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Bitter Sweet Sugar

Bitter Sweet Sugar

By Caroline Verdant

After our London City Airport campaign win, the door opened for my school, St. Antony’s Catholic Primary, to engage with Tate & Lyle, where I found myself sitting at the table with Britain’s most iconic sugar company, based in our borough of Newham.

What immediately comes to mind when you hear the word ‘sugar’?

Sweets? Chocolate? Dessert? Perhaps, a diet.

For me - it’s sugar cane.

At the age of 4, I remember once standing in the middle of a field, watching my dad chop sugar cane. It was my first trip to Barbados, where sucking on fresh and raw, sweet sugar cane is one of my fondest memories. “White Gold” is what they called it; named so because of the great wealth, fame and status it produced for Barbados - the richest of all European colonies throughout the West Indies.

However, I also learned many horrendous stories - about the treatment of my forefathers, who worked as slaves on plantations. Slave labour was of course the cheapest way to produce sugar, and turn a profit.

During the 18th century, sugar was a powerful commodity which came at a great human cost. Chained and crammed onto slave ships for journeys that would last anywhere between 6 to 11 weeks, it was expected that some slaves would die during the voyage from Africa. For those that made it to the cane fields of the Caribbean, they would be branded and spend the rest of their days beneath the hot West-Indian sun, planting and harvesting sugar cane, from dawn to dusk. Whilst suffering from malnutrition and tropical diseases, slaves were often whipped for not working hard enough. As the most labour intensive crop, 70% of slaves brought to the ‘New World’ were indentured to producing sugar. For this reason, it’s hard to separate sugar from slavery.

Even though the UK abolished slavery 188 years ago, its legacy still lives on to this day. It was only in 2015 where the debt incurred by compensation to Britain’s slave owners was finally paid off, at cost to the British taxpayer. This is a debt that I have contributed to settling for the past 32 of years of my life; a legacy I was born into, as a British-Bajan woman.

Being the only black person sitting at the table with the leaders in the UK’s sugar industry (since 1878), Tate & Lyle’s commitment towards paying the Real Living Wage speaks volumes to me. Their accreditation is far more than just a positive step towards economic equality, but very much also a step towards racial equality—a step towards reversing a cycle that has lasted for centuries by ensuring every worker is lifted up from in-work-poverty, and given back a sense of dignity.

While our students weren’t directly involved in this campaign, they were recognised by Tate & Lyle’s director and Local Affairs Manager; who both praised the children’s performance of their song ‘Realise’ and their campaign achievements. For my role as a mother and a teacher at St. Antony’s, it is essential that every child learns there are no barriers to what they can pursue or accomplish. By leveraging the power and unity of voices through Community Organising, neither their age, colour, cultural background or socio-economic status can dictate which path in life they choose to take.

Posted by Aanisah Khan on 25 Mar, 2021