Written by Ron Noon at 09:54 on Tuesday, June 08th 2021
The Boys and Girls from the Whitestuff
“I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing economically rational about the sugar business.” J.B.Bunker (President of the Holly Sugar Corporation. 27.2.1978.)
This is a bitter sweet story stretching back at least six hundred years and traversing strange latitudes and thousands of miles. From Liverpool, the former eighteenth century slave capital, and 19 home of the Beatles, across the Atlantic to Decatur Illinois, a sleepy mid west town 175 miles south of the Windy City and original home of the Chicago Bears, the sugar chain extends due east back to Spike Lee’s hometown in Brooklyn, New York. The skeins of interconnectedness in this chronicle of globalisation are very much associated with sucrose, a simple taken for granted commodity with an infamous history, lucidly indicted in 1944 by the Oxford scholar and former Prime Minister of Trinidad, Dr Eric Williams. “Strange that an article so sweet and necessary for human existence should have occasioned such crimes and bloodshed.”
The terrifying images of transatlantic trade in human cargo and the African diaspora that decanted millions to the New World provide cruel evidence of slavery as the indispensable handmaid of the sugar industry. This together with proof of Liverpool’s lubricating role as a “slave city first”, is a potent reminder of the politics and power of sugar, a far from “natural” product, that the industry are loath to admit, mankind was able to do without for millennia. The Bible was a land of milk and honey not sugar and spice but subsequently there has been no other food which has rivalled this simple carbohydrate, (C12 H22 011) “in its influence on human affairs”. To the “food faddists” it is an “empty calorie” and “granulated scourge”, not the “crystallised sunlight” of photosynthesis and school misinformation packs. For me it is the most telling metaphor for capitalism and capitalist commodity production and Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortez aptly described it in 1947 as “capitalism’s favoured child”.
Nature was patently unaware of commerce when Columbus on his second Antilles voyage in 1493 transferred sugar cane from the Portuguese islands off the coast of Africa to the Island of Hispaniola, now divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. What is perceived in the travel brochures depicting the Greater and Lesser Antilles as indigenous flora and fauna was five hundred years earlier distinctively novel. The French food writer Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat in evoking Turgenev’s “genius of hunger”, reminds us that “the practice of hunting and gathering, the consumption of salt and cereals, the discovery of stock breeding and wine, the use of spices, sugar, potatoes, proteins, have all been stages along the way, each in turn shaking the known world to its foundations”. In that se marks the beginnings of Europe as “the monstrous shaper of world history”, with aggressive colonial expansion and global movements of people, plants and diseases to configure the following centuries.
Columbus’s epochal inauguration of sugar cane time and “the sugar standard”, rocked that new world so much that by the late seventeenth century the Dutch found it hard to resist the lure of “white gold” in Surinam in South America, and negotiated with the English Duke of York, stewardship over what is now the most expensive real estate in the Cosmos. It was obviously a commodity worth fighting over and in 1763 following the 7 Years War Britain negotiated a Peace Treaty that came glaringly close to repeating the earlier Dutch mistake with its initial preference for the French sugar islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique over the whole of what is now Canada! How many picketing Domino refinery workers earlier on this year with strike funds and accident cover dwindling, would have had the appetite for such historical reflexivity, as the bitter winds from the East River smacked into their marrow, and life continued pretty much as usual over the Williamsburg Bridge in the big sugar cube of old New Amsterdam?
The main commercial source for the European and North American sugar refineries before the nineteenth century and Napoleon’s sponsorship of the ugly mangel wurzel sugar beet, was the majestic sugar cane, a reed which the Greek naturalist, Pliny the Elder claimed “produced honey without the intervention of the bees”! No bees but millions of Africans were needed in the Americas to cultivate this quintessential slave crop and agri-business. It far exceeded other exotic tropical produce such as coffee, tobacco and cotton in the rigours of its cultivation and even today as the tall and aesthetically pleasing reed sways in the tropical breezes, it is described as a backbreaking “hunger crop”, emblematic of the plight of many Third world countries. It is not much use in its “natural” state, and the industrial demands of rapidly milling and processing the cane into raw sugar has been a predominantly third world activity before shipment to Metropolitan port refineries for the final high value added processes. These refineries are the “temples of applied science” sponsored by capitalism’s profitable synthesis of machine and man rather than nature’s photosynthesising laboratories.
Now in its seventh century of global expansion and in its indirect uses very much part of the “natural” architecture of processed and fast foods, sugar makes the products of Bill Gates seem pre-pubescent. In the twenty first century it is obviously not the only kid on the sugar and sweetener block, but perhaps miserably from the perspective of a new breed of anti-saccharites and “sugar busters”, most people think the only thing that matters about sugar and sweeteners, is that they taste sweet. Sweetness is the last thing that can be said about its history and the industry that produces not only sugar but its first main biotech breakthrough, High Fructose Corn Syrup, widely used in the lucrative soft drinks market. Nor does syrupiness explain the aggressive human resources management of global sugar giant, Tate & Lyle. In June 1993, it locked out 760 of its employees in Decatur in a dispute which lasted thirty months but achieved company objectives of “downsizing” the union and re-scheduling work shifts to conform to the company calendar rather than the more natural work rhythms that had made family and social life predictable. More recently at the 143 year old Brooklyn refinery, there in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, a twenty month battle with the union was initiated by management demands to lay off 100 workers and sub-contract work and ended in March this year with defeat for the strikers.
The London based transnational was founded in Liverpool by Henry Tate a wealthy nineteenth century entrepreneur and philanthropist, sixty five years after Britain abandoned the Slave Trade. It operates in five continents and over fifty countries and first broke into the profitably protected North American sugar market with a leveraged buy out of the Decatur based corn syrup producer A.E.Staley in 1988. The fact that the Chicago Bears started out as a company sponsored team named the Decatur Staleys, coached by the legendary George Halas was less important than HFCS. The subsequent acquisitions made by “Tates” (the term of endearment/estrangement to its former Liverpool workers) included Domino Sugar, (cane) and until recent sales and divestments, Great Western, (beet). The company have manifestly undergone a corporate transplant from the paternalistic days of yore. From rationalisation and closure of their mother plant in Liverpool Love Lane in 1981 when significantly there was neither a Tate nor a Lyle on the board, to “downsizing” in the “War Zone” of Decatur and strike breaking in New York, Tates has belied not only that anodyne adjective, sweet, but its once proudly held reputation as an exemplary family firm. Generations of former employees perceived it as deliberately encouraging a friendly “company spirit” and viewed it as “a good firm to work for”.
The act of matricide in the love starved Lane was hardly the best cue for evoking late eighteenth century images of Liverpool’s “maidens and ladies” perambulating down a country walk overlooking stunning views of the Mersey, the Welsh mountains and sailing ships going in and out of the river except to reflect on the recurring theme of exploitation and how it was slave tainted produce, that unbeknown to those ladies filled the holds of the ships they viewed on their afternoon walks. Henry Tate’s sugar dynasty was founded long after the end of the slave trade and his philanthropy and dedication to the arts is some indicator of a paternalistic reputation which survived vicariously even after the end of sugar cane time in 1981. The company at least ensured that there was a Christmas Party for the Tates pensioners held in Liverpool’s Britannia Adelphi Hotel, initially each year but then “biennially”, agreeably catering for the associational needs and seasonal festivities of the old boys and girls from the whitestuff.
Unhappily at the end of last Millennium the ex-refinery workers, many of whom never secured another job when the prominent Liverpool landmark was pulled down, were delivered the devastating news that “because of the need to continually review and reduce costs”, the bunting and streamers that were going up in the hotels magnificent banqueting hall, would sadly commemorate the last ever company sponsored Christmas party. December 2nd 1999 was the former Tates employees last supper and the sadness of the occasion was visibly reflected in the comments made to local reporters. This is no ordinary local history because Liverpool as a port city has been a barometer since the eighteenth century, of national and international trends, playing a central role in that earlier phase of European mercantile expansion that generated the displacement and scattering of millions of brutalised Africans. Social relations and decision making have never stopped at the Pier Head and Liverpool’s economic reach was emphatically global a couple of hundred years before the “isation” was tagged on to the G word.
Part of the identity legacy of Henry Tate the former grocer and populari of sugar cubes is not just the company that bears his name but impressive artefacts of his private philanthropy. In Liverpool he left an imposing Unitarian Church in Ullet Road, a former hospital in the city centre called the Hanneman building and the striking red brick of Liverpool University’s Tate Hall. (A university built on sugar?) In London he financed an impressive public library in Brixton and more famously inspired the Tate Gallery and Tate Modern which interpolate his donations to the arts and culture. Part of his bequeathal, albeit unintentional is sadly a scrooge like and soulless global corporation. In the absence of ghostly interviewing techniques I can only hazard the suggestion that the meanness of spirit which resulted in the junking of Christmas in his former sugar capital, and recent trade union bashing in the economic capital of the free world, has caused the creator of this formidable sugar dynasty to turn in his grave.
Five hundred yards up from the impressive Liverpool waterfront is the splendid town hall whose corridors are still adorned by busts of blackamoors and elephants. It was built in the late eighteenth century when powerful slave trade interests were coming up against popular agitation to end the evil trade. “Beyond doubt it was the slave trade which raised Liverpool from a struggling port to one of the richest and most prosperous trading centres in the world.” That comment by historian Ramsay Muir and extracts from an Election pamphlet in 1790, sum up the influence and command of the slave trade interest. “If you have any regard for your God; If you have any regard for your King; If you have any regard for your country; If you have any regard for your native town and its prosperity…Vote for General Tarleton who so ably supported the African trade and the commercial interests of Liverpool…The Church and Slave Trade forever.” A few years later a drunken actor was cruelly booed by an audience of rich merchants inside Liverpool’s Theatre Royal. George Cooke’s response as he coruscated off stage, was scathing. “I have not come here to be insulted by a set of wretches, every brick of whose infernal town is cemented with an African’s blood.” In Britain’s “Gateway to Empire”, and richest of nineteenth century provincial cities, it is chastening to reflect that with one of the oldest indigenous black populations in Britain, it is not just thespian echoes that resonate in its outstanding civic buildings.
Liverpool’s infamous history as the capital of the slave trade may have belatedly been addressed but twenty years after the disturbances and riots that erupted in Lodge Lane and Liverpool 8 in July 1981, Black people’s long standing inequality in this city has still to be positively remedied. Students, including a large number of African American students attending Liverpool University’s three week Summer School on Liverpool’s Black roots, will have opportunities this June to plug the past into the present and debate these issues and the legacy of slavery. They will experience a powerful evocation of that infamous trade by visiting the Transatlantic Slave Gallery down at the Albert Dock, adjacent to the Museum of Liverpool Life and the Tate Gallery. Significantly the benefactor’s name provides a reminder, twenty years after the closure of Love Lane, that there are skeletons in the company cupboard which demand more forensic examination than provided here. The sugar links stretching across from Love Lane and Lodge Lane to the Workers Memorial Viaduct in Decatur and the Willamsburg Bridge, New York, provide evidence for a reality check on “Tate & Lyle in the Community” and the Pensioners corporate campaign to bring back Christmas for December 2001. Bob Bannister one of the pensioners asked “would it spoil some vast eternal plan if these Christmas get-togethers were to continue every two years, after all in ten or fifteen years most of us will have left for greener pastures”?
Planters in the AnteBellum South once used the threat of deportation to Cuba as an instrument for disciplining their slaves and although to some it may appear hyperbolic, one of the course themes at the Summer School was influenced by a saying used by planters in Cuba which almost transcends metaphor and figurative language. “Con, sange, se hace azucar.” Sugar has been made with blood, and it has been shed in a variety of different and protracted ways, even in rich first world countries. In Liverpool, Decatur, and even in the Big Sugar Cube of New York, the damage to the health and safety and general morale of “sugar workers” caused by rationalisations, downsizing, union busting and “lean production” methods, has devastated families and communities. Nevertheless it is Third world producers who are more systematically and regularly short changed.
Twenty years ago, when the European Community put forward proposals to cut the structural sugar beet surplus they were opposed by Margaret Thatchers Government, and the writing was clearly on the wall for Love Lane, Henry Tate’s spiritual home. The city which was renowned for the Merseybeat in the 60s was the victim of the sugar beet and a soulless global corporation with no apparent local loyalties. The community blight and lengthening dole queue in Liverpool was not unrelated to the riots and disturbances a few months later but even this was eclipsed by the exacerbation of abject poverty and hunger in the Third World cane producing countries. The World Development Movement presciently summed up what is still very much the issue today. “A rich country’s sugar policy – who it buys its sugar from and how it pays for it - is a vital litmus test of its proclaimed benevolence towards the poor world.” Precisely but the reality is a continuing pattern of dependency and neo-colonial relations manifesting itself in the sweat and blood of “half slaves” and migrant labourers, cultivating sugar cane in parts of the Caribbean and South America today. What a chastening reminder this ought to be of how a unique commodity demands more than just history lessons.
Ron Noon 8.6.2001