March 2016

Dr. Andy Russel ‘Southampton, Sugar and Slaves’
March 2016

The speaker at the March meeting of the Society was Dr. Andy Russel, whose interesting and fascinating talk was entitled ‘Southampton, Sugar and Slaves’.

The story of sugar refining in Southampton is a little known topic in the city’s history. So Andy Russel’s exposition filled a real gap in our understanding of the commercial and industrial life of the port. The speaker explained that the sugar seems to have been introduced to the Western world from the Arabic countries in medieval times; the first reference to its use in England is in 1299. The growing of sugar cane was first established by the Spaniards in the Caribbean area due to the similarities of climate. The conversion from sugar cane to sugar is labour-intensive and, in the early stages, entails heavy manual work. In the hot climate of the West Indies where the high temperatures were totally debilitating for white workers a solution was found by importing black slaves to do the onerous and back-breaking work. It was found advisable to concentrate a significant part of the conversion process close to the growing sugar cane crop. After cutting and shredding the cane, simple crushing machines were used to extract the juice, followed by boiling mainly to extract impurities so producing the molasses which was exported to Europe for refining into sugar. The waste cane was used as fuel for the boiling process.

The first refining mills in England were built in the seventeenth century, generally in or near seaports, viz ., London, Liverpool, Bristol, Hull and Greenock in Scotland. The sugar refining mill in Southampton was built by John Brissault (probably a member of the Brissault family, already established as sugar refiners in London) in the 1740s and was situated on the derelict site of the medieval Friary. The mill was an impressive brick building, some seven storeys high comprising all the facilities and plant necessary for sugar refining. In the early days sugar was manufactured in various grades of quality from a cheap course brown product (Demerara) to a more expensive refined white sugar, not dissimilar to that produced today.

In due course Brissault became bankrupt and the building was sold and used as a granary. The building changed little, until it was heavily damaged during the Blitz and eventually demolished in about 1942. A detailed excavation of the location was carried out during 2001-2 by Southampton Museum staff, revealing the foundation structures in remarkable detail prior to the redevelopment of the site.

Many of the sugar plantations in the Caribbean were owned by individuals and families, such as the Morants of Brockenhurst, many of whom were also shippers and traders in the Northern Hemisphere and who could be regarded as being actively involved in the slave trade (abolished in 1807). Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833 at great economic cost to the Exchequer. But the Brissault family does not appear to have been directly involved in the ownership of sugar plantations or of slaves.

This, the last talk of the season, was most revealing, well-researched and much appreciated by the attentive audience.