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Sugar cane was first domesticated in New Guinea about 10,000 years ago and began its migration west to India and east to the Philippines. Trade routes from Asia eventually brought the sugar cane plant to Egypt around 3,000 BC. The Egyptians nurtured remarkably adept chemists and developed many of the sugar milling techniques, such as clarification and evaporation that are still in use today.

The first written evidence of sugar making is in a Hindu religious document dated 500 AD.  The document details a method of boiling the cane juice to make molasses and crystalline balls of sugar. The Arab expansion westward into Spain introduced sugar technology to Europe. Wherever they went, the Moors brought both the product and technology of sugar. The various grades of crystalline sugar produced by the Moors ranged widely in color, molasses content, grain size and form, depending on the mill processes and regional preferences.

Christopher Columbus introduced sugar to the New World in 1493. It was brought from the Canary Islands and first grown in what is now the Dominican Republic. Sugar plantations began to develop in the early 1500s. By 1526, Brazil was shipping to Lisbon in commercial quantities. By the sixteenth century, Brazil and the Portuguese dominated world sugar production. Cuba grew to become a major center for New World production in the 1700s, allowing Spain to challenge Portuguese control of the market.

Sugar production and consumption expanded dramatically in the seventeenth century, when British "sugar islands" such as Jamaica and Barbados made inroads into a sugar trade dominated by Cuban and Brazilian production. Sugar cane products multiplied and included many crystalline varieties of sugar, syrups, rum and molasses. By 1675, 400 vessels with an average of 150 tons of sugar each were sailing to England annually. Sugar plantations became a synthesis of field and factory: sugar cane must be cut when it is ripe and milled as soon as it is cut. This gave rise to plantations and mills dedicated to the production of sugar. Consumers in different cultures and historical periods developed preferences for purity, color, form and grain size necessitating skilled, artisan knowledge of sugar milling.

By the late 1800s, Cuba had surpassed Brazil to become the largest sugar producing country in the world. Britain's Navigation Acts began to establish free trade, so English plantations could no longer rely on nationalist market quotas. At the same time, beet sugar extraction began to make a serious dent in the world market. However, major technological advances in grinding capacity, cane varieties, pest control and revolutionary changes in transportation greatly increased production.

In 1862, Dr. Alvaro Reynoso published "Essay on the Growing of Sugar Cane."  The book revolutionized the sugar industry by introducing scientific yield-management methods, which greatly increased sugar yield per acre. It was translated into French, Dutch, English and Portuguese and quickly spread throughout the world. Reynoso helped transform Cuba into a center of scientific agronomy.

From 1789 through 1934, the United States taxed sugar imports to raise revenue, and these import duties and excise taxes were a major source of revenue for the Treasury. Following the Spanish-American War in 1892, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines received protection in the U.S. sugar market. Production in Cuba and Puerto Rico expanded rapidly, and they became heavily dependent on U.S. sugar policy. After the advent of Communism in Cuba, U.S. policy denied Cuban sugar access to the American market. This, combined with an influx of knowledgeable and skilled Cuban refugees into Florida, marked the beginning of a significant expansion of the U.S. cane sugar industry.

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