joints. It takes some fifteen months to mature, and is ripe for cutting just when the sap is at its zenith, when the plant is about to flower and puts forth its snowy plumes, resembling those of the pampas grass.

    When the fields are in this condition, they present a very beautiful sight as one drives through miles of level land covered with the waving green leaves of the cane ten to twelve feet high.

    During its growth it has had to have much attention, weeding and cleaning out the dead litter and leaves, and, above all, ceaseless care to guard against fire during the dry seasons, when the dry leaves on the canes will readily catch fire, either by the usual carelessness of the thrown-down match, or for the object of revenge by discontented workers.

    When the harvest is on it is, indeed, a busy sight, and the work entailed on the overseers is very arduous, to see that no hitch occurs in the ceaseless delivery of the canes to the central factory. Stripped to the waist the sweating negroes cut down the tall canes with their flashing cutlasses, whilst the women and boys gather it up and load it on to the carts drawn by oxen or mules.

    Most of the big estates are provided with light railways that convey the packed canes to the factory, where the scene is one of extraordinary rush and energy. Night and day does the machinery roll and crush and boil, and the concentrated watchfulneww entailed on the engineers and their often unreliable colored staffs is extremely exacting in a hot and enervating climate. Not for one moment must the fires go out or leaking pipe or defective boiler be allowed to delay the ceaseless flow of cane juice, for the cut canes will not keep, nor the canes in the field stand, lest becoming overripe they lose some of their precious sugar.

    The steady stream of loaded carts and railway trucks, not only from the planter's own fields, but from the small plots of native cane farmers round about whose crop he has financed, unloads beside the ever-running rollers that crush out the juice, which is instantly carried away to the boiling pans.

    It then goes through many processes of purification of any dirt or foreign matter before it is subjected to the addition of certain chemicals to assist in the separation of the crystals from the molasses, and in the clarification before the final evaporation into crystals.

    Most of the factories only produce the raw brown sugar, which, when it has drained and dried, is shipped in sacks to the refineries in the North, where is produced any of the various forms of crystals the market may require.
    Smaller factories only make the purified juice, which is shipped in barrels, to be either used as syrup or to be reduced to crystals.

    The small farmers sometimes make their own sugar by passing the canes through hand-fed rollers turned by cattle or mules, and boiling it in open pans which have to be constantly stirred and beaten to oxidize the juice.
    This process is common all over India, and the sticky brown sugar is much appreciated by the natives, not only because of the retained molasses making it considerably sweeter, but for the fact that it also adds to its food value.
    And to these poor people to whom alcohol is deprived either by their religion or by the stste of their finances, the necessity of a cheap and satisfying form of sugar is most important.

    The sticky state of a sugar factory, when it is in full running, is extraordinary, and the warm, heavy smell of molasses that pervades the air almost nauseating. The fuel that is used to keep the big fires going is supplied as far as possible by the dried residue after the canes have been crushed, to which is added a little body of wood or coal. If it were not for the fuel value of this residue it would be of considerable value for the manufacture of paper.

Science Plays an Important Part in Sugar Manufacture.

    In a little room somewhere up amidst the great vacuum stills will be found the chemist, for the planter must also study this to obtain the correct density of the sugar in his juice, the proper proportion of the chemicals he has to use, and the distillation of the alcohol in the rum, if his factory adds this to its multitudinous undertakings.
    It will thus be seen that a great sugar plantation can only be run at a great cost of both labor and capital, and that, owing to its exacting nature it requires a manager of considerable brain power, untiring energy and resource, and the gift of organization, more than any other form of agriculture.
    Thus is its cultivation a snare to those who believe that any fool can be a farmer; there are many who come out to the tropics to learn sugar planting, and fail miserably...

    Cuba and Jamaica were the leading sugar producers in the old days, and Brazil and Central America contributed to the world's ever-increasing demand. The southern states of North America found that the rich alluvials of the Mississippi were admirably suited to its cultivation. In Demerara the swamps along the coast were drained, and the famous brown sugar produced. But in that unhealthy climate, the toll of life and of ruined health was very great.

    The cane is curiously adaptable in the point of soil and climate, from the hot swamps of the Guianas, to the drier atmosphere and the coral soil of Barbados, were the cane flourishes on a thin crust of soil over rich beds of coral...

    There are several other products that will produce sugar on a commercial scale, chief of which has been the late discovery of the beet, whereby the colder climates of the north can produce their own sugar. But sugar from this source has not the same qualities as that from cane, nor does it produce molasses, nor rum.
    An older source comes from India, where the flower bud of the palmyra palm is tapped and the sweet juice evaported to a rich brown sugar called Z'jaggery. This is in demand in Europe for the peculiar flavor it gives to beer.
    The sugar maple of the Canadian forests is another source, though this is more generally reserved for its syrup.

    Let us for a moment consider the other two products of the cane, the molasses and the rum.
    The molasses as it comes from the sugar is of a rich brown color and as it contains many impurities it is generally refined into the form of golden syrup as being more palatable. It is, of course, rich in food matter, and is one of the most wholesome of nutrients.

Rum--That Beverage of High Romance--a Product of Sugar.

    But it is to the distillation of the spirit from the fermented juice of the cane that the cultivation of sugar owes much of its romance... For ages rum has been the sailor's own particular form of grog, and on its stimulating comfort Trafalgar was fought and won... Throughout the West Indies the laboring creoles partake freely of it, and when working in the sugar factories it is served out free to all.
    The rum of Jamaica is considered the choicest in flavor and delcate aroma, and when it has been allowed to mature it will fetch a high price.
    An old custom of some of the planters in the good old days was to build into the bulkheads of their schooners huge puncheons of old sherry sacks, which, voyaging back and forth, so rocked the spirit as to give it an unequalled flavor and color from the sherry-soaked wood. Great were the rejoicings when that cask was bottled, and many the toasts drunk in spiced punch to the health of their creoles!

The Federal Reserve Bank's estimated consumer price index shows that $1 in 1920 was equivalent to $10.77 in 2008.
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