The source of half the world's sugar, sugar cane is a large perennial grass that stores its photosynthetic reserves as sugar. These "noble" canes were domesticated by indigenous peoples in New Guinea. There the modern cultigen arose from hybridization with other Saccharum and grass species.
The process of producing unrefined sugar has been known in the Far East and India for several millennia. The Ottoman Turks produced refined white sugar in the 1300s. The Crusaders took sugar cane from Israel to various Mediterranean islands and Iberia. From this launching point, it spread rapidly as colonists traveled to Madeira and the Canary Islands, then to the West Indies and the Americas, finally arriving in the islands of the Indian Ocean. Now grown throughout the tropical world, especially in the West Indies and Hawaii, almost all cultivars are derived from S. officinarum, a complex aggregate of hybrids. Nearly all sugar cane is vegetatively propagated by means of stem cuttings. One of the reasons for the successful establishment of the cane industry worldwide is that this method of propagation allows for the harvesting of one crop per year.
Sugar-cane cultivation under plantation systems has done much to destroy original native vegetation and has been responsible for the transmigration of peoples from Africa to the Caribbean, from China to Central America, and from Polynesia to Australia. The famous American and British raw sugar-rum-slavery triangles of the 1700s involved New England and England, Africa, and the West Indies: raw sugar and molasses was shipped from Caribbean islands to northern cities, where it was made into rum, which was sent to Africa to buy more slaves for the sugar-cane plantations.
Stems are crushed to extract the sweet sugar-containing liquid. In many countries, the fresh juice or a simple fermented juice is consumed within 48 hours of crushing. The process of refining sugar cane involves boiling down the juice until crystallization occurs, and produces various grades of sugar. The uncrystallizable sugar by-products—molasses or treacle—are fermented and distilled into rum, aguardiente, or cacha^a.
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