Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The elephant in the room

The 24 March 2005 issue of Country Life has a fascinating article on the very welcome renovation of Danson House in Bexleyheath. The author, Chris Miele reports the following facts without comment:
'In 1753, the estate of John Styleman let the Danson property to John Boyd of Boyd and Company, a family business that had been founded on West Indies sugar plantations and subsequently acted as agents for other Leeward Islands plantation owners.

Boyd’s father Augustus was a resourceful man who left Northern Ireland to seek his fortune and found himself managing a sugar plantation on St Kitts.

He married into the local elite and became a planter.

Sugar was then unbelievably profitable – on an acre-for-acre basis, 20 times more valuable than arable land in the Home Counties.'
Miele doesn't explain how Augustus Boyd 'found himself' managing a sugar plantation! Nor does he think it necessary to explain why sugar was so profitable. To understand why it was such a profitable cash crop we need to look at another man with Kent and St Kitts connections, the Revd James Ramsay (1733-98).

Ramsay was a Scotsman, who went to London to train as a surgeon. In 1755 he entered the Royal Navy as assistant surgeon on the Arundel, commanded by his fellow Scotsman, Charles Middleton and stationed in the West Indies. In 1759 he went on board an infected slave ship. In 1762 he left the navy, returned to England and was ordained by the bishop of London.

He returned to St Kitts in charge of two livings, and what he saw there made him the bitter enemy of the planters. In 1781 he was finally forced from the island because of their hostility. He was presented to the livings of Teston and Nettlestead by Sir Charles Middleton, the local patron.

In 1784: at Lady Middleton’s urging, he wrote An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies, one of the first publications of what was to become the abolitionist movement.

The type of sights Ramsay would have witnessed are described in Adam Hochschild's Bury the Chains (Macmillan, 2005). Chapter 4 is called 'King Sugar' and it makes very harrowing reading.
'Cultivating and harvesting the crop was brutal work. If you were a field hand, you planted cane shoots in holes or trenches you dug by hand, often in marshland where the air was dense with mosquitoes. At harvest time you carried huge heavy bundles of cane to the mill. You then fed each bundle twice through powerful vertical rollers that squeezed out the juice, which flowed into large copper vats in the boiling house, where it was simmered, strained, filtered, and allowed to crystallize into sugar. ... Slaves ... had to work in the mill or boiling house four to six hours on alternate nights in addition to a full day in the fields. Their clothes soaked with joice, they often lay down to sleep wherever they were, too exhausted to walk to their huts. ... At night flames from the boiling house fires were visible to ships at sea.'
I'll spare you the details of the accidents to slaves operating unguarded machinery.