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The two of my books set in the Caribbean – SEAFLOWER and CARIBBEE – cannot help but touch on King Sugar. Renzi’s brother is a plantation owner in Jamaica and as well as this family connection, England had vital economic and strategic considerations stemming from the crop.In the late eighteenth century a diligent housewife following the latest cook-book from Hannah Glasse would find in her recipe for a nice cake ‘in the Spanish style’ a requirement for a whole 3 lbs of sugar, and if she was making marmalade it would have to be a pound of sugar for every 4 oranges. The same lady would need to find somewhere between 12 and 16 lbs of sugar for every 1 lb of tea. To say that Britain had a sweet tooth was a bit of an understatement! Some parishes even had a definition of poverty as the inability to buy sugar to go with your tea – second hand tea, of course.
Starting in earnest in the late seventeenth century, Caribbean plantations began producing jogarree, or unrefined sugar, until, by the eighteenth century, a gigantic river of wealth began flowing across the Atlantic. It didn’t escape the British government that this fount of silver should be well guarded, and of course the French had similar views – and the stage was set for the most fought-over piece of empire to date.
Napoleon Bonaparte did all he could to wrench it away from John Bull – Trafalgar was really about sending Villeneuve with a great battle-fleet to take our sugar islands. They were only saved by the French admiral hearing Nelson was on his heels, causing him to flee back to France.
CARIBBEE is about another insidious plot to bring downfall and ruin to England’s sugar interests that nearly worked…
Growing sugar cane was labour intensive and yes, there was slavery involved. Some ask why this wasn’t abolished at the same time as the trade in slaves. The obvious answer is that if one country freed their slaves and started paying them good wages it would put them out of business in the face of others with no labour costs.
The poet Cowper put it in blunter terms: ‘I pity them greatly, but I must keep mum; For how could we do without sugar and rum?’
Ironically, at about the same time as slaves won their freedom an industrial process was invented in Europe to extract sugar from sugar-beet and the bottom dropped out of the Caribbean sugar market leaving them perhaps worse off.
‘I pity them greatly, but I must keep mum; For how could we do without sugar and rum?’
But in its heyday sugar was king. There were risks, however; a hurricane flattening the crop just before harvest; a slave rebellion and destruction of crops and machinery; a younger son sent out to manage the estate dropping dead of yellow fever in three days. Privateers capturing an entire cargo at sea.And of course getting caught in the wars that raged around. If an island was taken it meant confiscation and instant ruin but if a French one was taken that was one less rival. Lucia was taken and re-taken during the wars a total of some 14 times! In the end however, mainly due to command of the seas, the British got the lot.
So what was involved in this great enterprise? When the crop was ready for harvest, it was cut and sent to the mills where it went through great rollers, yielding the sugar juice. It then went to the boiling house where lime was added and it came out as a thick syrup. This was tapped off into hogsheads with holes in the bottom. This let out the liquid, molasses, to become rum and what was left was crude crystallised sugar.
When it arrived in England this was taken a sugar-house (Bristol had many) where it was clarified with egg-white and vinegar then cattle blood was added.
The end product was the sugar loaf, from which pieces of sugar were ‘nipped’ off and granulated. Cubed sugars were not introduced until the late 19th century.
CARIBBEE is out now
Sugar loaf: By Petr Adam Dohnálek (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 cz (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/cz/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons; Cut sugar cane: By Rufino Uribe (caña de azúcar) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
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