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This is a story about a benevolent custom on repeat. About the burnt sugar smell of rum on your breath, and the wolves from hell inflaming your heart with greed. Greed for cubes of sugar winking like stars. Greed for the irresistible sickness of sweet cane syrup.

Greed, Sheree Mack, 2014

In my capacity as writer in residence at the Lit and Phil, I was tasked with linking up with the local museum which had a special South African exhibition on over the summer of 2012. I was hoping to have Gérard Rudolf there but he had returned home to South Africa a few years before. Before he left for home, he collaborated with Alastair Cook on a number of filmpoems. As the next best thing, Gérard suggested I get in touch with Alastair to get a screening organised for the night in question. Alastair has a very commanding manner. I was hoping to just get a DVD though the post but he insisted on coming down and screening them himself. All 4 of them. This was in June. By the August, I was visiting Alastair in Dunbar, while he was artist in residence at the MacArthur Store. This was when the famous collodion image of me was created, on an overcast Saturday with my screaming daughter on my lap. Alastair went on to commission me to create a poem for the then Absent Voices filmpoem project which saw six poets re-inhabits the abandoned Greenock Sugar Sheds with six films. We created Every Memory with musical support from Luca Nasciuti.
Palms ©Sheree Mack 2014

Palms ©Sheree Mack 2014

Now we reach 2014, and once again Alastair commissioned me to create three new poems in relation in to the sheds, but more so exploring the hidden dark histories, the connections of sugar to the Caribbean and West African through the transatlantic slave trade and slavery. In all honesty, this was probably my hardest commission to date. The weight of responsibility upon my shoulders in voicing this history as well as wanting to truly honour and respect this devastating past was at times crippling. There are so many different narratives and angles to this long history of slavery making it difficult to know where to start and where the end. Which issues or stories should receive that light of attention? Which issues could translate to a contemporary audience? For me it always has to be about the body. A body once free then captured. Within captivity, this body experienced very little agency or comfort. This body bore the brunt of enslavement through physical, emotional, sexual and psychological abuse. What everything boiled down to was how much value could be forced out of this one body. Just a body. The next step was thinking about the relationships, those connections between the body and other bodies. Those power relations that were a given, that could not be challenged or changed. The only power the enslaved body had was through its removal by any means necessary. With the first slaves, taken onto the big ship destined for the New World, the story goes that when the shackles were taken off they just floated up and flew back home. Through experience, the ship’s crew learned their lesson. From then on, they kept the cargo chained within the belly of the ship. After their first meal of salted fish, the crew saw that the slaves could not fly. I like to think that this story is true. I give hope to the idea that the enslaved body could somehow be free by rejecting the state of life that it was forced into. I like to hope that they, the individuals who were kidnapped, stolen and breed in slavery were keeping some part of themselves free from all shackles through thinking about sky or dreaming of walking home across the ocean floor.

You can touch me now. I have made myself stone. […] You can touch me. The wild current running under my heart you cannot touch.

Touched, Sheree Mack, 2014

James Watt Dock ©CJHurst 2014

Free Drawing Tour: Saturday 15th March 2014

Anne Mckay and Rod Miller will once more lead you into the sheds for three hours of drawing fun. Graphite and charcoal, industrial architecture, river side views, figure work, it’s all happening at the Sugar Sheds. As ever the event is FREE and all materials will be supplied by the Absent Voices project. Contact Anne Mckay or Rod Miller to be book your place as numbers are limited. Leave a message on our Facebook Event page, ‘like’ the event, click ‘going’ or send a text to Rod on 07765419421, you can also email or
from Voyage Autour Monde – Histories Du Voyage, L. I. Duperry (1826) from The Lit and Phil, Newcastle upon-Tyne

Greenock and the Slave Trade

by Sheree Mack. It is difficult to approach the subject of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery without having some prior knowledge. Be that extensive or patchy knowledge, it is difficult to pay attention to the objects or the peoples involved without making judgements, fitting them into our preconceived categories. When we can put aside these preoccupations, the subject of slavery has something new to show us – something that is beneficial to us in some way. When we open ourselves up to the truths of this trade, we allow ourselves to be taught about the peoples involved. We might begin to realise that we had a particular role to play in the history of the slave trade. We might feel moved by the harsh realities of the trade that we might start to want to know more and go on to share what we learn with others. Becoming engaged, becoming conscious always involves hearing some new truth. We can open ourselves up to this truth in many different ways. It helps if we stay curious. It helps if we are willing to listen to what history has to tell us and then learn from it.

On January 23 1772, a petition was brought to the magistrates and council of the Burgh of Ayr. James and Robert Hunter, brothers and Ayr‘s foremost tobacco merchants, had a proposal that they needed the council to sign off on. It read:

‘That whereas the demand for sugar, both raw and refined, was very considerable from this town and the neighbouring county connected with it, and large sums of money were yearly remitted to Glasgow, Greenock, London, Bristol and Liverpool for these articles; the petitioners were humbly of opinion that it would be of much public and private benefit that raw sugars were imported here from the Colonies, and a sugar house erected in this place for refining them’.
rom Voyage Autour Monde  – Histories Du Voyage,  L. I. Duperry (1826) from The Lit and Phil, Newcastle upon-Tyne

from Voyage Autour Monde – Histories Du Voyage, L. I. Duperry (1826) from The Lit and Phil, Newcastle upon-Tyne

The facts are that both the Scottish and English owned land in the West Indies and the east coast of America from the 1600s. This land they cleared for planting tobacco and sugar. They could only run these plantations by working the native people and indentured servants to their death. Following the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England, Scottish merchants joined the

English trade routes including ‘the triangular trade’.

Goods such as cloth, copper and guns were shipped from Britain to West Africa. These were sold or exchanged for Africans. These African’s were taken from their homeland shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the West Indies or America where they were sold into slavery. The enslaved Africans worked on the plantations, producing raw materials such as sugar, rum,

tobacco and cotton. These raw goods were then shipped to Britain to feed the growing markets. So was ‘the triangle trade’ and Port Glasgow and Greenock were two major trading ports in this trade.

 from Voyage Autour Monde  – Histories Du Voyage,  L. I. Duperry (1826) from The Lit and Phil, Newcastle upon-Tyne

from Voyage Autour Monde – Histories Du Voyage,
Vue de l’ile de L’Ascension L. I. Duperry (1826) from The Lit and Phil, Newcastle upon-Tyne

The sugar trade between the Clyde and the West Indies began about 1732. 1775 saw the total sugar imports amounting to no more than 4,000 tons. Greenock saw a small proportion of this. But less than 80 years later, Greenock boasted refineries where 700 men were employed and turned out 50,000 tons annually. It was largest depot for raw material in the kingdom.

What happened between 1775 and 1852?

A cane monopoly strangled supplies to Britain with the East India Company restricting refiners outside of London, but when these were withdrawn in 1834 the imports from Manila and the East Indies were enlarged. By the 1850s, there was only London and Greenock in the Empire

carrying on the trade. Couple this with a massive increase in demand in the UK for sugar and the Clyde refineries were kept in business and grew. 2

These are the facts and figures. These can be easily found within the books, articles and documents detailing this part of British history. What is not so easy to discover are the people, their lives, both white and black, who are behind these facts and figures, or fallen between the cracks and gaps. Those who had position and the power to write history factored themselves into these records. Their names will be passed on throughout the generations. But what about those people who were powerless? What about those people who did not have the opportunity, for one reason or another, to have their story recorded and passed on?

This is where Absent Voices can do some good; to fill in the gaps in history, to approach the subject of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in new initiative ways and reveal some new truths.

1 Both images taken from Voyage Autour Monde – Histories Du Voyage, L. I. Duperry (1826) from The Lit and Phil, Newcastle upon-Tyne
2 Robert Murray Smith – The History of Greenock – Published 1921 This download text is provided by the McLean Museum and Art Gallery, Greenock – © 2009
Sheree Mack ©Alastair Cook 2013

Introducing Sheree Mack

Picture  ©Alastair Cook 2013 I am coming up to my tenth year of blogging. Apparently, blogging turns 20 this year too. I can still remember the first blog I wrote. The purpose was to spread the word, keeping people updated about the development of a newly created group of writers. We presented a professional and informative face that meant keeping people at the distance. Things have changed since then. Now blogging is all about making a connection with your readers. I’m always drawn into reading other people’s blogs. Favourite and popular blogs are where an individual shares the light and shade of their life. Blogs that are open, honest and emotional, rooted in real experiences are the blogs that the reader can forge that vital connection and return to. If I go away from reading a blog having learnt something new at the same time as feeling something, then I am a satisfied customer. Sharing our stories and experiences with one another helps us feel less alone. It is also a great way of transforming the ideas, thoughts, and plans that are jumbled up in our heads into a tangible form. Through the writing, things become clearer. A blog is less a diary and more a magazine, a place where you can document projects, curate images and words, sharing motivations, research findings and outcomes. Here is where you will read the Absent Voices blog. This is where you will find the life and the heart of the project. I intend to gather the threads together from all the artists involved in the project and weave a rich tapestry of what is happening behind the scenes as well as the front of house as the project progresses towards the grand finale in November 2014. There’ll be lots of blog posts about ideas as well as interviews with the artists involved. There will be feedback on activities facilitated as well as details about that vital community engagement in all parts of this project. Absent Voices, the project, would continue to be silent without community involvement, thank you. Keep checking back as this blog continues to be updated.

Drawing Tour: January 25th 2014

Lose yourself in the majesty and history of our sugar industry heritage. Local artists Rod Miller and Anne McKay will take you through some classic drawing techniques and some history of the sugar sheds. It doesn’t matter if you think you can’t draw, we’ll show you how. We’ve already had people on the first two tours that thought they couldn’t draw but found out they could. The session is free and all materials will be supplied by us and what we give you, you can take with you at the end so that you can carry on drawing and sketching. Booking details can be found on Facebook.
©Anne McKay 2013

Sugar Loaves at All Saints Primary

Absent Voices artists Anne McKay and Rod Miller, with sonic assistance from Kevin McDermott ran a series of workshops with All Saints Primary exploring the Sugar Industry from source to transport to refining , then production. This was featured in the Greenock Telegraph on 6th January. The pupils designed and made  their own Sugar Loaf. The finished loaves were even dipped in Sugar from Barbados. Thanks to Abbie Thorne from The McLean Museum for her input.
©Anne McKay 2013

Sugar Loaves at All Saints Primary.

©Anne McKay 2013

Workshops at All Saints Primary.

©Anne McKay 2013

Workshops at All Saints Primary

©Anne McKay 2013

Workshops at All Saints Primary