Hidden Connections: Sugar

It was inevitable that sugar production and the slave trade should become inextricably linked

Sugar was first produced in Britain in the 14th century. To begin with it was a luxury food which only the wealthy could afford. At that time all production was from sugar cane which grew only in those countries with a tropical climate. Nowadays thirty percent of production is from sugar beet, a root crop, which grows mostly in the temperate northern areas of the globe.

Slaves cutting sugar cane, 1823 From William Clark, Ten Views on Antigua, 1823.  By the mid 1600s over 7,000 tons of sugar produced from sugar cane was being imported into Britain every year. By 1700 this figure had risen to 10,000 tons and by the beginning of the nineteenth century British people were consuming over 70,000 tons of sugar each year and Britain and France were vying with each other for control of the trade.

Harvesting sugar from cane is very labour intensive and it was inevitable that sugar production and the slave trade should become inextricably linked.

The process involved the extraction, by crushing, of the juice from the sugar cane. The juice was collected then boiled to evaporate the water, leaving the sugar behind. This process was extremely hazardous and it was common for slaves to be scalded or even boiled alive if they were unfortunate enough to fall into a vat of boiling liquid.

At the present time the process is carried out mechanically. Today sugar is produced in 121 countries. Brazil is the largest producer, India is the second largest, the European Union is third, China comes fourth and the United States of America is the fifth largest.

The plantation on Antigua was owned by the Delaps, a Presbyterian family from Donegal. Sugar production was a vital driving force behind the slave trade. At one end of the chain there was growing European demand for this once luxury tropical product. At the other, the very arduous conditions of sugar plantation labour now required an expanding work force which could no longer be supplied through indentured labourers.

This cartoon reflecting the sugar boycott of 1791shows King George III, his wife and daughters (apparently) supporting the campaign and drinking tea without sugar. It was well known that the royal family disapproved of the abolitionists and that George III saw the slave trade as essential to Britain’s national interest.