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chapter two Sugar in Iberia William D. Phillips Jr. For over a thousand years, favored valleys in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula have supported fields of sugarcane, and Iberians have extracted juice from the canes and have refined sugar from it. Nevertheless, sugarcane production in Iberia, as in all the Mediterranean basin, was a marginal operation at best. Sugarcane, originally a tropical crop, needs abundant water and warm growing conditions throughout the year. Neither of these conditions are available in Iberia, which was one of the most northerly regions where sugar has ever been grown commercially. The winters are cool and prevent the cane from reaching its optimal growing conditions. In some years, freezing temperatures can kill the cane. Water has proved to be a problem as well. The warm summer months, when the rapidly growing cane demands ample water, are just the time when rainfall is most sparse. The fields must be irrigated, and southern Iberia is a land of few major rivers. Fields of cane must nestle along the streams and in the deltas, where irrigation can bring the water to the canes. Sugar can be grown in Iberia, as a thousand years of records attest, but the cane produced has a low sugar content, which prevented it from competing on an equal plane with sugar from tropical or semitropical regions where more favorable growing conditions prevailed. An additional problem was a chronic lack of firewood for the sugar refineries. The question of the timing and extent of deforestation in the Mediterranean lands is still open, but it is clear that by the late fifteenth century a lack of firewood for boiling the cane juice hindered Iberian sugar production. By the late fifteenth century, sugar was entering the European markets from Madeira and the Canaries, both with climates better suited to sugar growing, and in the sixteenth century sugar from the Caribbean islands and the American mainland competed as well. Even as a marginal product, Iberian sugarcane production has lasted over a millennium.∞ That alone would make its history worthy of study. Nonetheless, 28 william d. phillips jr. Iberia’s greater importance to the global story of sugar is as an intermediary stage in sugarcane’s spread from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and in its historical progression from an exotic medicinal product, greatly desired and highly priced, to a widely used commodity, with prices constantly tending to fall. Iberia owed that role, as so many others it has played throughout its history, to its position as a geographical crossroads, where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic and where Africa and Europe approach at their closest point. Iberia provided a locale for the convergence of two paths of sugar’s spread: the Muslim path that led from Mesopotamia to Egypt and then around the southern shore of the Mediterranean , and the Christian path that led from the Crusader states in Syria and Palestine to Cyprus and Sicily and from there to Valencia. As we proceed, we should be aware that there are almost no sources that illuminate in detail the history of labor in the production of sugar in Iberia. Historians and other scholars have devoted great attention in the two decades to the histories of slavery in Spain and of sugar production. Nonetheless, historians of sugar have paid relatively little attention to the story of labor, and historians of slavery have seldom concentrated on sugar. From the few comments they have made, it is clear that sugar growing and refining in Iberia followed common practice in other areas, and free workers mainly provided the necessary labor. There may have been a few slaves involved here and there, but for the Mediterranean world, including Islamic and Christian Spain, in both the medieval and early modern periods, slavery was mainly on a small scale, with slaves employed primarily as additional workers in a system of free or semifree labor.≤ In short, Iberia was home to societies with slaves, not slave societies. Despite occasional earlier precedents, localized in space and limited in time, the close connection between slavery and sugar comes later in the colonial areas of the Atlantic. The Muslim Path The peoples of the Mediterranean in ancient and early medieval times did not know cane sugar, and their sweetening came from honey and fruit juices. Sugarcane originated in the Pacific islands or Southeast Asia and spread through India. The ancient Persians introduced it into lower Mesopotamia on the plain of Khuzistan, where the...


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