the great clamour about the cultivation of sugar//
On Wednesday February 26th 1845 inside the House of Commons, the Rt Honourable Thomas Babington Macaulay, MP for Edinburgh, was preparing to deliver a speech entitled, 'Duties in Sugar'. The great historian had prepared an address that sought to air and debate issues that troubled the sugar industry – the most pressing being the disturbing topic of slave labour.
“We lie, it seems, under a moral obligation to make a distinction between the produce of free labour and the produce of slave labour” he opined.
News of tyranny and cruelty emerging from the West Indian plantations were troublesome and raised questions of morality within a thriving industrial landscape. The Honourable Gentleman was not blind to righteous action pertaining to the origins of the burgeoning sugar industry, but nor was he able to cap and stem the flow of raw materials flooding into Britain's refineries.
“I will not have two standards of right, one to be applied when I wish to replenish the Exchequer, and to give impulse to trade. I will not blow hot and cold, play fast and loose, strain at a knat and swallow a camel.”
This talk of trade under the lash angered the future Prime Minister of Britain, The Rt. Honourable William Ewart Gladstone who exclaimed, “You raise a great clamour about the cultivation of sugar.” Gladstone’s family used slaves on their West Indian plantation and he was vehemently against reform that would affect his family’s interest there. It seemed that, whilst all were aware of the intolerable conditions endured by slaves harvesting sugar, tobacco and cotton, the coffers of the British Empire and welfare of its people were to take precedence over the moral debate.
“I am bound,” said Macaulay, “on the other hand, by the most solemn obligation, to promote the interests of millions of my own countrymen, who are not indeed in a state so intolerable and degraded as that of the American States, but who are toiling hard from sunrise to sunset in order to obtain a scanty subsistence, who are so often able to produce the necessaries of life, and whose lot would be alleviated if I could open new markets to them, and free them from taxes which now press heavily on their industry.”
While the debate raged on through the years in relation to this “Machiiavellian policy of perfidious albion” and a year after Mr. Gladstone became Prime Minister, one Mr. Walter Kinipple began the process of designing a sugar warehouse in Greenock’s James Watt Dock on the banks of the Clyde. Under the supervision of Architect and Engineer W.R. Kinipple, the warehouses were constructed in red brick with yellow ornamentation adorning the window surrounds, pilasters, corners and gables. his magnificent eight storey building, with its coloured brick nod to medieval Italian Polychrome, was a cathedral to the industry it was constructed to serve; a perfect example of ‘form follows function,’ where the governing principle is that a construction should be designed with its intended function in mind. Five years after the foundation stone was laid in 1881 the dock opened in August 1886 almost £642,000 over its intended budget. The cast iron colonnade at the front of the sheds provided cover as a sheltered unloading area from 1883 to June 1992, when the vessel ‘Fidelity’ unloaded the very last cargo onto the James Watt Dock.
In the intervening 109 years, Greenock saw 14 sugar houses in operation in an expansion of an already established sugar industry. In these early days, if you stood looking west on Tobago Street, the chimneys of Walkers sugarhouse rose above the refinery building on Princes Street, dwarfing the spire of the West Kirk Church.
As the clamour of the sugar industry fell silent, the only echo remaining was the legacy of street names; Tobago, Jamaica, Virginia and Sugarhouse Lane.
It took a collective of eight artists to find that long lost voice for the creative history of sugar in Inverclyde. Absent Voices is a collaborative project led by Artist Alec Galloway, whose Great Grandfather Alexander Cochrane was killed in the 1941 blitz, when Walkers Sugar Refinery took a direct hit from a German bomb. Using their preferred artistic disciplines from Fine Art to Poetry, Film and Music, Alec Galloway, Alastair Cook, Alan Carlisle, Anne McKay, Kevin McDermott, Rod Miller, Ryan King and Yvonne Lyon have sought to explore and preserve this history.
This is the journey of the Absent Voices 8.