Old World Contacts
Third - Fourth Period: 1000 - 1500 CE

Cultural contacts and the accompanying exchange of material goods, customs and ideas have in innumerable ways enriched the lives of people throughout both the "Old" and "New" Worlds. The incorporation of cane sugar into the material cultures of people across Eurasia offers a case in point.

Cane sugar has been a favoured Old World food since 8000 BCE, when knowledge of the product began to spread from fields in New Guinea north into other locales in the Far East, and into India. Linguistic evidence indicates that the Asian nomads called Aryans, who overwhelmed the ancient cultures of the Indus Valley after 1500 BCE, were familiar with sugar. The modern English term for crystal cane sugar derives, in fact, from the Aryan Sanskrit word, shakara.

Trade Products in Early Modern History
James Bell Ford Library collections,
University of Minnesota

Cane sugar delighted most people who encountered it. By the early centuries of the Common Era, people throughout the East valued it as a food sweetener, a spice condiment, a decoration, and even as a medicine. By the 11th century, Cypriots, Egyptians, Syrians, and farmers in other Middle Eastern countries were growing cane sugar in quantity. First exposed to the delights of cane sugar during the Crusades, Europeans quickly acquired a taste for the sweetener. Initially little more than an exotic luxury consumed in noble circles, the novelty quickly "caught on" with the lower echelons of society. Eventually, it became an integral part of the European diet.

There is more to the history of cane sugar, however, than a simple story of how a material import was adopted "piecemeal" into various cultures. Cane sugarís increasing popularity through time generated a complex process of cultural change, altering the socio-economic adaptations of both the people who grew and traded the commodity, and those who simply enjoyed its taste.

Europeís medieval merchants could grow rich merely on the profits of sugar exports and imports. Nonetheless, aware of the advantages of controlling sources of production as well as transport, many eventually began looking for land on which to grow their own cane. During the 13th century, enterprising Genoese, Portuguese and Spanish merchants sought to enhance their share of the lucrative sugar market by producing cane on plantations they established in conquered Mediterranean islands. In the late 1300s and 1400s, the Portuguese colonised Madeira and the Azores for the same purpose and the Spanish absorbed the Canary Islands.

The Azores, colonised by the Portuguese

What happened on the Canary Islands illustrates a dark side to cultural contact that has been repeated in many cultural settings, in many different times and places. It also demonstrates well the intimate link between trade and commerce, disease, and warfare as agents of cultural change. In the war to obtain new territory on which to grow sugar cane, the Spanish eradicated much of the native Guanche population. The subsequent process of cultural change ultimately eradicated the indigenous way of life of the remnant Guanche population.

The Canary Islands, colonised by the Spanish
© 2000 The Applied History Research Group and The Learning Commons, University of Calgary

The Guanches of Tenerife, Berber-related people originally from North Africa, had lost contact with the African mainland by the early centuries of the Common Era. Over the following millennium, their neolithic culture evolved in isolation. Despite the simplicity of their weapons and tools, the Guanches resisted Spainís military advances during most of 1400s. In 1478, however, a newly united Spanish crown launched a sustained military campaign. The Guanches, unfamiliar with horses, were intimidated by the invadersí mode of transport. Their local weapons were no match for Spainís technologically superior military arsenal. Two decades of war, along with exposure to the exotic diseases that the Spanish brought to Tenerife, decimated the indigenous community.

By 1496, the few Canary Islanders who had escaped death from disease and armed conflict were a subject people. In the years of colonisation that followed, the Spanish conquerors forcibly converted many of the survivors to Christianity and European customs through enslavement. Other Guanches, surrounded by immigrant settlers, were assimilated into Spanish culture through inter-marriage with colonists, and through the well-intentioned missionary work of Spanish priests. Today, nothing of the old Guanche culture remains.

The process of annihilation through coercion and assimilation that unfolded in this isolated borderland of The Old World was a harbinger of things to come. It helped define the shape that cultural contact between the Spanish and people of the Americas was to assume in coming decades.

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Old World Contacts / The Applied History Research Group / The University of Calgary
Copyright © 2000, The Applied History Research Group