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Sugar ‘n Spice and All Things Nice

Sugar ‘n Spice and All Things Nice

Do you have a sweet tooth? This is the sweet story of KwaZulu-Natal’s sugar industry… 

Cut sugar caneI blame my sugar addiction on the fact that I grew up in KwaZulu-Natal, surrounded by hills of wavy green sugarcane that bent and shook gracefully in the shimmering heat. Our trips on the school bus were punctuated with the rich, malty smell from the sugar mill, and sometimes when returning from a family night out we would see scary cane fires, flames raging in long, vicious orange lines, crackling loudly across the black hillsides in the dark night.

Also part of my childhood was the musical sound of Sam, the delightful Indian veggie man who would arrive at our house regularly at 15h30 every Wednesday afternoon in his creaking, bright blue bakkie laden with whatever was in season – bananas, mangoes, grapes and watermelons. Potatoes, onions, three kinds of tomatoes, chillies and a vast array of heady spices.

Sam’s ancestors had apparently arrived in the late 1860s from India, as indentured labourers to work in the sugarcane fields when the sugar industry was just starting to take off. While my mother circled his colourful van tasting grapes and sweet litchis, Sam would give each of us three girls a short piece of sugar cane to chew on. What joy to tear the hard layer off the outside with ones teeth, bite into the crunchy inner fibres, suck furiously to get out the last bit of sweet yellow juice, finally spitting out the dry wad of yellow fibres. In retrospect, it’s no wonder I thought the children’s ditty ‘Sugar ‘n spice and all things nice’ referred to our village.

I read somewhere that sugarcane is native to Polynesia, where it is apparently invested with near-magical properties. However, South Africa has its own indigenous wild sugar cane, umoba, which is said to be the inspiration behind Edmund Morewood starting to grow cane in the province back in 1851. Morewood is generally considered the father of the sugar industry in KZN. Another story of how the sugar industry originated is that an employee of Morewood’s, Ephraim Rathbone, who had spent 16 years working with sugarcane in Mauritius, experimented with some cuttings which grew so successfully he persuaded Morewood to start farming it.

Either way, the colonial authorities granted Morewood a farm between the Tongaat and Umhlali Rivers, which he named Compensation (he had wanted another farm). This is where he planted his first cane and where he built his own sugar mill. By 1852 he was growing three different types of cane on 42 hectares of land and had exhibited his first processed sugar. However, despite positive prospects, he could not raise the necessary capital to develop his project and ended up having to sell his estate. By then, however, many of the early KZN farmers had seen the potential and were growing sugar.

From these small beginnings, sugar became a driving force in the province’s economy. Today South African sugar is a diverse industry combining the agricultural activities of sugarcane cultivation with the manufacture of raw and refined sugar, syrups, and a range of by-products. KZN’s Sezela Cane Growers Association (SCGA) brings together some 4 500-odd cane growers from all sections of the community who collectively grow an average of 1,6 million tons of sugarcane a year. The Southern African Customs Union buys about 60% of this sugar, while the remainder is exported to Africa, Asia and the Middle East. 13 of South Africa’s 15 sugar mills are found in KZN, the sugar terminal in Durban is the largest of its kind in the southern hemisphere, and the dominant sugar companies such as Illovo Sugar and Tongaat-Hulett are household names.

Sugar fields

Many benefits are derived from the establishment of the sugar industry. However, there are some rather lovely, although somewhat less obvious, legacies dotted about the coastal sugar belt of KZN, in the form of the original, beautiful old sugar baron’s homes. The famous feather baron’s ‘feather palaces’ around Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape pale in the face of some of the elegant sugar baron’s homes, many of which can be visited by the public as they have been turned into boutique hotels, wedding venues and up-market golf estates. Lynton Hall, Botha House, Selborn Estate on the South Coast, Muckleneuk (now the Killie Campbell Africana Museum in Durban), Sibton Hill House, Kearsney Manor near Tongaat and Fairways in Mount Edgecombe are some of the more accessible, and there are lovely stories about all of them.

Lynton Hall

Lynton Hall ~ Front

One such tale is that of the Reynolds brothers, whose father Lewis bought a rundown sugar mill at Umzinto on the South Coast in 1873. The two sons, Frank and Charles, took over the mill and estate and Frank bought Lynton Hall in 1919, extended it and had gardens, which still exist, laid out on part of the 65-hectare estate.

Frank was knighted, served on the Natal Legislative Council and, as one of the province’s A-list families, enjoyed a few special privileges, such as having his choice of rare plants imported from Kew Gardens in London by Durban’s Botanical Gardens. He left a heritage garden that boasts one of the finest private collections of exotic species in Africa, as well as a number of magnificent indigenous plants. But even he was a bit odd – he died in 1930, a year after he held a funeral for his leg, which had been amputated.

Charles, his brother, was a very different kettle of fish. He so mistreated the Indian indentured labourers who worked on his sugar estates that the Natal colonial government threatened to cease all further allotments of indentured labour to the estate. He was eventually removed from the management of the estate and left the country in some disgrace. He died in South America, apparently after being stabbed by a jealous husband, and his body was pickled in rum, placed in a lead coffin and brought back to Umzinto to be buried in the churchyard at Lynton Hall.

Lynton Hall passed to Frank’s son Lewis, who was General Smut’s private secretary. The house is still in the family and is open to the public. Along with the nearby Botha House, it is occasionally rented out for weddings and other special events.

Kearsney House

Kearsney Manor

Now Kearsney Manor on the north coast, this was the home of James Leige Hulett, later to be Sir Leige Hulett. He leased a farm in the Nonti area, near Stanger, in 1860, which he soon turned into a thriving tea estate, and which was later the start of his sugar empire. There, on the highest part of the estate, he built Kearsney House. The beautifully elegant, double-story, 22-bedroomed home had an endless parade of famous visitors.

What with that and the eight Hullet children born on the farm between 1868 and 1887, there was also an enormous staff of Indian servants. Because it was just nine miles from the ‘Zulu border’, the house was barricaded during the Bamabatha Rebellion, although it was never attacked. After Sir Leige was knighted in 1902, he moved his family to Durban and the house stood vacant until 1921 when it was turned into a school that was later relocated to Botha’s Hill and subsequently became one of the country’s better-known private schools for boys.

However, the story of sugar has not always been sweet. One has only to consider the ravages that the slave trade wrought on the world when millions of slaves were kidnapped from their home countries and shipped across the oceans to work on sugar estates in the New World, thousands dying en route.

Added to that are the many health concerns people have about processed sugar and its role in issues such as tooth decay, obesity and hyperactivity, to name a few. Sugar can also be highly addictive and more difficult to give up than even cigarettes.

However, a release from the sugar industry states, “Sugar is inaccurately blamed for health issues. Why would eminent bodies such as the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agricultural Organisation say that sugar has an indispensable role to play in balanced diets? These bodies conclude that there is no evidence of sugar being the direct cause of lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity or cancer.”

Either way, I happily still have my happy childhood memories, and my addiction to all things sweet.

Types of sugar primarily manufactured and used in South Africa are:

  • Light brown sugar (e.g. Huletts Sunsweet Brown, Illovo Brown and Selati Light Brown) which is the first sugar crystallised from raw syrup, separated from the residual syrup and washed in centrifuges. It therefore has no final ‘blackstrap’ molasses on it, and the colour and taste come from colourants and flavours in the syrup. No molasses is added.
  • Then there’s white or refined sugar, made by dissolving brown sugar, chemically removing all colour and other non-sucrose substances and then recrystallising. White sugars also include castor sugar, with finer crystals making it good for custards, mousses and meringues, and icing or confectioner’s sugar, which is white sugar ground into a powder.
  • Finally there are the dark brown sugars (‘Treacle’ or ‘Caramel’) which are made from either brown sugar or white sugar that is coated after crystallisation with caramel colourants and flavours or a special form of pure molasses (not the blackish final molasses referred to above) to increase the colour and add flavour.

Other sugars, often imported or found elsewhere are:

  • Organic sugar can be found at selected outlets such as some Woolworths. It is mostly imported from Brazil.
  • Demarara sugar is partly refined but still contains small amounts of molasses, and is most popularly used with coffee.
  • Muscovado sugar is dark brown, strongly flavoured, moist and fine-grained and is often used in fruit cakes and other dark, rich desserts.
  • Jagaree, which comes from India, is still made by an artisan process where date palm or sugar cane juice is distilled down to make raw sugar blocks, also known as gur.
  • Rapadura, is one of the most primitive derivatives of sugarcane, popular in places such as Brazil.

Words and Photography Sue Derwent

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