A spoonful of sugar – of trade and slaves
Say the West Indies, and most of us think of sun and sea, of palm trees and the soft swaying rhythm of calypso music. We don’t automatically think big business – well, beyond the fact that most of us know there are a couple of attractive tax havens in the Caribbean – but once upon a time the West Indies were a fundamental part of the global economy, part of that lucrative triangular trade in which slaves, sugar and rum were the major components.
The cultivation of sugar was a jealously guarded secret. The Spanish – and Portuguese – colonists wanted to retain some sort of monopoly on this cash crop (Pernambuco in Brazil was the world’s largest sugar producer), but the commercial forces were having none of it, and so sugarcane arrived to Barbados in the 1650’s, where it went on to become the dominant crop.
Interestingly enough, sugar was brought to Barbados by a group of Sephardic Jews, since several years established in Brazil but increasingly dissatisfied with their lot in life. As some of you may know, the Jews had been expelled from England by Edward I in 1290, and since then the Jews had stayed well away from England and its dominions – at least officially. But in 1655, a representative of the Jews approached Cromwell and asked that they be allowed to settle in London. Cromwell readily agreed – the man had a grudge the size of an elephant when it came to Catholics, but was substantially more tolerant towards the Jews. Plus, of course, he may have realised the benefits a strong Jewish community would bring to England as a trading nation. And in Barbados, the Sephardic Jews and their extensive knowledge of sugar cultivation were received with enthusiasm.
Sugar is a labour intensive crop. The Sephardic Jews brought with them the technological knowledge of how to crush and prepare the cane, but the actual work needed to be done by someone else. It was a lot of work. The harvested cane was tied together into huge, unwieldy bundles (cane can easily grow to close to two metres), was carried to the closest mill, where someone fed the lengths of cane into the hungry maw, a dangerous operation that now and then cost someone a finger or so. In Pernambuco, sugar had been grown by a multitude of small free-holders, resulting in low yields and too much administration. On Barbados, a slave-based approach was implemented. The economic results were fantastic. The resulting human suffering was inexcusable.
Not all slaves were black – at least not initially. Cromwell, that model of toleration vis-à-vis the Jews, had over 30 000 Irish men carried over the seas to work themselves to death under the Caribbean sun. Why? Because they were papists. Some years later, the officials of the restored monarch, Charles II, sent off boatloads of vociferous Scottish Presbyterians, condemned to servitude on the Barbadian plantations – a harsh and inevitable march towards death, very far from the country and people they loved.
By the time the Monmouth rebels were deposited on Barbados, the sugar production was fuelled by black slaves, brought over en masse from Africa. The pale, undernourished prisoners of the Crown who arrived in 1686 carried little economic value. The men were there to be punished for their rebellion, the Crown hoping to recoup on some of their costs by selling them off as slaves. None of the rebels were expected to live long – in fact, the idea was that they should expire, worked to their limits and beyond.
So who were these Monmouth rebels? Well, in 1685 the Duke of Monmouth decided to claim the English crown for himself, this based on the fact that he was the eldest son of the recently departed Charles II. Problem was, the Duke of Monmouth (James Scott in more informal circles) was illegitimate, even if he maintained that his parents had been secretly married. Hmm. Whatever the case, the flamboyant duke launched an invasion with the aim of overthrowing James II, the new king (and Monmouth’s uncle). The duke hoped that his countrymen would rise in spontaneous rebellion when he landed, this due to James II being Catholic while the duke was a staunch Protestant. Didn’t happen, and so the rebellion failed, with several thousands of young men being either executed or transported to the West Indies.
Charlie Graham, the Monmouth rebel depicted in Whither Thou Goest, seventh book in The Graham Saga, was a young man with more passion than sense – which is how he ended up as a rebel to begin with. He had no understanding of the complex trading triangle he indirectly became a part of, all he could think about was surviving.
He had no idea that his endless days on the cane fields resulted in barrels packed with raw sugar, nor did he know that these barrels ended up on Rhode Island or in England where some of them were converted to rum. Good rum, far more sophisticated than the cane liquor produced by the various stills on Barbados. That rum would travel the world, was traded for beads and for textiles that were carried to Africa by the slave traders. In Africa, the slavers loaded their holds with men and women who were born free but ended up enslaved – casualties of local wars and local greed. And so sugar became rum, became produced goods, became more slaves, which became sugar, rum…The plantation owners grew rich, the traders grew rich, while those at the bottom of the dung heap, whether white or black, lost everything – including their freedom.
By the time the slavers returned to the Caribbean with their human cargo, almost a year had passed since the sugar left the island. By then, many of the slaves brought over the previous year were dead, and the off-loaded cargo was easily disposed of, angry, bewildered and frightened people subjected to being sold like animals before they were dragged off to a life that quickly became a vicious circle of too much work, too little food.
No, Charlie knew nothing about the triangular trade, but he knew everything about that vicious circle. He stole, he bullied, he crawled – all to ensure he survived. There were days when he didn’t want to, when he no longer knew why he struggled so hard to stay alive.
Occasionally, there were things that reminded Charlie of what it was like to be a man. Like when Mr Brown stepped from his house with a book in his hands, and Charlie recalled that he had once read for pleasure, or when the overseer sat smoking a pipe and drinking beer, and Charlie was transported back to evenings in a Dutch inn, with his friends and his hero, the now dead Duke of Monmouth. And then a sharp word would be thrown at him, and he would remember: he was a slave, a branded man, and his life was no longer his own nor would it ever be again. In such moments, he vehemently wished he could die, that the sky would open and fling a bolt of lightning to obliterate his sorry existence. But every morning he woke to yet another day of drudgery, and his heart was far too strong, his body far too young, to allow him to give up on living.
Fortunately for Charlie, he had an uncle named Matthew Graham, a man with his own bitter memories from his time as an indentured servant. Together with his wife, Alex, Matthew set off on an expedition to find Charlie – if nothing else to accord him a decent burial. That made Charlie an exception. Most of the Monmouth rebels had no one who came looking. Most of them would have died before the ten year sentence expired – except, of course, that James II was ousted and replaced by a Protestant king. The surviving rebels were pardoned, even if their new owners were reluctant to let them go. By 1691, more than half of the rebels had been freed, but with no money they remained stuck very far away from home. Maybe they consoled themselves with cane liquor.
These days, the best rum is mostly produced locally. These days, there is no triangular trade in which sugar becomes rum becomes slaves becomes sugar and so on. These days, Barbados is an island of golden sands and blue seas, a little slice of paradise. But if you leave the beaches and go exploring, if you take the time to visit the interior where the cane fields still rustle like carpets of giant grass, chances are you may hear them, the whispered voices of the unfortunates who were yanked away from homes and loved ones, to end their days as slaves.Inexcusable – for most of us incomprehensible. But it happened, over and over again.