Sugar

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

Curriculum topics: History Skills

Suggested inquiry questions: What do these documents tell us about the history of sugar in the Tudor and Early Stuart periods? How can different sources tell us different things about the history of sugar? What can we learn about how sugar was traded and used in the past?

Potential activities: Watch the short video early history of sugar listed in External Links. Students could use the sources as stimulus material for a piece of creative writing of a diary of a mariner or sailor at sea on board a ship carrying sugar as cargo, which has been captured by enemy sailors. Create your own early modern recipe using sugar.

Download: Lesson pack

What can original documents tell us about the history of sugar?

 

This lesson shows us how we can use a range of historical sources from the early modern period to piece together the history of sugar, a foodstuff that is now a part of our daily life. It explores the time in history when sugar was beginning to become more easily available and affordable in England, due to the transatlantic slave trade, the growth of sugar plantations in the Americas, and the labour of enslaved peoples on these plantations. A large collection of documents that can tell us about the history of sugar can be found in a collection called HCA 30, a varied set of records from the High Court of Admiralty, which include piracy, prize-taking, colonialism, and overseas trade. 

Use this lesson to see what you can discover about the history of sugar from six different sources in collections at The National Archives.  


Tasks

Task 1

Map that shows the coast of Brazil in South America, Catalogue Ref: FO 925/4111 f.29.  

From the sixteenth century there were plantations in Brazil that were growing sugar, which was then transported by ship to European ports. 

  • Can you describe what you see in the map? 
  • Can you spot the cities of Pernambuco and Baya, the sites of large sugar plantations? 
  • Notice the two people holding up the map sign: ‘A Chart of the Western Ocean’. What might this tell us about who was enslaved on sugar plantations?  
  • Can the pictures tell us about what other foodstuffs could grow in Brazil? 
  • Are objects on this map drawn to scale? [Clue: Do they show their real size] 
  • What does this tell us about map making in the early modern period? 
  • Why do you think this map has been coloured in? 
  • There are many criss-crossing lines on this map. What do you think these might be used for? 
  • What can the map’s illustrations tell us about how sugar was transported overseas? 
  • What can a map show us which a written document might not? 
  • Why do you think this map is important for learning about where sugar was grown? 

Task 2

‘A recipe for marshmallow syrup’, Ship: Abraham of London, or perhaps not (master Andrew Hardie), 1633-1637. Catalogue Ref: HCA 30/636/7.  

Take a look at this recipe, which was found with other documents from an English ship called Abraham of London, which was involved in trade in Barbados in the 1630s. These marshmallows were not the white fluffy sweets we think of today. ‘Marshmallow’ also means a white flower which was sometimes used in early modern medicine.   

  • Can you read this old document?  
  • How does this recipe differ from recipes in books today?  
  • Why do you think this recipe is folded?  
  • Where might it have been kept? 
  • Why do you think it was found on board a trading ship?  
  • Who might it have belonged to?  
  • How might this syrup have been used? 
  • This recipe calls for a pound of sugar. What does it tell us about the availability of sugar by the 1630s?  
  • Draw your own step-by-step guide to show how to make this recipe.  

Task 3

Map drawn by Wenceslaus Hollar, entitled ‘Survey of the City of London’, 1667, Catalogue Ref: ZMAP 4/18

Take a look at this map of London, which shows some of the areas of the river Thames where trading ships would dock to unload their cargoes of sugar.

  • What can you see in this map? 
  • How is map different from Source 1? 
  • Are there parts of the map which you recognise from London today? 
  • If there are docks for only sugar cargo, what does this tell us about the demand for sugar at this time? 
  • How would you describe the river Thames?  
  • How was the river Thames was used in the 1600s from looking at this map? 
  • Why do you think this map is useful for learning about life in London in the 1660s? 
  • What can a map show us which a written document cannot? 

Task 4

‘Bill of Lading’ for sugar for Thomas Crossing in the Mayflower of London (Master William Badeley), Oct 6. 1636. Catalogue Ref: HCA 30/840/79 f.189. 

A ‘Bill of Lading’ was a receipt given by the master of a merchant ship to the person taking their goods. The master of the ship was responsible for the safe delivery of the goods. It was a way of stopping goods from being stolen and sold on to others. 

  • Can you read any of the real document?  
  • Can you find the date of the document? 
  • What is unusual about the way this document looks? 
  • What is the name of the ship written in the document? 
  • The ship is carrying two types of sugar called ‘Muscouado’ [muscovado] and ‘white’. Can you find out the difference between these sugars? 
  • Where is the sugar coming from and going to? Can you spot the place names in this document?  
  • What can this document tell us about how sugar reached England?  
  • What countries were important in the sugar trade?   
  • Look at the symbol on the left of the document. What could this be? 
  • Why do you think this document was carried on the ship? 

Task 5

Extracts from an inventory of goods taken from the Neptune of Emden by Sir John Hawkins, 1590, Catalogue Ref: HCA 30/840/171 f.386-389.   

Take a look at this list of goods, also known as an inventory. This inventory was used in the High Court of Admiralty as part of a collection of papers called the Prize Papers.  

The Prize Papers are a collection of documents that were found on ships immediately after they were captured by an enemy during wartime. These include documents such as bills, inventories, and accounts. These would be used as evidence in the Admiralty Court to determine whether the ship and its goods were ‘lawful’ prize that could be kept by the people who captured it, or whether it had to be returned to its enemy. 

Sir John Hawkins was a famous English trader and was son of the famous slave trader and explorer, who went by the same name. John Hawkins took many Spanish ships as Prize during England’s War with Spain (1585-1604). Many of these Spanish ships contained cargoes of goods which had been grown in Brazil. These goods were then taken back to England. This document concerns the Prize goods that were taken from the ship The Neptune by an English captain Sir John Hawkins. 

  • What words can you understand in the real document? 
  • What goods did the English take from the ship? 
  • Why do you think the English need to convert the value of the goods from Portuguese Reals to English pounds? 
  • How much is a chest of marmalade worth? 
  • How many chests of sugar were taken in total? 
  • At the time this document was written, £1 was the equivalent of £172 in today’s money. Do you think this Prize capture was worth a lot of money? 
  • Use The National Archives currency converter to work out how much 77 pounds, 11 shillings, and 3 pence is worth in today’s money. 
  • How does this document differ from the written documents you have seen so far? 

Task 6

A letter from Jerard Gore to Anthony Williams. Send a spaniel, sugar, pipes, tobacco, 5 September 1623. Catalogue Ref: SP 46/66 f.24. 

The letter mentions a muskmelon – a sweet fleshy melon, grown in the Mediterranean area in the Middle Ages. In the fifteenth century, the explorer Christopher Columbus carried seeds of muskmelon on one of his voyages to the Americas and planted it there. By the time this letter was written, muskmelon was being grown in English colonies in North America. 

  • What is the date of this letter?? 
  • What gifts is Jerard Gore giving to his friend Anthony Williams?  
  • How many pounds of sugar is Anthony Williams receiving? Do you think quantity is a lot? 
  • What does this letter tell us about sugar’s uses in the 1600s? 
  • What does this letter tell us about what type of people who might be cooking with sugar in the 1600s? 
  • What makes this letter different from the other types of sources in this lesson? 

Background

By the end of the sixteenth century, English sugar consumption amongst royalty and the wealthy was so common that it was often remarked upon by foreign travellers in their description of English society. The German traveller Paul Hentzner describes the damage that sugar had done to Elizabeth’s I health and appearance by the time she was 65 years old: “her Lips narrow and her Teeth black…a defect the English seem subject to, from their too great use of sugar”. Hentzner’s witty observation responds to an important shift in how sugar was being consumed in England. In the medieval period, it served as a spice like nutmeg or ginger, as a preservative to stop food rotting, and played an important role as a medicine. By the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, however, it was used as a delicious sweetener to be consumed in magnificent sugar feasts called banquets. It was also bought by some housewives in London, keen to copy the dining practices of the wealthy. English recipe books containing many recipes for sugary treats, such as Hugh Plat’s Delights for Ladies (1602), were very fashionable between 1575-1650, as sugar slowly became a foodstuff that more people could afford to enjoy and experiment with. 

First grown in New Guinea and India as far back as 8000 BCE, by the tenth century BCE sugarcane had spread to Persia and the Arab world. The Arab conquest of vast areas of the Mediterranean from the seventh century onwards introduced sugar cane to Sicily, Cyprus, Malta, the Barbary Coast, the Maghreb, and Spain, opening methods of cultivation and the art of sugar refining across conquered geographical areas. During the crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when Christians captured Islamic land, the Europeans experienced their first taste of sugar. Christian Soldiers were supposed to have gnawed on sugarcane and survived on its sap. The Europeans did more than just consume sugar; they became involved in both its cultivation and production. By the fourteenth century, Cyprus and Sicily had become important Mediterranean producers of sugar for the Europeans. This success encouraged Europeans to expand the sugar industry to the Atlantic Islands, South America, and the Americas. By the time of Elizabeth I’s and James I’s rule, increasing amounts of sugar was brought from sugar plantations (engenhos) in Brazil. These engenhos demanded the enforced labour of indigenous peoples, and, increasingly, enslaved Africans, who would work in appalling conditions to crush the sugarcane, extract the juice, and boil this juice at a hot temperature to produce sugar molasses, which would be shipped to Europe in large barrels called hogsheads. The beginning of a global sugar industry is an important part of the history of the early transatlantic slave trade.  

The dark brown sugar molasses were brought to Lisbon, Antwerp, and Amsterdam, where they were further refined into coned sugar loaves, closely resembling the white granular sugar we are familiar with today. It was then transported to England to be purchased in grocers and apothecaries’ shops, and used in recipes for marmalades, sugar sculptures, marzipans, biscuits, and other sweet treats. It is in the sixteenth century that England developed its sweet tooth for which it is now so well known. The documents within this teaching resource provide snapshots of sugar’s history in the early modern period.


Teachers' notes

This lesson introduces students to the history of sugar in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and sugar’s journey from plantations in the Americas to European metropoles, where it was often further refined before being sold for consumption. The lesson aims to help students reflect on to the importance of overseas trade, the transatlantic slave trade, and global exchange networks when thinking about the history of foodstuffs that are now part of our daily lives. The lesson is also designed to provoke questions around changing patterns of consumption in the sixteenth century, at a time where sugar was becoming slowly more available and affordable to people beyond the royalty and elite.   

Starter activity 

Teachers could use the illustration image as a starter activity for the lesson. Ask the students to take a look at this photograph. 

  • What is this object made of? 
  • Can they describe the design and shape? 
  • What do they think it is used for? 
  • When do they think it was made? 
  • Does the photograph help us to date it? 
  • Do we use similar objects today? 

Teachers can point out that this photograph was produced much later than the other sources used in this lesson, but it is also part of the history of sugar. The tea set was a common feature in homes during in the Victorian era and always included a sugar bowl, used with special tongs for sugar cubes, and a milk jug as part of afternoon tea. Afternoon tea is a dining practice enabled by Britain’s growing empire from the seventeenth century onwards, which meant that English people had access to exotic foodstuffs including sugar, tea, coffee, and spices. Sugar, imported from the West Indies, became gradually cheaper from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries due to the labour of the indentured and enslaved labourers. A sugarloaf was the usual form in which refined sugar was produced and sold until the late 19th century, when granulated and cube sugars were introduced.   

In this lesson students explore a range of different types of original documents including a coloured map, a recipe, an illustration, ‘Bill of lading’, inventory and a letter. It worth exploring how different sources can be used to help us understand the past. Discuss which source is the most useful, interesting, surprising, or accessible. Encourage your students to explain why/why not. 

It is also worth getting students to try and read the documents; however, transcripts and some simplified transcripts are provided. Students can work through the questions individually or in groups and report back to the whole class. Work on the topic could be extended through the following activities: 

  • Watch the short video about the early history of sugar listed in the external links below. You can find out more about sugar’s story, and how royalty and the wealthy in England used sugar in dining rituals as a display of wealth and power.  
  • Students could use the source as stimulus material for a piece of creative writing of a diary of a mariner or sailor at sea on board a ship carrying sugar as cargo, which has been captured by enemy sailors.  
  • Create your own early modern recipe using sugar. 

Sources  

Illustration image: Sugar basin design 1852-1870, Catalogue ref: BT 43/61 (228782) 

Source 1: ‘Atlas maritimus or, the sea-atlas’, John Seller, 1675. Catalogue Ref: FO 925/4111 f.29.  

Source 2: ‘A recipe for marshmallow syrup’, Ship: Abraham of London (Master Andrew Hardie), 1633-1637. Catalogue Ref: HCA 30/636/7.  

Source 3: London and Middlesex. Civitas Londinium. Panoramic view of London’, Ralph Agas, 1633. Catalogue Ref: MPEE 1/25 

Source 4: Bill of lading for sugar for Thomas Crossing in the Mayflower of London (Master William Badeley), Oct 6. 1636. Catalogue Ref: HCA 30/840/79 f.189. 

Source 5: Inventory of the sugar and marmalade taken from the Neptune of Emden by Sir John Hawkins, 1590, Catalogue Ref: HCA 30/840/171 f.386-389. 

Source 6: A letter from Jerard Gore to Anthony Williams. Send a spaniel, sugar, pipes, tobacco, 5 September 1623. Catalogue Ref: SP 46/66 f.24.  


External links

BBC Studio video explores the early history of sugar and the creation of sugar sculptures in the early modern period. 

BBC Bitesize considers the early history of the transatlantic slave trade, and sugar’s role in establishing this trade. 

Indentured labour from South Asia (1834-1917) 

This website explores the meaning of indentured labour used to work on plantations for sugar and tobacco after the abolition of the slave trade.  

The British Museum explores the history of sugar in five key objects, exploring sugar’s connection with artistry, luxury, and the transatlantic slave trade. 

Rare Cooking has a number of old recipes dating from 1600 that you can recreate at home.  

The Prize Papers Project is working to digitize Prize Papers from the HCA records. These documents can tell us about the early modern naval practice of prize-taking. It also allows us to track the lives of people around the globe and onboard ships during a time of colonial expansion and a growth in overseas trade. Here are a collection of items that were found on board captured ships in the early modern period, which students can explore.  

Connections to curriculum

Key Stage 2:

‘Pupils should continue to develop a chronologically secure knowledge and understanding of British, local and world history, establishing clear narratives within and across the periods they study. They should note connections, contrasts and trends over time and develop the appropriate use of historical terms. They should regularly address and sometimes devise historically valid questions about change, cause, similarity and difference, and significance. They should construct informed responses that involve thoughtful selection and organisation of relevant historical information. They should understand how our knowledge of the past is constructed from a range of sources.’ 

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

Curriculum topics: History Skills

Suggested inquiry questions: What do these documents tell us about the history of sugar in the Tudor and Early Stuart periods? How can different sources tell us different things about the history of sugar? What can we learn about how sugar was traded and used in the past?

Potential activities: Watch the short video early history of sugar listed in External Links. Students could use the sources as stimulus material for a piece of creative writing of a diary of a mariner or sailor at sea on board a ship carrying sugar as cargo, which has been captured by enemy sailors. Create your own early modern recipe using sugar.

Download: Lesson pack

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