Locks to Legacies Stop Two
Sugar and Tobacco were very profitable products which Britain forced enslaved people to produce in the Americas. The profits they earnt made much money for people in the UK and supported the industrial expansion of Britain. Sugar and Tobacco were both sold in vast quantities to the people of Leeds. This market created large amounts of wealth for British people, however we must not forget the hidden costs behind this.
I’m going to tell you about sugar and Leeds. In the 18th century Leeds had a newspaper called “The Leeds Intelligentsia” which is Latin for intelligence. In 1785 the Intelligentsia listed items arriving in Leeds from the Caribbean and Virgina via Liverpool. This included 17 large wooden barrels known as hogshead filled with goods such as the white crystalised treasure – sugar. These valuable crystals, which would make huge profits for white traders and businessmen here in Leeds, carried with them an inhumane history – largely unknown by those purchasing and satisfying their sugar fix.
Sugar is a very labour intensive plant, and also an addictive substance. As people became addicted, demand grew and grew. In order to make as much money as possible white business men established plantations and used enslaved Africans to grow, harvest and process sugar. Cutting the sugar was back breaking work, as machetes were needed to cut it from the plant. The hours were long as the harvest period was short which meant they would work throughout the night during harvest. Enslaved people were also forced to process the raw sugar cane in boiling vats by huge fires, this work was life threatening.
Over centuries many lies have been told about the enslaved African people. These lies often said they didn’t mind being enslaved. Let me set the record straight – The enslaved Africans resisted slavery at every opportunity, there where constant attempts at escaping slavery by individuals, and wide spread revolutionary movements which sort to abolish slavery entirely. For instance the first colony in the world to abolish slavery and claim independence was Haiti, and this was done by the enslaved people the selves. Although European history books generally claim that it was the abolition movement here in Britain that ended slavery, it can be argued that the enslaved people freed themselves through their own persistent uprisings, self-defence and fighting back in the Carribean and Africa.
One ingenious example of how African people freed themselves is how women mapped sugar and tobacco plantations and escape routes into their children’s cornrows to help them find their way to freedom. This took skill, talent and courage. The list in the Leeds intelligentsia I mentioned before is just one example of the many goods that came to Leeds. These made money not just for the people who owned plantations, enslaved people and ships, but also for people in Leeds. Factory workers and shopkeepers all benefited from the slavery involved in sugar production. The contribution that African people have made to Leeds is huge. I think most people don’t know about this and so there is not enough praise or respect given to those who were enslaved. We should say thank you in memory of when we look at the Victorian buildings in Leeds we should remember those people and their contribution to Leeds.
Moving slightly away from the water we are going to learn about a house in Leeds, which is situated on the Leeds University campus. This house was originally called Virginia Cottage after the American state where the source of their family’s wealth came from. The Boyne family moved into this house in 1826. Tobacco was harvested and grown on plantations that the Boyne family owned in Virginia. The Boynes created huge profits by enslaving Africans on their tobacco plantations. Across the city of Leeds people benefited from enslavement of black Africans, and employment opportunities were created in Leeds when the tobacco was processed here. As manufacturing increased and demand for tobacco increased in Leeds, there was an expansion of slavery in the Americas.
In 1844 a white abolitionist called Wilson Armitage bought Virginia Cottage, and he was a lead member of the Leeds Anti-Slavery Association founded in 1853. He also wrote a book called, “A Tribute for The Negro” in 1848. This book was in support of abolition. Wilson Armitage created opportunities for black voices to be heard in Leeds. For instance he provided a safe house for those who had managed to escape enslavement. He also created a platform for them to share their experiences first hand.
One notable visitor was Sarah Parker Reymond. She was a black woman born free in New York who travelled to Britain to tell people about the horrendous conditions for enslaved women on plantations. There was no justice for these women who would face sexual abuse on the plantations by white male slave owners and white overseers. This remarkable woman spoke to many different audiences here in Britain. She spoke to both the factory worker’s in the Young Men’s Anti-Slavery Society, as well as women in high society. If you want to hear us discuss whether young people today understand why it is important to be an ethical consumer then please tune in to our podcast episode 2, by following the link on your mobile phone.