Reports on the Hindu Method of Making Sugar John O'Brien

In the eighteenth century, British servants of the East India Company were keen to exploit the natural resources of the Company’s increasing landholdings in the subcontinent. The India Office Records, the archives of the East India Company and its successor the India Office, which are held at the British Library, contain countless reports on a great variety of commodities which it was hoped could be successfully cultivated in India. One of the most desired of commodities was sugar. In June 1792, Dr William Roxburgh wrote an account of the Hindu method of cultivating the sugar cane and manufacturing the sugar and jaggery in the Rajahmundry Circar, which he sent to the Governor of Fort St George. He interspersed his account with remarks pointing out the “… great benefit that might be expected from increasing this branch of agriculture and improving the quality of the sugar”.

Roxburgh began his account in a philosophical mood: “No pursuit is more pleasing to the benevolent mind than such as tend to add a new source of happiness to man”. Unfortunately he then went on to criticize what he saw as the reluctance of Indians to adopt new methods unless prompted to do so by Europeans: “Amongst the natives of India the transitions from one stage of improvement to another are so exceeding slow as scarce to deserve the name except it be the few who have benefited by the example of Europeans”. Roxburgh pointed out the importance for Britain of cultivating sugar in India: “At a period like the present when the importation of East India sugar has become so much an object of importance to Great Britain, in consequence of the present state of some of the best of the West India sugar islands every enquiry that may tend to open new sources from whence that wholesome commodity can be procured at the cheapest rate, is of national import”. 

Roxburgh advised that the cultivation of sugar in India should be concentrated on those districts which already had a long history of this type of agricultural activity, as it would allow attention to be given to increasing the culture and improving the quality of the sugar. He stated that it was only in the Rajahmundry and Ganjam Districts of the Northern Provinces or Circars that the cane was cultivated for making sugar. The rest of his account concentrated on the Rajahmundry districts where he had resided for the previous ten years. The cultivation of sugar was carried on mostly in the zemandaries of Peddapur and Pettapore [Pithapuram] along the banks of the Elyseram River. The river gave a constant flow of water the whole year round, sufficiently large to water the sugar plantations even during the driest seasons, but it also allowed the cultivation of a great variety of other productions, such as paddy ginger, tinmerick [turmeric], yams, chilies, etc. He believed that this made the land adjoining the river more valuable than almost any other part of India, and particularly fit for cultivating sugar cane. He went on to comment: “…that of all the parts of India that I have seen this seems the best suited for the culture of the mulberry and rearing silk worms as well on account of the cheapness of labour and the general abundance of provisions for the natives as for the soil climate and situation”. 

Roxburgh then gave a detailed description of the cultivation of the sugar cane and method for manufacturing the sugar. He described the soil and the method for preparing it, the planting of the cane in May or June, its care until ready to be cut the following January or February, and the process for producing the sugar. Roxburgh also described the method for making jaggery, which he said many planters preferred as it kept well during the wet season, and allowed them to wait until there was a ready market for the product.

Along with his account of sugar cultivation in the Rajahmundry Circar, he included an account of the method of manufacturing sugar and sugar candy in the Ganjam District by Alexander Anderson, “Surgeon on that Establishment”. Anderson also gave a description of the working of the plough and sugar mill commonly in use in the Circars at that time. 

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