Home » History of food » London and the sugar trade

London and the sugar trade

Over the course of the 18th century, sugar became integral to the British diet, and our Cookbook of Unknown Ladies is crammed with recipes for sweet puddings, cakes, biscuits, syrupy drinks and sauces. Georgian kitchens burst forth with sugary delights, from cheese cakes and blancmanges to exotic beverages and that wildly popular treat, hot chocolate.

But there was a dark side to the nation’s sweet tooth, as it fuelled the intensification of sugar cultivation in the West Indies. With the growth of the plantations, more and more Africans were transported across the Atlantic to work the land.

Sugar cane farms had sprung up in the Caribbean in the mid 17th century.  A century later, much of the land in the West Indies was devoted to the culture and trade of sugar, and the business of growing, harvesting and transporting the produce of these extensive plantations  required veritable armies of labourers. The vast majority of these workers were acquired through an international trade in slaves.

Extract from the inventory of slaves owned by Godschall Johnson and employed on his estates in Antigua, 1789. Image property of Westminster City Archives

Extract from the inventory of slaves owned by Godschall Johnson and employed on his estates in Antigua, 1789. Image property of Westminster City Archives

An inventory of Mr Godschall Johnson’s estate in Antigua, taken in 1788, itemises each slave on the plantations along with their designated occupation. Carpenters, coopers, grooms, carters, seamstresses and cooks were needed to support the main work of the plantation: cultivating, harvesting and processing the crop. Those two young to work in the field were made to pick grass to feed the working horses and mules on the farm. In total, the workforce of slaves numbered 254.

The West Indian sugar that graced British tables in the Georgian era was almost exclusively the product of this kind of slave labour, but even with rising calls for abolition in the 1780s, consumers were reluctant to recognise the human suffering caused by their sweet tooth. In his poem Pity for Poor Africans (1788), William Cowper satirises how the British allowed their passion for sugar to quashed their moral qualms about slavery:

I own I am shock’d at the purchase of slaves
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of thcir hardships, their tortures, and groans
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
Especially sugar, so needful we see?
What? give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea!

Devonshire Place and Wimpole Street, as seen from Marylebone Road in 1799. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

Devonshire Place and Wimpole Street, as seen from Marylebone Road in 1799. Image property of Westminster City Archives.

There was also the wealth that this triangular trade in sugar and slaves brought to London. Godschall Johnson was just one of a large network of slave-owners who lived in Marylebone. Considered ‘new money’, the sugar magnates of the Caribbean had difficulty integrating into wealthy Mayfair society, and so set up their households in the new areas of Harley Street, Wimpole Street and Portland Place.

Even after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, there was little official recognition of the damage that had been caused to the lives of those enslaved, and the plantation owners of Marylebone were heavily compensated by the government for the loss of their human property.

It is a sobering thought that many of the most prestigious addresses in Marylebone were built on money made through the use of slave labour.

You can find out more about Westminster and the transatlantic slave trade by taking a look at our online exhibition.

 

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