Photo Credit: Nina Verdon
This strange looking implement, somewhere between a pair of pincers and a pair of scissors, is one of the objects that Isobel King (our Community Engagement Curator) likes to take out of the handling boxes and present to school children. She will ask them what they think it is, and they are mostly completely baffled. The object in question is a sugar nip.
There are several pairs of sugar nips listed in the museum’s collection, and were an everyday domestic item until advances in sugar production made them redundant. They are more like pincers, with sharp blades designed to cut sugar from a block, the sugar loaf. Sugar cubes and granulated sugar arrived in the second half of the nineteenth century, and therefore we can say that they were in use the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The ones in the photograph are listed as Victorian.
Sugar consumption in Britain
Sugar nips were not only something that graced the kitchens of the well-off. According to Sidney Mintz, the poorest families in Britain were taking sugar in their tea in the mid-1800s, and there was jam on their tables too (made with three-quarters sugar, one-quarter fruit pulp). Slavery made sugar cheaper, and the cheaper it became, the more central it became to the British diet.
Mintz has provided estimates of sugar consumption at the turn of the last few centuries. He estimates that Britain’s per capita consumption of sugar was as follows:
- 1704: 4lbs
- 1800: 18lbs
- 1901: 90lbs
To keep these figures in context, today, the consumption is around 106lbs per person – or 22 teaspoons of sugar per week. It is no wonder that sugar was referred to as ‘white gold’.
White gold and slavery
Sugar came from vast plantations in the Caribbean and South America, with high levels of demand from Britain and other European countries – although Britain seems to have had the sweetest tooth. The lack of labour in the Islands meant that huge numbers of Africans were trafficked to work as slaves on the plantations. 70% of those enslaved ended up working on sugar plantations. The sugar that would have ended up on a Cornish kitchen table in the early 1800s would have come from slave labour.
It is well-documented that the conditions for slaves was terrible, but a good summing up of the life of a slave and the conditions they faced was made in a speech given by abolitionist Thomas Clark (in 1840).
In 1807 the British parliament passed the Slave Trade Act, but it did not prevent slaves being used – merely traded. It was only in 1833, with the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act that made slavery illegal, finally bringing it to an end. However, there is more to this story. In 1837, parliament passed another act, the Slave Compensation Act, where £20million was set aside to compensate the British slave owners for having to surrender their slaves. There was no compensation to the slaves themselves.
In 1837, this was an extraordinary amount of money, representing some 5% of GDP and 40% of the Treasury’s funds. The Government of the day therefore took out loans to pay for the compensation payments – which were finally repaid by the British taxpayer in 2015. Of the £20million compensation fund, 50% was paid to absentee owners and beneficiaries. Those not living on the plantations, but back home in Britain. The records that were made at the time are extremely detailed (the British excelled at bureaucracy) and there has been a fascinating project by University College London to examine and collate these records (link provided at the end of this article).
Cornwall and the compensation payments
The database lists 34 individuals with addresses in Cornwall who made application for recompense for their slaves. Not all were successful. It should not be thought of as an easy process to go through, and there were often claims and counter-claims. For example, the Webbe families in Mylor and Flushing (where I live) were unsuccessful in their bids. The largest settlement for their estates in Nevis seems to have gone to their creditors.
George Munro (Falmouth) was dead at the time that the compensation act was issued, but the claim for 315 slaves on his Alness Estate in Berbice (Guyana) was settled at a little over £19,000. It was paid to his surviving relative, his nephew, Robert Robertson who lived in Scotland. This payment is the equivalent of £2million today.
Perhaps the most widely talked about claim in Cornwall is the use of slave money in the National Trust’s Trengwainton House, linked to compensation paid to Sir Rose-Price, 1st Baronet. Rose-Price was pro-slavery and seems to have been pretty ruthless. After his death, the house had to be sold, and the National Trust inherited it from the Bolitho family, not Rose-Price.
‘No sugar for me’
According to an article written by Julyan Drew, the Cornish were perhaps early adopters of ‘people power’, motivated by John Wesley, the Methodist preacher. Wesley was anti-slavery, writing extensively on the subject, encouraging his followers to make a protest against slavery by refusing to have sugar in their tea. Drew’s account claims that there are still people in Methodist congregations in Cornwall who will not take sugar on the word of John Wesley.
The hidden story of the sugar nip
When considering the questions raised in this series, Under the Eaves, this curious domestic object, common in Victorian households, has links to a trade that most of us today find abhorrent. Many believe that sugar was an item of luxury in the Victorian times, but it is simply not the case. The spoils of slavery were central in the British diet of the day.
Volunteer Researcher and Citizen Curator 2020
For anyone wanting to discover more about the following subjects, click on the highlighted text below:
Legacies of British Slave Ownership and the slave compensation payments
‘No sugar for me’ and John Wesley