Friday, January 11, 2013

Sugar Slavery: Conditions in the Sugar Works

Interior of a sugar boiling house at Wetherall's Antigua, by William Clark, London 1823 (source: British Library)

Conditions in the sugar works

From the International Slavery Museum -- Work in both the mill and boiling house was unpleasant and dangerous. The work was exhausting and led to horrific accidents; a slave with a machete stood beside the slave who fed cane into the mill, ready to cut off the arm of the mill feeder in case it became trapped. Sir Thomas Lynch wrote in 1672 that "plantations are subject to abundance of ill accidents, especially Sugar workers  because they have so many Machines" Contemporary writers record some of the hazards:

"If a Mill-feeder be catch'd by the finger, his whole body is drawn in, and is squees'd to pieces, If a Boyler gets any part into the scalding Sugar, it sticks like Glew, or Birdlime, and 'tis hard to save either Limb or Life." Cited in Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh 1972, 301

An enslaved woman called Mimba, who was in her late 30s or 40s had her "hands ground off", probably when feeding canes into the mill, on William Stapleton's plantation in Nevis. (Mason 1993, 126)


Thomas Tryon described in 1700 the work of the enslaved labourers in the boiling house,

"the Climate is so hot, and the labor so constant, that the [Black] Servants night and day standing great Boyling Houses, where there are Six Seven large Coppers or Furnaces kept perpetually boyling; and from which with heavy Ladles and Scummers, the Skim off the excrementatious parts of the Canes, till it comes to its perfection and cleanness, while others as Stoakers, Broil, as it were alive, in managing the Fires; and one part is constantly at the Mill, to supply it with Canes, night and day, during the whole Season of making Sugar, which is about six Months of the year". Cited in Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh 1972, 303, original from Tryon, Thomas 1700 'Merchant's (source: International Slavery Museum)

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