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Lesson 4.5: Bittersweet: The Sugar Trade and Its Effects


Lesson 4.5: Bittersweet: The Sugar Trade and Its Effects


Topic 3: Networks of Trade, Technology and Taste: Sugar, Coffee and Silk


Topic Overview

The Mediterranean has long been understood as a region that connected societies and economies through trade, especially in the classical and medieval periods. However, in the early modern period, known as the European Age of Exploration, the Mediterranean often “drops off the map.” It is often assumed that once the Portuguese discover a sea route around Africa to the Indian Ocean and Columbus crosses the Atlantic to discover the New World, the Mediterranean becomes a literal backwater, no longer controlling the rich trade from India, China and Southeast Asia and unable to compete with new products and wealth from the new Atlantic economy.  Many textbooks do not even mention the Mediterranean after the introduction of the “Age of Exploration:” the ‘Old World’ becomes irrelevant after the discovery of the ‘New World.’

In fact, a closer look reveals that states, producers and merchants in the Mediterranean responded to these new challenges in a variety of ways. While they weren’t always successful in competing in the new economic environments, their responses show a great deal of inventiveness and pragmatism.

This unit will explore the history of three commodities the trade in which helped to support Mediterranean economies and societies and which had an enormous impact beyond the Mediterranean as well. Students will learn that the deeper study of a single element of a larger story can illuminate overarching themes, and that individual commodities can illustrate the broader economic, social and cultural impact of trade.

Lesson Overview

This lesson will begin by examining how sugar is produced from sugar cane. Students will examine a piece of sugar cane as well as granulated processed sugar and hypothesize about how the latter is produced from the former. They will then research sugar cultivation and production, and discover why sugar production requires high labor inputs.

Students will then track the history of the spread of sugar from Southeast Asia and India to the Mediterranean. They will look at particular instances of sugar production, especially in the Levant, Cyprus, Spain, and Morocco, and the innovations in production that occurred in the Mediterranean region.

Students will examine the strong demand for sugar in Europe, and the limitations on its production in the Mediterranean. They will then examine how the rising European taste for sugar led to Portuguese sugar plantations in Madeira and the Canary and Cape Verde Islands, the use of enslaved African labor, and the further transfer of sugar production to the New World, especially Brazil and the British West Indies. Finally, students will examine various factors that have been put forward to explain the decline of the sugar industry in the Mediterranean.


Barbara Petzen


Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: A World History Curriculum Project for Educators


Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University




2014, Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University, published under Creative Commons – Attribution-No Derivatives 3.0 License


One 45-50 minute class period, plus additional time for extension (may be assigned as homework)


• Students will be able to explain the historical development of sugar cultivation and production.

• They will be able to explain the historical development of sugar consumption in Europe.

• They  will be able to analyze historical cause and consequence in explaining the relationship between sugar cultivation, slavery, and European exploration, expansion and colonization.

• They will be able to analyze primary source documents and identify the point of view, goals, main arguments, and evidence used of the writers.

• They will be able to compare the positions and goals of the authors of different primary source documents on a single issue.


• Pieces of sugar cane (small pieces of stick sugar cane are available at many grocery stores or from online stores)

• Granulated white sugar, brown sugar or demerara sugar, and molasses

• Student Handout 4.5.1a: Sugar Production and Consumption

• Video: Addicted to Pleasure: Sugar. BBC Documentary Series, April 2013. (beginning of film to 25:20)

• Student Handout 4.5.1b Graham Chandler, "Sugar, Please." Saudi Aramco World, July-Aug 2012. Photographed by George Azar. (or students may access online at, in which case they will be able to examine images in larger format)

Lesson Plan Text

1. Announce to the class that you are going to investigate something that changed the world’s economy, political structures, and social mores. Hand around pieces of sugar cane (if you can find the sugar cane precut into “swizzle sticks,” one for each student, so much the better). Ask students if they can identify it. Reveal that it is sugar cane, and ask students to describe it.

2. Divide students into groups of 4-5 students. Give each group samples of sugar cane, white sugar, brown or demerara sugar and molasses in containers. Ask students to hypothesize how each of the other products might be derived from the sugar cane.

3. Distribute copies of Student Handout 4.5.1a: Sugar Production and Consumption to each group. Have students write down what kind of information each text or image provides about sugar. How does each piece expand our understanding of sugar as a plant, a commodity, a driver of social organization (especially slavery), and an influence on culture?

3. Distribute copies of the article “Sugar, Please” in Student Handout 4.5.1b (or have students access the article online). Ask students to highlight the passages that help them answer the following questions. They should mark the passages in their copies of the text, or copy and paste relevant passages from the online version of the article for each question, giving the explicit citation each time.

a. Where and when was sugar first cultivated? First refined into crystals?

b. An often-quoted phrase is that “sugar followed the Koran.” What does this phrase mean?

c. What are the challenges of growing sugar cane in commercial quantities outside its native climate? What environmental limitations are there to sugar cane cultivation and processing in the Mediterranean? What ‘revolutionary’ innovations did the Arabs come up with to succeed in this endeavor?

d. What is necessary to produce sugar? What are the elements in the refining process? What innovations in sugar refining occurred in the Mediterranean, and when?

e. How was sugar used? Give examples of various uses at different times and places.

f. Who provided the labor for the first sugar production in the Levant? What labor system began to be used later, especially in Cyprus, Crete and Morocco, as the demand to increase production of sugar grew?

g. What drove sugar cultivation west? In what new areas did sugar cultivation begin, and what were the consequences?

4. Ask students to answer the questions above in writing for homework, using and citing the evidence they have marked.

5. While sugar is no longer produced commercially in the Mediterranean, until about 1600 it was a major source of sugar and an area where innovations in the cultivation and production of sugar occurred. As students to evaluate the importance of the Mediterranean in the history of sugar production, and to compare it to Atlantic and Caribbean sugar production after 1400.

6. The article "Sugar, Please" is based in large part on archeology, the examination of sugar producing sites around the Mediterranean. Ask students to find examples showing what kinds of information the archeological evidence provided in the article. Ask student what other kinds of sources they think historians might use to research the cultivation and production of sugar in the region? Ask them to find evidence from the article to show that these other kinds of sources were used. Adaptation: For students who might find it challenging to read the article closely and annotate it on their own, work through the article as a class, modeling the technique. Pose the first few questions to the class as a whole, and have them find the relevant information in the article. Discuss why this information is important, and ask if there is any other evidence in the article. Continue in this way through most of the questions, then ask students to do the same with at least one question on their own or in pairs.

7. Extension: Have students continue the story of sugar by watching the BBC documentary Addicted to Pleasure: Sugar. This documentary tracks the evolution of sugar production in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic islands, and the Caribbean; the use of slave labor to cultivate, harvest and refine sugar, and the changes in consumption habits it drove in northern Europe, particularly in Britain. The producer frequently uses statistics to make his point.

a. Have students watch the video from the beginning to 25:20 either in class or at home. Ask students to write down each statistic they hear the narrator use.

b. In groups of 4-5, have students organize the statistics they gathered from the video into appropriate categories [i.e., volume of sugar production, numbers and origins of people enslaved for sugar production, sugar consumption, etc.]. Compare the data and organization of all the groups.

c. Assign each group one set of data. Ask students to create an infographic to display the data in that category effectively. The infographic should make a clear argument as to the meaning and importance of the data. [More than one group can work on the same set of data.]

d. If time permits, have student groups synthesize their knowledge by creating a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation integrating images, maps, information on sugar cane cultivation and sugar production, and their infographics to tell the history of sugar from its origins through the nineteenth century. They may use images from the online version of "Sugar, Please," images from Student Handout 4.5.1a: Sugar Production and Consumption, and do their own research to supplement these sources.

8. Assessment: Students should be assessed on their contribution to both the classroom and small group discussions and work, as well as on the accuracy, completeness, and citation of the evidence they mark while doing the close reading, and on the final written answers to the questions. If the extension activity is included, assess student work on the infographic assignment according to the degree to which they collected and marshaled the data, organized it coherently, presented it neatly and creatively, and whether it makes a clear and convincing argument related to the meaning and importance of the data. Assess student PowerPoint or Prezi presentations on the appropriateness and use of the data and images students included, the coherence of the full story, and their contributions to the group project.



Barbara Petzen, “Lesson 4.5: Bittersweet: The Sugar Trade and Its Effects,” Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: Teaching Modules , accessed September 23, 2020,

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