Remembering Slavery

Remembering Slavery Online Exhibition

A Sweet Cup of Tea

Sugar basin

Sugar basin

This sugar bowl was made by a silversmith.

Sugar is obtained from the juices contained in sugar cane. Sugar cane is a thick, tall grass which originated in tropical South East Asia. Sugar cultivation was brought to the Caribbean by European colonists, who wished to exploit the ideal growing conditions found in the region. Military conquest and the rapid spread of diseases decimated the indigenous population and so the colonists' practise of using enslaved Africans to work their lands began to rapidly increase.

Sugar formed an important part of the triangular trade, whereby merchants from Britain sailed to West Africa to sell goods and to buy enslaved Africans, who were then shipped to the Caribbean and the Americas to work on the plantations.

  • Sugar basin

    This sugar bowl was made by a silversmith.

    Sugar is obtained from the juices contained in sugar cane. Sugar cane is a thick, tall grass which originated in tropical South East Asia. Sugar cultivation was brought to the Caribbean by European colonists, who wished to exploit the ideal growing conditions found in the region. Military conquest and the rapid spread of diseases decimated the indigenous population and so the colonists' practise of using enslaved Africans to work their lands began to rapidly increase.

    Sugar formed an important part of the triangular trade, whereby merchants from Britain sailed to West Africa to sell goods and to buy enslaved Africans, who were then shipped to the Caribbean and the Americas to work on the plantations.

  • Sugar nippers

    These sugar nippers have curved handles which can be held in a closed position by a hinged hook on the end of one, and can be forced open by a spring clip between them. Sugar nippers were used to cut off small pieces of sugar from sugar-loaves. Larger plain nippers were used in the kitchen and smaller decorated ones were used at the tea table.

    Nearly two-thirds of all slaves taken to the Americas and the Caribbean ended up cutting cane on sugar plantations. The combination of hard labour, exposure to new diseases and inadequate food meant that approximately one in every three Africans died within three years of arriving on the plantations.

    Once the enslaved Africans had harvested the sugar, it was moulded into large cone shapes and shipped to Britain. In shops, sugar was not sold as granules or lumps. Instead it would be broken up for sale using a sugar cutter (shaped like a guillotine) by the grocer and wrapped in paper. This paper was dyed with indigo, another product which was also slave produced on the plantations.

    In the home, sugar nippers were used to make the pieces smaller still. Only when the sugar had been broken down into manageable pieces was it served in highly decorative and delicate sugar bowls, fashioned in either silver or porcelain.

  • Sugar tongs

    These sugar tongs end in a shell shape. Engraved in miniature on one side is a teapot and teacup and on the other side a tea caddy, sugar cone and sugar bowl.

    Abolitionists came to realise that it was the profits from goods like sugar which kept the slave trade in business and began to demonstrate their opposition to slavery by boycotting sugar produced by slaves. In shops, advertisements resembling modern Fair Trade food labelling appeared: 'BENJAMIN TRAVERS, Sugar-Refiner, acquaints the Publick that he has now an assortment of Loaves, Lumps, Powder Sugar, and Syrup, ready for sale... produced by the labour of FREEMAN'.

    The boycott drew attention to the direct connection between British daily life and the brutality of the slave trade and was a powerful weapon because the country consumed so much of it. At a time when only a small proportion of the population could vote, people took upon themselves the power to act where Parliament had not. The poet Robert Southey spoke of tea as 'the blood-sweetened beverage'.

    The boycott was largely put into effect by women who bought and cooked the family food. Although the abolitionist movement was founded and given its initial energy largely by men, it was groups of abolitionist women who later radicalised and kept the movement going at a crucial time.

  • Mote-spoons

    Drinks were served with accompanying silver mote-spoons, which were used to skim off floating tea leaves and motes (tea dust) from the cup. The pointed handle was used to remove tea from the teapot spout.

  • Sugar basin

    This sugar bowl was made by a silversmith.

    Sugar is obtained from the juices contained in sugar cane. Sugar cane is a thick, tall grass which originated in tropical South East Asia. Sugar cultivation was brought to the Caribbean by European colonists, who wished to exploit the ideal growing conditions found in the region. Military conquest and the rapid spread of diseases decimated the indigenous population and so the colonists' practise of using enslaved Africans to work their lands began to rapidly increase.

    Sugar formed an important part of the triangular trade, whereby merchants from Britain sailed to West Africa to sell goods and to buy enslaved Africans, who were then shipped to the Caribbean and the Americas to work on the plantations.

  • Coffee pot

    This pear-shaped coffee-pot has a curved spout and a high domed cover. The scroll handle has an ivory thumb grip and it is decorated with beading. Ivory was sometimes used to insulate the handle from heat which would conduct quickly through silver.

    Coffee is prepared from the roasted beans of the coffee plant, a small tree or shrub which is native to subtropical Africa and southern Asia. By the 1700s, the beverage had become popular in Europe, and so to supply demand, European colonists introduced coffee as a plantation crop in the Caribbean.

    There were small numbers of enslaved African in the mainland colonies almost from the first years of European settlement. Before long, conquest and colonial rule began to decimate the population of local people and so the reliance upon using Africans as slave labour increased.

    Life for the field hands who formed the majority of the plantation labour force was hard and short. Enslaved Africans were whipped and flogged regularly, with few escaping at least one serious whipping in a lifetime.

    Coffee formed an important part of the triangular trade, whereby merchants from Britain sailed to West Africa to sell goods and to buy enslaved Africans, who were then shipped to the Caribbean and the Americas to work on the plantations.

  • Sugar basket

    Francis Sollomon was a silversmith in Whitehaven in Cumbria. However his work was assayed (marked) in Newcastle. This was a system of ensuring the purity of silver in manufactured silver objects and therefore protecting the customers who bought them. In order to be struck with a sterling silver mark, objects had to be sent to an Assay Office. Newcastle was granted its status as an official Assay Office in 1700 and was represented by a mark depicting three castles.

    The plantations on which the slaves worked were remote and isolated. They lived in primitive housing and survived on the most basic of diets. Life for the field hands who formed the majority of the plantation labour force was hard and short. Planters knew that new arrivals were at risk from the hardships of sugar cultivation so tried to 'season' them in less intensive work which included weeding and guarding the cattle.

    Planting new cane took place between August and October and was harvested in the new year, a process which took about six months. The sugar cane was cut down, stripped of its foliage and transported to the nearest factory for crushing and processing. Here, the manufacture of the sugar required some of the enslaved to become highly skilled boilers and distillers who determined the success or failure of the plantations' produce.

Two-thirds of all enslaved Africans captured in the 1700s were set to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Conditions were very harsh but slave labour, plus improved production and processing methods, enabled plantation owners to reduce costs. As the price of sugar fell, demand in Europe spiralled. By the 1790s the ‘white gold’ that had once been a luxury product for the wealthy was a staple part of the diet of the poor. It was used to sweeten naturally bitter drinks, like coffee and tea which were also slave-produced. Sugar was not bought as granules or lumps, instead it came in large cone shapes called sugar-loaves.


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