Absent voices…

sugar warehouse, Greenock dock

Several times a week we drive past some old buildings on what is left of the old docks in Greenock, known as the sugar sheds. These cavernous places are remnants of the once mighty Greenock sugar industry, in which huge quantities of the stuff was brought down the Clyde from the colonies in the West Indies to be converted into all the stuff that we are now addicted to.

The buildings are stunning- like vast Cathedrals, with light filtering down from high windows. It has massive cast iron doors and columns that shout out with Victorian pride.

More recently I have been looking forward to a project called Absent Voices, which has gathered together artists poets and musicians to this end;

Absent Voices is an artist-led project centred on the Scottish town of Greenock, telling the creative story of Greenock’s sugar industry. Using the category A listed Sugar Sheds on James Watt Dock as a catalyst, eight artists are working within the community and reaching out to the wider world. Absent Voices is principally funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
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The artists in Absent Voices are:Alec Galloway, Greenock born glass artist & musician; Alastair Cook, an established Edinburgh-based artist; Anne McKay, a Gourock based painter and folklore archivist; Rod Miller, a Greenock artist and photographer; Yvonne Lyon, a musician & songwriter of international renown; Kevin McDermott, singer songwriter of Kevin McDermott Orchestra; Ryan King, glass artist and musician and Alan Carlisle, glass artist and recording engineer.
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The Sugar Sheds is category A-listed building which sits at James Watt Dock in Greenock: this vast red-brick and cast-iron former sugar warehouse with its distinctive zig-zag exterior sits in the shadow of Greenock’s Titan Crane and opposite Greenock Morton FC’s Cappielow Stadium. It has not been used for sugar-making since the 1960s. Its doors were shut on sugar completely in the mid 1990s. Prince Charles is a known supporter of retaining the former sugar warehouse and even visited the building in 2002 to add his voice to a campaign to save it from demolition. Despite several attempt to demolish it and a fire in 2006, it has now been made wind and watertight and part of it is currently used as storage space. The building was used as a venue during the 2011 Tall Ships Race, which opened many eyes to its potential as a space which could be used for public events.
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Old gate, sugar warehouse, Greenock dock
I scoued the Absent Voices website, and there is hardly a mention of the despicable origins of the sugar cane that was being processed in Greenock. The voices that seemed well and truly absent were those whose lives were lived in service of the plantations where the sugar was grown.
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The notable exception I am proud to say, appeared to be our friend Yvonne Lyon, who has included slave songs in her exploration of songs of work. (However, it later turned out that the website might not fully represent the actual content of the exhibition- see below!)
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I am particularly sensitive to this because of the debate around this rock on the shore a few hundred meters from my front door. It is a legacy of a time when our relationship with colonial exploitation and oppression made it possible, if not essential to regard the ‘others’ as less than human.
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In case you think I am making a bit of a mountain out of a molehill, check out the Scottish government’s own description of the Triangular trade, from their own website. Here are a few bits that are relevant to Greenock;
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…from the 1750s onwards ships did leave from Port Glasgow and Greenock for the triangular trade, often transporting enslaved Africans to Virginia as well as the Caribbean.
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After the American War of Independence the slave trade was consolidated into the ports of London and Liverpool, and Scottish investors and merchants invested through those routes. A steady direct trade was maintained with the Americas with the importing of slave-produced goods throughout the period and beyond.
.There are dominant architectural reminders of Scotland’s importance in the trading of sugar produced by enslaved labour, such as giant sugar warehouses in Greenock. Leading up to 1813 – 1814 one of the largest sugar companies in the world operated from Greenock. These warehouses signify the major role of Scottish plantation owners.
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By the early 19th century they owned a third of the plantations in Jamaica (which was the largest producer of sugar).The British Islands of the Caribbean and the colonies of the Americas were owned and run by British settlers and administrators. It was common for merchants in Britain to establish their own plantations or create relationships with agreed suppliers for plantation goods. Therefore it was British people who bought, sold, and oversaw the enslaved.
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Networks or communities were often established that resulted from ties back home. Alexander Horsburgh, the surgeon with responsibility for business affairs on the Hannover, noted in his journal in 1720, that there was an established Scottish network in Barbados, Antigua and St Kitts. The Hannover sailed from Port Glasgow and Horsburgh was instructed by its Scottish owners which Scottish plantation owners to contact with his cargo of enslaved Africans. These included Colonel William McDowall of Wigtonshire, a plantation owner on St Kitts.

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Lady Nugent, the wife of the one time Governor of Jamaica, also noted the high presence of the Scotsmen on the islands. That Scottish presence started in the early years of the colonies and continued. Mrs Alison Blyth noted on her visit to Jamaica in 1826 that:

“…the Lord indeed knoweth. I always thought that wherever I went I would be proud of my country but here I feel almost ashamed to say I am a native of Scotland, when I see how her sons have degenerated”.

In telling the story of the Sugar Sheds, I am genuinely staggered to hear that this dark history of the sugar trade was not in any way engaged with in a meaningful way. Sure, the Sheds were built well after the slave trade officially ended, but they were built using wealth and prosperity that still cost the lives of hundreds of thousands, and represent the rich corner of a triangle of misery. The people cutting the sugar may no longer have been slaves, but the lives of the freed workers of the Caribbean were if anything made worse by the abolition of slavery.

During my lunch break today however, I took a walk to the McLean Museum to actually visit the Absent Voices exhibition. I looked at the paintings, listened to the songs and watched some of video footage. It was really lovely, and a large part of the content clearly confronted the relationship of the sugar trade to slavery. It was art at its best- asking uncomfortable questions and making us confront issues that lie buried.

Why is this central part of the exhibition missing from the publicity and the website? Was it ‘mission creep’ from what was intended only to focus on a local Greenock landmark? Certainly there are not Caribean or African artists involved in the project.

I was particularly moved by Anne McKay’s paintings, some of which feature the spirits of the slaves in the hills looking down over Greenock…

If you get a chance, go along and take a look.

Light from top window, sugar warehouse, Greenock dock

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