Sugar Mills and Slavery

    Full details

    Authors & editors

    Nisbet, Stuart M [Author]

    Publisher The Mills Archive Trust
    Year of publication 2021

    Medium Book
    SeriesMills Archive Research Publications
    No. in series13

    Food (non-cereal) processes > Sugar
    People and communities > Slavery


    Scope & contentReview:
    Social history associated with mills has long been a feature in molinological research and literature, but often this has involved the stories of the engineers, owners and millers. Less has been said about the multitudes of ‘forgotten’ lives of those caught up in these industries; David Hanson’s work on the abused and exploited working class of the cotton mills of 18th century England ‘Children of the Mill’ (2014) being one recent example. Similarly, as Stuart Nesbit here points out, previous works on sugar mills have focussed on the technical aspects of their role in the sugar industry, and there is a growing body of literature on colonialism and slavery, but the two subjects are rarely discussed together.

    Almost as soon as the Americas were ‘discovered’ sugar plantations sprang up, even before sovereignty was firmly established. Initially the indigenous people were enslaved, but the working conditions and exposure to new diseases effectively wiped them out; basically genocide. The solution was to set up the Atlantic ‘slave trade triangle’, involving capture, transport and resettlement of Africans under horrendous conditions involving relentless abuse. Nesbit explains that: “the earlier we look, the worse the conditions”, but the rewards for planters could be staggering: “although most of the British sugar islands were extremely small, often only a few miles across, intensive cultivation made their produce more lucrative than the whole of early British north America”.

    The volume describes the spread of plantations, cultivation and processing of the crop, and the evolution of sugar mill technology. Innovations helped planters to respond to the needs of rapid processing of the cane, which quickly spoiled, involving simultaneous availability of energy sources including human-, animal-, wind-, water- and finally steam mills. They even used portable mills that could be moved onto previously constructed bases in areas with difficult topography. The enslaved people were worked so hard for long hours during the harvest window, they risked falling asleep on the job and being dragged into the unguarded mill mechanisms; a cutlass was kept available to cut off a limb and thus save a life. Hurricanes were another risk, as well as changing sovereignty, slave insurrections and equipment breakdowns; it could take weeks to obtain parts.

    The author then uses a case study of the islands of St Kitts and Nevis, explaining the types of mills in use there, and the role of the planters (in this case the Scot, ‘Colonel’ William McDowall) and how the industry brought huge wealth back to Britain in the early 18th century. These individuals were seen as important members of the mercantile class, and leading benefactors in their home cities (such as Bristol, and in this case Glasgow). McDowall acquired a town house, a country estate (Castle Semple) and a ‘sugar house’ in Glasgow where the raw imported product was processed for the home market. We then return to the theme of mill labour and the role of the ‘boatswain’ (manager/millwright), but also the many skilled “highest value slaves” who operated the sugar boilers and carried out work as coopers, carpenters, smiths and distillers. McDowall even brought some of these people back to Scotland to help run his estate.

    Lastly, he presents his conclusions on the application of sugar mill technology, the importance of considering the workforce, and the “directness of connection” i.e. the relevance of the experience of the enslaved workforce to studies of sugar milling technology. This is the 13th work in the series of Mills Archive Research Publications; a slim volume but with excellent illustrations and one that raises legacy issues that still affect many today.

    Graham Hackney
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