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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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Liverpool, the Bajan sugar Revolution and the era of the Sugar Standard

Written by Ron Noon at 10:37 on Monday, December 29th 2008

“The reawakening of Liverpool at the end of the 17th century is partly due to the prosperity of our sugar trade with the West Indies, and partly to the profits made in the slave trade.” 

In the middle of the seventeenth century a small tropical island in the Caribbean became the site of a revolution in the production and trade of a commodity that although now ubiquitous, was then an exotic luxury for which Europe had an insatiable demand.  Mankind had done without sugar for millennia but the concertinaed changes on Barbados, an island smaller than the Isle of Wight, had ripple effects reaching from the Caribbean across the Atlantic to a small insignificant fishing village in the North West of England. For over four centuries after King John’s Charter of Incorporation in 1207, Liverpool had failed to reverse the trading dominance of nearby Chester.

Sugar’s rate of diffusion from Papua New Guinea where the cane was first cultivated 9000 years ago, was unimpressive and Henry Hobhouse summed up its commercial travelling before Barbados, as “a mere pinch per head for the whole of history”.  By the 16th century however, this addictive condiment was a main marker and emulator of wealth and conspicuous consumption. In the post Columban era it became known as “white gold”, the basis of one of the first truly international industries. The “Sugar Revolution” in Barbados and the Caribbean in the middle of the seventeenth century and the “proto-agri-business” of plantation production, increased output to satiate the Old World’s seemingly insatiable demand for a product that rapidly moved along the value added chain, from medicine, spice and condiment, to decorative substance, preservative, sweetener and eventually the food that changed the world of diet!

“The era of the ‘sugar standard’ lasted only 200 years, two centuries in which millions of human beings were sacrificed in its cause, far more of them, and more spectacularly, than those who died in the cause of the gold standard.”  In terms of causation it can be seen that “the slave trade was the indispensable handmaid of the sugar industry”, and “the problem of organizing a regular and reliable supply of slaves became a major preoccupation of governments”.  The voracious demand for slaves was exacerbated by the obvious failure of slave populations to reproduce themselves because of the appalling conditions in cane fields and plantation sugar mills. “Negroes were constantly required, and the difficult, dangerous and speculative business of importing them across four thousand miles of ocean became a trade second only in importance to that of sugar itself.” Hobhouse “guestimates” that “perhaps three quarters of all the Africans transported across the Atlantic, possibly as many as 15 million out of a total of 20 million enslaved in Africa, must be debited to sugar”. 

So the superstructure of Europe’s sweet life was increasingly predicated on notorious plantations not beehives. They were the new cornucopias of fabulous wealth and fortune that yoked agricultural field and industrial mill together, and according to Professor Ralph Davis, my old university lecturer back in ’68 their expansion “bears a striking similarity to the technological revolution, which getting under way a century later, developed new consumption habits in English and foreign populations, with the cheap product of the machine”.  Davis was not saying that sugar plantations were the same as steam driven textile mills, but in consumption terms there is evidence that they shared similar features.

Mintz in 1985 provided convincing evidence that this colonial proto-industry preceded the metropolitan variant but had not been accredited the importance it merited. “Scholars interested in the history of western industry quite predictably began with the artisans and craftsmen of Europe and the putting out shops that followed them, rather than with overseas ventures. It followed naturally that plantations were seen as by-products of European endeavour rather than as an integral part of the growth from shop to factory. But it is not clear why such preconceptions should interfere with a recognition of the industrial aspects of plantation development. It may seem a topsy-turvey view of the West to find its factories elsewhere at so early a period. But the sugar-cane plantation is gradually winning recognition as an unusual combination of agricultural and industrial forms, and I believe it was probably the closest thing to industry that was typical of the seventeenth century.”  It certainly was but it was also irredeemably tainted by the blood of those African slaves.

Jane Longmore noted that “two voyages to Barbados in 1666 probably led to the establishment of the first sugar refinery” in Liverpool the following year, “by merchants who had reputedly left London after the Plague and Great Fire”.  Metropolitan refineries in London, Bristol and Liverpool were the value added end of the sugar chain and the final means by which tropical sunshine was converted into “white gold”! That separation between mill and refinery reflected the technological and economic asymmetry between “core and periphery” and is still evident in the international sugar economy today.

“Establishing refineries in London, Liverpool, Rotterdam or New York, rather than in Jamaica or Mauritius” had advantages for the metropolitan centre that stopped slightly short of winner takes all! “Sugar-cane factories work for only a few months in the year – after the harvest – and refineries dependent on local factories for supplies of raw sugar might find themselves idle for much of the time. They need large supplies of coal or other fuel and plenty of water neither of which is usually available in cane-growing areas.”  Port refineries like Love Lane were sourced year round with cane supplies and unlike sugar beet production as it developed in Britain in the twentieth century, it was never seasonal. What went on in the Lane was a highly sophisticated laundering, purging and refining process with considerable investment in fixed plant and equipment. Metropolitan refineries according to Aykroyd were “temples of applied science”  with very little that could be termed “natural” about their production processes.