Gt Gramp’s Diary #4: Sugar and rum production as was.

In which Gramps gives a first-hand account of sugar production in the 1840’s as a Book-keeper in Jamaica on a large sugar plantation.

“…I arrived at Pembroke Estate just in time to settle down before the crop time began when everybody is busy, and found Mr. Favours (the “Busha”) expecting me, I had the honour of dining with him in the “Great House” that afternoon and slept there that night. The next morning I was introduced to my own apartment in the “Book-Keeper’s Barracks”. This building, on a hill some 200 yards from the great house (as the Busha’s residence is called) was in slave time the negro hospital. It was a building with upper and lower rooms, two in each flat – the lower being used as lumber rooms for old hogsheads, a few bricks, a barrel or two of lime and animal charcoal for sugar purifying purposes, and in one of them we used to boil our coffee when we indulged in the unusual luxury. A sort of step-ladder outside leads to the upper rooms, which opened on to a small wooden landing place with rails round it and a roof overhead.

Two doors from this gave into the two rooms, one of which was the residence of my brother book-keeper, Mr. Grant, and his wife, both Creole Quadroons, and the other was assigned to me. They were both large, airy rooms, and Mr. Grant had divided his, by boarding, into a sitting, and bedroom, both of course small.

The railed-in outside landing about 8 x 6 feet being our common sitting room. My apartment had no ceiling, and the two windows showed 10 vacancies and 14 panes of glass. The furniture consisted of one small cross-legged table with about a hundred of my predecessors names carved thereon with various flourishes and faces, with “elegant extracts” scribbled in ink both black and red. Between the two book keepers there was one tin wash-hand basin and corresponding jug without handle. I omit one tumbler, as the old negress who inducted me claimed it as having been clandestinely taken from her master – the Busha’s – sideboard.

7th February 1848: Crop began this morning. A gang of some 120 negroes, male and female, after roll-call marching off to a cane field and cutting the canes close to the ground with machets” (a sort of cutlass). Cattle wains were ready to carry these to the mill, which consists of three wire rollers – placed vertically, the middle one being worked by cross levers above to the 6 arms of which 6 mules are harnessed, the driver sitting in the middle and usually singing at the top of his voice, while other men fed the rollers (which are connected by cogs) from below.

The cane-juice thus pressed out runs down a gutter to the boiling house where it falls into large vats and after being clarified by boiling with the addition of lime and animal charcoal, runs into a second copper and thence is ladled into 3rd, 4th, 5th and lastly into the 6th which is directly over the furnace, here, after the boiling and skimming the liquor has undergone in the cooler boilers, it is pure sugar with the molasses in it. At a certain point of boiling known only by great experience, this boiler which is made movable, is hoisted by a crane and the contents poured out into large wooden coolers where it granulates in a day or two and is then “potted” into hogsheads fitted with reeds sticking up from 4 holes in the cask, these when the sugar hardens a little are withdrawn to allow the molasses to drain out.

Sugar smuggling in 1848, West Indian style.
Sugar smuggling in 1848, West Indian style.

The sugar then sinks some 15 inches in the hogshead and as the negresses are locked in, while this process is in hand, they cannot attend to the nutriment of their infants, they therefore bring them into the boiling house and while they are “potting” one row of casks deposit their naked darlings in those that have sunk sufficiently to be safe and cool cradles, and thus they can play with, and lick, the sugar at pleasure, and though some folk might object to the custom on the score of preserving the purity of the sugar, I do not remember any complaints having been received from the English consignees! And it is astonishing how the little fellows thrive upon it! We found it necessary to keep an eye on the mothers when potting sugar as they often asked leave for a few minutes to have a whiff of tobacco, and on their return were frequently observed to be much more voluminous on going out than on returning! The head boiling-house man had leave to squeeze or otherwise examine any suspiciously prominent feature before they were allowed to go, and many pounds of sugar were thus recovered from the inside of the single garment kept in place by the petticoat string, and tho’ “the scent of the b(l)os(s)om would hang round it still” we received no complaint of the flavour being injured!

The Busha’s dog too used to prey upon the sugar and grow fat by licking it while it was lying in the coolers.

The molasses drained from the hogshead in the way I described was allowed to run down to the “still house” I have where, after being mixed with the washings and scrapings of everything “sugary” it was left in vats, which were dug in the floor and lined with boards, to ferment. These vats were also used as receptacles for the remains of our breakfasts, sucked oranges, chewed sugar cane, and anything it was desirable to get rid of. A thieving cat had often breathed her last in one of them! When fermentation reached a certain point the contents of the vats (of which there were 16) were “loaded” into the still, under the Head Book Keeper, who had to lock himself into the still house till the process was completed, the “low wines” being converted by a second distillation into “high wines”, and by a third into rum, then after being coloured by burnt sugar and brought down to a certain strength it was put into casks for exportation.


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