The bitter story of South African sugar

Killie Campbell Library

SA’s sugar history was born out of rampant colonialism, indentured labour and massive profit. Grethe Koen investigates the history of a sweet, woody cane that would come to change SA and the world

It’s fair to say that without sugar, Durban would not exist in the form we know it today. The bustling, coastal metropolis owes much of its development to a woody, sweet cane that bred a R12 billion industry, with giants such as Tongaat Hulett, Illovo and Crookes Brothers owning the lion’s share of the market.

Sugar did exist in South Africa before British colonists settled here. Although it is unclear what varietal it was, it certainly wasn’t the sugar cane we know and consume today.

In fact, the way this wild cane flourished in KwaZulu-Natal (then Natal) was one of the reasons a naval captain called JC Smith told the Governor of the Cape (to which Natal was annexed) that South Africa was “eminently suited to colonisation”.

When Britain took over Natal in 1845, the area was occupied by British settlers, a few Dutch settlers (most of them had moved inland) and the Zulu people. It become a prime spot for British immigrants, drawn by what the archives of SA History Online (Saho) calls “the prospect of a new life, cheap land, ready labour and warmer climes”.

With annexation, the Brits allotted 809 000 hectares of land to the Zulu people, about 1 million hectares to white settlers, and the rest of Natal was considered “crown land” and left uncultivated and unoccupied.

It was considered unsuitable for white settlers and the black population to live together, so the Diplomatic Agent to the Native Tribes, Theophilus Shepstone, started setting up “native locations” for black people to move to. According to Saho, these relocations were surprisingly peaceful: “Between 1846 and 1847, he [Shepstone] supervised the relocation and resettlement of nearly 80 000 people into designated locations, while the rest of Natal was subdivided into farms for white occupation ... It seems remarkable that, in light of later historical events, Shepstone achieved his objectives by using very little physical force, most people being persuaded to move into these areas of their own accord.”

But more than half the African population did not live on the designated lands. Thus squatting was often alleged by white landowners.

Meanwhile, white farmers were bringing in cane tops from Mauritius to cultivate in the area. In Mauritius, slavery had been abolished, but the new “apprenticeship system” that was set up was not much better than basic servitude. “Apprentices” had to work 45 hours a week in exchange for subsistence provisions and they could be whipped for deserting the system.

In 1852 the Jane Morris sailed into the bay with a cargo of 15 000 cane tops.

Sugar cane flourished so much in Natal that the first mill was set up on the Compensation flats in 1850. As sugar became a larger crop in about 1855, the need for a consistent labour force became clear. The Zulus had little interest in farming white settlers’ land, and Saho describes them as an “inconsistent and indifferent” labour force. The colonisers blamed Shepstone for this, claiming that his native settlements had created black subsistence farmers who weren’t reliant enough on white settlers to provide them with cheap labour for their plantations.

A cotton farmer, John Galloway, went as far as advocating a black land tax to compel black Africans to work, but this was never passed.

Desperate for labour, a public meeting was held to propose the importation of indentured workers from India. What resulted was the Coolie Law No 14 of 1859, which made it possible for the colony to bring in Indian workers for a five-year contract in Natal.

At that time, many Indians were crippled by debt or gridlocked by poverty due to India’s caste system, so coming to South Africa seemed to offer better prospects.

Indenture is a type of debt servitude, but is different from slavery. Workers received food and board, and a small monthly stipend, in return for their labour. These workers would also receive crown land and citizenship after five years.

But it was not all that sweet for the sugar plantation workers once they arrived. They laboured from sunrise to sunset, six days a week, and reports of rations and wages being withheld were common.

PhD scholar Duncan Du Bois, author of Sugar and Settlers: The colonisation of the Natal South Coast 1850-1910, writes: “Accommodation was shocking. The houses these people were expected to stay in ... You wouldn’t keep a pig in it.”

Conditions were particularly bad for women. While a third of the indentured population was supposed to be female, there was only one woman to four men. Venereal disease was rife and women did not have their own ablutions, so they had to share with men. They also only received half the wages and rations the men did for the same amount of work.

In 1891, Act No 25 withdrew the original promise of land and citizenship. Only 51 Indians received crown land from the colony. Anti-Indian legislation had intensified as South Africa became increasingly segregated, and the act was to discourage permanent Indian settlement in South Africa. By 1888, Indians had to carry passes, and could not own land, vote or live outside designated areas. By 1911, India had prohibited its citizens from coming to Natal because of ill-treatment.

While thousands of labourers toiled on the sugar plantations, it was the British sugar barons – people like James Liege Hulett of Huletts, Marshall Campbell of Illovo, the Crookes brothers and the Reynolds brothers – who made big money from this bittersweet enterprise.

It’s something to ponder the next time you stir the “white gold” – as the British called it – into your tea.

Sugar and Settlers: The colonisation of the Natal South Coast 1850-1910 will be released next month by Sun Press.

Visit african sun media for details

*The BBC’s excellent 2012 documentary series Addicted to Pleasure: Sugar is a must-watch.

Hosted by Scottish actor Brian Cox, it looks at the dark history of tobacco, whisky, opium and sugar.

Wild sugar cane was first tamed and farmed in New Guinea. By the 13th century, it had spread to the Middle East and from there, traders took it to Europe, where it was as valuable as precious gems and was used to make intricate table sculptures to display extreme wealth.

At the start of the 1600s, Barbados was a far-flung British colony that would soon become the most densely populated area on earth after its tropical climate proved perfect for sugar farming. A massive labour force was needed and the cheapest option was slaves from Africa’s west coast.

More of the 40 million slaves traded across the world were used on sugar plantations than on any other farms.

Sugar refineries sprang up like wildfire along the ports of Europe to process the “white gold” for households. Refinery bosses made massive profit from the process.

You can watch Addicted to Pleasure: Sugarfor free on


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