Sugarcane originated in Polynesia more than 8000 years ago and spread from there to India. In 510 BC the Persian King Darius I invaded what is now Pakistan. His armies were the first from the Western hemisphere to see sugarcane. He is said to have described the cane as “the reeds which produce honey without bees”. The Macedonian King Alexander the Great mentioned sugarcane in the records of an expedition to what is now Pakistan in 325 BC. Sugar cane was introduced to the Mediterranean area by the Arabs as they expanded their empire in the 7th century.
Europeans first came in contact with sugar during their Crusades to the Holy Land in the 11th century. Its scarcity put it on a par with expensive spices. In 1319 it was quoted in a London history book as costing “two shillings a pound”. This is equivalent to $100 per kilogram in present currency! Because of the scarcity and high price only rich families could afford the luxury. Governments of the time were quick to realise the potential for making money and sugar was taxed for many years in the late 1700s. Cane was taken to the “New World” (West Indies) by Columbus in 1493. Portuguese settlers later planted cane on the west coast of Africa and in Brazil.
In 1848, Edmund Morewood planted the first cane in South Africa on the North Coast of Natal and established a small sugar mill in the Compensation area. This is now an historical site. The first shipment of Natal sugar to the Cape occurred in 1853.
The rise of the mining industry on the Witwatersrand lead to a labour shortage in Natal which was alleviated by sourcing indentured labour from India, the first of whom arrived in 1861. By 1887 there were more than 74 mills along the Natal coast crushing between 1 and 2 tons of cane per day. Many of these subsequently closed and by 1900, sugar output reached 16 000 tons per annum, produced by 30 mills from 2 600 hectares under cane.
By 1939, annual production had reached 475 000 tons with 23 factories operating and 145 000 hectares under cane. The first bulk shipment of 5 750 tons from Durban took place in 1950. By 1975, domestic consumption of sugar had reached one million tons.
In the 2019/20 milling season, 2.23 million tons of sugar was produced by 14 factories from 19.2 million tons of cane.