The natural history of sugarcane (saccharum offinarum, a member of the grass family) claimed the interest of early modern travellers and natural historians as well as planters and others involved in the sugar trade. Many of the artists and designers had not seen an actual plant, and based their images on other images. How the cane is represented and used varies considerably over time and genre. These examples from the JCB collection show that the didactic and the symbolic function of the sugarcane were often closely interlinked.


Flipping the Image
"Zucker," woodcut. In Theodor Zwinger, Theatrum botanicum das ist: Neu vollkommenes Kräuter-Buch. Basel, 1696.

[Sugarcane], woodcut. Digital copy. In Willem Piso, Historia naturalis Brasiliae: auspicio et beneficio illustriss … adornata. Leiden and Amsterdam, 1648.

This woodcut appeared in an herbal that included plants from around the globe. The original image of sugarcane is taken from Willem Piso's Historia naturalis Brasiliae (1648). As in many prints that are copied from other sources, the Zwinger's copy is reversed. A design carved into a block of wood (or metal plate) will be reversed when printed, so copying directly from a print will result in a mirror image in the new print. Much of the history of sugar was created by re-using images and texts.


Harvesting the Specimen
Benedetto Bordiga, "Il Zucchero," engraving. In Luigi Castiglioni, Storia delle piante forestiere le piu importanti nell'uso medico, od economico. Milan, 1791. London, 1766.

The designer artfully crisscrossed the sugar cane's long, spear-like leaves to form a pleasing pattern across the surface of this plate. Human investment in the plant-as-crop is suggested by the stubs of canes, cleanly cut-off by a sharp tool.


The Poetic Specimen
Frontispiece, engraving. In James Grainger, The sugar-cane: A poem. London, 1766.

One might not expect to find a botanical specimen in a book of poetry, but this image of a sugarcane serves as the frontispiece for Grainger's popular georgic poem celebrating the plant and its cultivation in the West Indies. Following the conventions of the natural history illustration, this simplified and generalized rendering of the leaves and cane is set against a blank background. Like Bordiga's engraving (see above), Grainger's illustration indexes the labor of slaves via sharply cut stalks of cane. Here the stubs frame the single stalk that remains, its crown of leaves expanding gracefully to fill the upper part of the page.


Narrative of a Sugarcane
"The Sugar cane in its four different stages," hand-colored engraving. In John Gabriel Stedman, Narrative, of a five years' expedition, against the revolted Negroes of Surinam. London, 1796.

Stedman's Narrative is much more than an account of a military expedition against slaves in revolt. In chapter 13, vol. 1, there is a depiction of sugarcane that is more detailed than most contemporary natural history illustrations. The time involved in the growth of the plant is depicted as movement from the foreground space into the distance. On the left, and nearest to the picture plane is the cane when it first sprouts; next, the plant at half maturity; and farthest away, the mature plant with drooping leaves. Closing out the composition on the right is a fragment of cut cane, which stands outside this narrative of maturation. Shading and coloring gives this enlarged cane-piece a bold sense of presence, as if to underscore its economic importance.


Cutting Cane
"Cutting down," hand-colored wood engraving. In Cuffy the Negro's doggrel description of the progress of sugar. London, [1823].

This wood engraving shows full grown cane together with cane that is cut. What the genre of natural history illustration is not designed to show is the effort expended in the labor of cutting. Here a black slave is cutting cane with something resembling a saber, which suggests the toughness of this plant.


Sugarcane as Heraldic Device
G. M. Terrenise,  “Canna da zucchero/Plantazione di zucchero,” engraving.  In Il gazzettiere americano  contenente un distinto ragguaglio di tutte le parti del Nuovo Mondo.  Livorno, 1763.

This Italian translation of an English New World history displays a specimen of sugar cane as though it were a coat of arms on a banner of animal hide waving above a view of a sugar plantation. Curiously, the leaves are shown with a hair-like fringe not found on the plant.  The plantation view below shows vast fields of cane, with improbably-placed palm trees scattered among them. Slaves dot the landscape, while a double row of slave huts frames the scene on the left.  Like other early modern images, slaves are not pictured here in the large numbers needed to produce such a huge crop. This engraving was reworked from a plate in the famous Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences compiled by Diderot and D’Alembert (1762). In the original illustration the sugarcane banner and the landscape were reversed and shown separately.


Sugar vs. Cotton
[Sugarcane plots, sugarcane and cotton specimens, and tools], engraving.  In Peter Lotharius Oxholm,  De Danske Vestindiske öers tilstand i henseende til population, cultur og finance-forfatning, i anledning af nogle breve fra St. Croix.  Copenhagen, 1797.

There were nearly equal numbers of cotton and sugar plantations in St. Croix in 1750, when the Danish were in control, but sugar came to dominate in the later decades of the century. This plate acknowledges sugar’s overtaking of cotton. It has numbered specimens of both plants, but gives more visual weight to sugar by presenting an elevated view of a cane plot with plants at various stages of growth. This figure is placed above that of tools used in sugar production: a cane-cutting knife, a hoe, and two views of a sugar skimmer.


The Comparative Anatomy of Sugar
Hubert after Fossier, “Canne a sucre saccharum officinarum, L”, engraving.  In Jacques-François Dutrône de La Couture, Précis sur la canne et sur les moyens d'en extraire le sel essential.  Paris, 1790.

George Richardson Porter,The nature and properties of the sugar cane; with practical directions for the improvement of its culture, and the manufacture of its products. London, 1830.

Fossier’s plate represents the most detailed dissection of sugarcane published up to this time. It appears not in a work of natural history, but in the most authoritative treatise dedicated to improving sugar technology published in the eighteenth century. Improving the yield and quality of the commodity requires analyzing the plant in a scientific manner: that is the message of this image. Examples of healthy cane (figs. 12-14) are placed for comparison next to sections of cane with a “feeble constitution” (figs. 10-11). The scientific rigor of image is emphasized by the multiple ways the cane is shown under dissection.  For example, in cross-section with the eye (fig. 18), under a microscope (fig. 15), and with a magnifying glass (fig. 16).
Fossier’s illustration of sugarcane retained its authority for at least 40 years. The plate was reproduced with its figures rearranged in George Porter’s 1830 account of sugar technology, which centers on an English translation of Dutrône’s book.  


Making Exotica, Domesticating Cane
[Plants and trees in Brazil], engraving. [Plants and trees in Brazil], engraving. In Johannes Nieuhof, Johan Nieuhofs Gedenkweerdige Brasiliaense zee- en lant-reize. Amsterdam, 1682.

The Dutch were known for their still life paintings as well as their accomplished skills in engraving; this print capitalizes on both. The designer and engraver used odd shifts of scale, fine engraving, and artful composition to create an exotic Brazilian still life. The sugarcane is a foreign transplant, but makes its place here among plants native to the Americas. The crossed pieces of cane, detailed and boldly textured, provide compositional balance for the two swelling papayas--one cut open as if in an eerie smile. In the highly compressed middle ground, sugarcane plants loom as large as the cashew and papaya trees that seem only a short distance away. Mixing still life with natural history illustration, this plate aestheticizes sugarcane and naturalizes its place among the native flora of Brazil.


The Elusive Cane
Michael van der Gucht after Everhard Kickius, “Arundo saccharifera C. B.,” engraving.  In Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, with the natural history of the … last of those islands. London, 1707.
Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum), dried specimen. In the Sloane Herbarium. © Natural History Museum, London.

Jamaica had become Britain’s most profitable sugar island by time this first volume of Sloane’s natural history was published.  While images of a land crab, African instruments, Spanish coins, and a jellyfish are among those featured at the beginning of this volume, the sugar cane is all but buried. It appears in the section on grasses (botanically appropriate), and is shown with only its grassy top.  The cane stalk, the focus of labor and the source of wealth, has been left off. This cropping was deliberate; this is clear when the engraving is compared with the actual specimen (see left) from which the drawing was made, which has a stalk over six inches long. Other specimens of tall plants in this volume are simply shown in two parts, so the problem of plant size does not explain the elimination of the stalk. 

Sloane devotes consideration attention to sugar and plantation slavery in his text. The absence of the sugarcane image in the introduction suggests that this important commodity had ceased to be a curiosity, lacking the visual drawing power of the novelties displayed in the opening pages.  


Exhibition may be seen in Reading Room from SEPTEMBER 2013 through december 2013.

K. Dian Kriz (Professor Emerita of History of Art and Architecture, Brown University), guest curator, with assistance from Susan Danforth (Curator of Maps and Prints); Elena Daniele (JCB Stuart Fellow 2012-13), curatorial assistant.