26 October 2021
As part of Black History Month 2021, our Curator of Archaeology looks at Plymouth’s connections with the sugar trade.
The historic sugar trade has been described as giving rich profits to a few based on the misery of slavery. Sugar became known as ‘white gold’. Its production and consumption were directly linked to the growth of the horrific transatlantic slave trade.
During the Medieval period, it was a luxury import for most Europeans, only enjoyed by elite members of society. The sugar for the European market was mostly cultivated around the shores of the Mediterranean, on land under Islamic rule. However, by the late 1500s, areas in the Caribbean and South America colonised by the Spanish and Portuguese, were producing sugar using slave labour.
Sugar, or 'White Gold', was the engine of the slave trade.
During the 1600s, British colonists in North America and the Caribbean also embarked on sugar production. Initially, the workforce was largely made up of forced labour and indentured workers from the British Isles. These included many dispossessed and forcibly transported people from Ireland and Scotland whom the British State deemed troublesome.
However, by the end of the 1600s the use of trafficked African slave labour predominated. For example, on the Caribbean island of Barbados, Asante, Ewe, Fon and Fante people from the Gold Coast region of modern day Ghana were imported as slaves, as were Yoruba, Efik, Igbo and Ibibio people from modern day Nigeria. The economics of using slave labour enabled sugar to move from the status of a luxury good to an everyday staple.
Sugar came to account for 20 percent of all European imports by the 18th century.
It’s not possible to state the extent to which Plymouth played a role in this new slave based industry. However, local excavations have uncovered objects that are connected to making items used in sugar processing.
A simple description of sugar processing is as follows:
- Juice was crushed out of the harvested sugar cane. This was then boiled down and concentrated.
- Afterwards, the hot juice was poured into inverted pottery cones which had a pierced end and which were balanced on top of a ceramic syrup jar.
- The sugar inside the cone gradually crystalised and the surplus liquid drained off into the jar.
- This process produced two products. The solid cone of sugar known as a ‘sugar loaf’ and the liquid, known as ‘molasses’.
- However, brown sugar known as ‘muscavadoes’ imported to England usually underwent more refining. This process also used sugar cones and sugar jars.
In 2007, archaeological excavations at Plympton uncovered a previously unknown pottery kiln dump containing many discarded pieces of pottery which had not been successfully fired (see our image above). A wide range of pottery had been produced including syrup jars and sugar cones. These are dated around 1600-1700 AD and are some of the earliest examples found in Britain.
This unusually shaped sugar sifter from our decorative art collections dates from the 1900s. It was made by influential ceramicist Clarice Cliff and is reminiscent in shape of the cones that were once used to process sugar.
Other evidence of the sugar industry in Plymouth is a building which stood on Coxside and was known as the Sugar House. Historic documents tell us that in 1663 it was owned by a sugar baker. Archaeological excavations in the adjacent area also uncovered the remains of ceramic sugar cones and syrup jars.
In later centuries, other buildings linked to the sugar trade have also been recorded in Plymouth – including a sugar refinery built in the 1830s ‘on the site in Mill Lane that had previously been part of the Frankfort Barracks and partly a garden that once belonged to Sir Francis Drake.’ The building was eventually demolished in the summer of 1953 to accommodate an expanding Cornwall Street.
With thanks to Fiona Pitt, Curator of Archaeology
Sheffield silver sugar tongs c.1780-1800