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Love Lane Lives - the boys & girls from the whitestuff

Love Lane Lives

The history of sugar in Liverpool and the effects of the closure of the Tate & Lyle sugar refinery, Love Lane

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Florida Sugar 10 years ago today!

Written by Ron Noon at 14:06 on Wednesday, May 21st 2014

This was what I’d composed and the date is 21st May 2004:

Florida Sugar: A Toxic ingredient in American Democracy

The la peratif

I’m from   Liverpool, a former Slave City first and later the home of the Beatles and the Mersey Beat. Despite 20th century run down and decline from its former “Gateway to Empire” status, when it spawned more millionaires than any other city outside of London, the famous port city that Karl Jung described as “the pool of life”  is now on the cusp of an early Millennium revival which will see it adopted as European Capital of Culture in 2008. It’s an increasingly popular tourist attraction because of the four mop heads who shook the Cavern and the world back in the 1960s, but it has in addition to the Edwardian grandeur of its waterfront architecture, and the magnificent St Georges Hall, the Parthenon of Northern Europe, other “must go to sites” including the Transatlantic Slave Gallery on the Albert Dock.

From its opening in 1993, Liverpool has tried to redress the collective historical amnesia about an era when there was not a stone in this “wretched city that had not been tainted by the blood of an African slave”. But even though there are plenty of issues of interest for a home grown middle aged local historian to sink his teeth into before retirement, it is a US State and its indices of sugar production that provides the pressing research challenge to date.

It is certainly not the weather in the Sunshine State or its Disney Land lure that explains my obsession with Florida, and the sugar cane grown in the Everglades Agricultural area, (EAA)  just south of Lake Okeechobee. So perhaps the best way to unravel the odyssey of an inveterate sugar bore is to elevate the significance and status of sucrose, the simple disaccharide carbohydrate, which like Elvis, Sex and Martini is here there and everywhere. Although mankind did without it for millennia and there is no biological need for “refined” sugar, it makes the products of Bill Gates seem pre-pubescent as it continues into its seventh century of global expansion.

Even when we claim not to take it in our beverages the main consumption is indirect because sugar is very much part of the “natural architecture” of fast foods and processed profits.  The real story of this achingly addictive white stuff, like the public health problems it poses in and outside of Florida, is decidedly not sweet, and it is tainted by the blood not just of African slaves, but also more recently the blood and sweat of Caribbean “guest workers” deployed to chop sugar cane in the EAA. Cane was harvested by migrant workers with machetes, metal arm and shinguards because Americans would not do such exacting and dangerous work for so little pay.

A useful contemporary and comparative source to back up the exhibits at the Transatlantic Slave Gallery in Liverpool, are the 90 crates of documents in a court house in West Palm Beach, which bear witness to a fifty year American Labor (that’s how they spell Labour in America) scandal over the H2 “guest workers”. Regrettably sugar and Slaves is a recurring theme on both sides of the Atlantic, and an American lawyer involved in the class action cases against the Florida sugar growers documented in Marie Brenner’s excellent 2001 essay in Vanity Fair, ‘In the Kingdom of Big Sugar’, has suggested that the abuses of the H2 program are analogous to “modern day slavery”. At the very least this is a “morality play about the employment of foreign workers with marginal legal rights”.

Indeed in Marie Brenner’s coruscating essay Edward Tuddenham, an Ivy League, Harvard educated, public interest lawyer,  elaborates with the acumen of an activist involved since the late 1980s, the genesis and various stages of this morality play. Brenner first met Tuddenham in the spring of 1999 to investigate the complex public interest case he had been working on for ten years. There were 20,000 sugar cane harvesters mostly Jamaicans who used to work for Florida’s largest sugar companies including that of the two Cuban Americans, Alfy and Pepe Fanjul whose company was by far the most powerful. These were formidable adversaries. In terms of their family history their father Alfonso Fanjul Sr. and their maternal grandfather Jose Gomez-Mena presided over one of the largest sugar dynasties in Cuba and according to the “rumour mill in Havana, the Gomez-Mena family emulated the French aristocracy” and “were as oblivious to the conditions in the fields as their eighteenth century counterparts”.

One hundred years later the H2 workers in the sugar cane fields of Florida were subjected to years of massive wage cheating and brutal working conditions and the Palm Beach sheriff’s deputies once used police dogs to break up protesting H2 workers on a Fanjul property. This case was known as “The Dog War” and the Fanjuls were subsequently sued agreeing to pay $355,000, about $1000 for each worker. In the Marie Brenner piece and in a rare interview with Alfy, he did express regret at a “mishandled” incident.

Not only was the cultivation of sugar cane so exacting and dangerous but the toxic phosphorous run offs into a phosphorous intolerant eco-system threatened the world renowned “River of Grass”. The costs of pollution were never paid by Big Sugar. Brenner also pointed out how “little known to the American public, Pepe and Alfy Fanjul operate within the hidden world of implicit linkage, the grand club of the country’s power brokers, who routinely trade favours like baseball cards”. Indeed Time Magazine in 1998 had dubbed the Fanjuls as the first family of Corporate Welfare! 
Will de Niro’s film provide the oxygen of publicity for much needed national debate about the overweening power of Big Sugar? All that is in the future. It is the war in Iraq that threatens to eclipse all other issues in this Presidential Election year, and presumably very little will be heard about the De Niro project until it is on the crest of Block Buster release.

That said one thing for certain is that as in November 2000, when Florida became the epicentre of the wrangles over “dimples, dents, and chads” what happens in the home of Big Sugar will be of crucial importance in deciding whether it is Bush or Kerry who inhabit the White House. The murky context of sugar cane growers, alligators and egrets in the River of Grass called the Everglades, is never absent from that states political agenda and given the national backdrop in this election year, is it probable that the history of the white stuff in Florida and the degree to which it is a toxic ingredient in American democracy, will be focused on at some stage of these momentous proceedings?

Ron Noon 21.05.04.