The Progress of Sugar: Illustrating the Production of a Luxury Commodity in a Slave Economy

Nowdays the word “progress”  usually means “growth, development, usually to a better state or condition; improvement,”  rather than  “advancement through a process, a sequence of events, a period of time, etc.”   In early nineteenth-century British children’s books, “progress” also can refer to a sub-genre of illustrated non-fiction that explains the necessary steps to make something useful from a kind of raw material–for example, the progress of wheat, the progress of bread, etc.  When the product was sugar, the subject was politically charged, because it was impossible to describe how sugar cane was grown, harvested, and processed without reference to the underlying economy of human trafficking.

Amelia Opie’s “The Black Man’s Lament ” has two speakers, the British abolitionist poet who exposes the white man’s crime by allowing a black enslaved man to describe the how his people suffer so “civilized” people can enjoy sugar with their tea.  The poet’s tribute to the sight of a sugar-cane field in bloom is quickly forgotten as the enslaved man takes the reader through the process step by step.   The second step is the breaking up of families through forcible removal of people from their native lands.   The third step is packing their bodies like bales of cotton into a frigate’s hold.  The sixth step is selling the unlucky survivors of the ocean voyage to white planters, looking for more workers in the sugar cane fields.  Steps seven through fourteen show the sequence of jobs that must be performed until the mature canes can be harvested.  The last steps show how the sugar cane is made into sugar crystals, which can be packed in barrels for shipping to England.

Amelia Opie, The Black Man’s Lament: or How to Make Sugar. (London: Harvey and Darton, 1826), p. 6. Cotsen 15245.

Amelia Opie, “The Black Man’s Lament,” p. 8. Two planters inspecting a man for possible purchase. Notice the drivers with whips in the far right and background.

Opie, “The Black Man’s Lament,” p. 16. This is the only scene in the fields where the overseer is not watching the black man like a hawk.

The Rev. Isaac Taylor’s Scenes in Africa, one in a series to remedy British children’s ignorance of cultural geography, is not a progress poem,  but its more ambivalent representation of slave trading contrasts with Opie’s more coherent one. Taylor’s volume about Africa consists of eighty-four short descriptive sections with illustrations on engraved plates.  Section 24 “A son going to sell his Father and Mother into Slavery” begins with this surprising statement: “We must just take a peep at the miseries of these people on account of the prevalence of the slave-trade; we might trace the cause deeper, to an immoderate love of brandy.”   Sections 34 to 36 describe how petty chiefs will stoop to making false criminal judgments, waging war, and setting huts in adjoining villages on fire to procure bodies to exchange for iron, fabric and brandy.  Near the end of the volume, Taylor retells the episode from the travels of James Bruce where he met the queens of Sennar and was repulsed by the way the fat women were dressed and adorned (or in his view deformed) with the huge rings in their ears and lips.  Taylor may be able to express humanity for black people in general because Europeans or their own people prey upon them, but finds the reported behavior and appearance of individual groups disgusting.

A son dragging his parents off to sell for brandy in Rev. Isaac Taylor Senior, Scenes in Africa, 2nd ed. (London: J. Harris and Son, 1821) engraving 24. Cotsen 2898

Rev. Isaac Taylor Senior, Scenes in Africa, 2nd. ed. engraving number 35. Cotsen 2898. This is almost certainly copied from one of the famous large engravings of the hold of a slave ship; however this one is so small that it was not possible to show the outlines of the people’s bodies in any detail.

The queens of Sennar in Rev. Isaac Taylor Senior, Scenes in Africa, 2nd ed., engraving 72. Cotsen 2898.

Cuffy the Negro’s Doggerel Description of the Progress of Sugar extends the process by adding the steps that take place after the sugar crosses the Atlantic, unloaded in England, and further processed.   One pair of illustrations compare and contrast workers in the West Indies and the other in Great Britain.  On the plantation, two barefoot, bare-chested black men tend the great copper vats under the overseer’s supervision.  In the middle distance, one adds lime to thicken the boiling sugar cane syrup, while the other in the foreground ladles the now ropy liquid onto a plate to harden.  The second illustration  shows a sugar baker, neatly dressed in a hat, shirt, apron over knee breeches, stockings and shoes.  According to Cuffy the narrator, the sugar baker is spooning blood and some other adulterant to whiten the sugar loaves hardening in the molds.  Equally compelling is  the portrait of  Cuffy at the head of the doggerel poem imploring little readers to think of the “poor Negro” whose labor tending the sugar cane in the fields results in luscious pies, puddings, sweetmeats, cakes, and lollypops.  The wood engraved depiction of the black man shivering in the cold contains details that are not easy to interpret.  Cuffy is holding a red Phrygian hat and wearing torn striped trousers–garments associated with the sans culottes of the French Revolution.  Was the artist of this wood engraving covertly expressing support for the West Indian slave rebellions during in the early 1800s?

Cuffy the Negro’s Doggerel Description of the Progress of Sugar (London: E. Wallis, ca. 1823), p. 11. Cotsen 26162.

Cuffy the Negro’s Doggerel Description of the Progress of Sugar, leaf 15. Cotsen 26162.

Cuffy the Negro’s Doggerel Description of the Progress of Sugar, leaf 2.

This interpretation of the image seems untenable at first, but the short story “Clarissa Dormer, or the Advantages of Good Instruction” (1806) depicts such an uprising as justifiable, but avoidable if white people take seriously their duty to enslaved peoples. This view strikes us as condescending now, but to express it then in a story for rather young children was radical, even extraordinary.   Clarissa Dormer is the daughter of native West Indian planters, who are described as “black enough to be esteemed descendants of those unhappy beings whom perfidy or avarice brought into the hands of Europeans, nor yet so fair as to pass for natives of our temperate climes.”   To give Clarissa every possible advantage, her parents hire an English governess  to educate her.  The chief obstacle to Miss Melville’s program of enlightened instruction is Mrs. Dormer, an ignorant, showy woman, who is remarkably cruel to the enslaved peoples working in her household and on the plantation.  So cruel that when the “ill-used” Dormer slaves rise up one night, their mistress is brutally murdered along with the overseen and whipper-in.  Miss Melville and Clarissa, who has learned humanity from her in spite of her mother’s atrocious example, are spared by those DISCRIMINATING SLAVES” who…deemed them worthy of their clemency at a time when they came to execute vengeance on an individual under the same roof.”

Mrs. Dormer orders the slave Dinah, who, Clarissa falsely accused of lying, to be beaten until hunks of flesh come off her back. Miss Melville tries to stop her, but without success. Clarissa Dormer; or The Advantages of a Good Education (London: J. Harris, 1806) plate 2. Cotsen 26219.

Dinah pleads for the lives of Miss Melville and Clarissa the night the slaves rebel. Clarissa Dormer, plate 3. Cotsen 26129.

These four works demonstrate what rich sources children’s books can be in documenting early nineteenth-century attitudes about the institution of slavery.


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