Sugar Machines: How Archives in Glasgow hold pieces of Caribbean History

Guest blog post by Dr Christine Whyte, Lecturer in Global History, University of Glasgow

On 20 May, in response to the #MuseumsUnlocked discussion, Twitter user @j4lebi asked:

It strikes me that conversations tend to centre around “loot”. These are, of course, crucial – but I would like us to have more critical conversations re: items taken “legitimately” in colonial contexts.[1]

Last year, at the University of Glasgow archives, we were trying to address this question (though we didn’t know it at the time). In late June 2019, a group of archivists, historians, biologists and engineers were taking a close look at the records of Mirrlees Watson & Co Ltd, a 19th century sugar machinery manufacturer based in Glasgow.[2] Our colleagues from the University of the West Indies, archivists Sharon Alexander-Gooding and Sonia Black, were part of the group and introduced exactly this question. People resident in the UK benefit from easy and free access to a wealth of materials, which were generated by the deeply exploitative, and unequal administration of colonial rule, conduct of trade, and exchange of knowledge. How can this be overcome? As the current pandemic and lockdown exacerbates existing inequalities, the question becomes more urgent. Access, control, security: all unevenly and unfairly distributed – what next steps can we take to redress the balance for the future?

Senior archivist at the University of Glasgow, Moira Rankin, selected a particular archival collection for the group to discuss. The records are made up of two parts: the ledgers and account-books of a thriving business and the enormous and detailed sketches of machinery parts. We looked at a sample of both.

Technical drawing of a feed and retention valve, 1870
University of Glasgow Archives, Mirrlees Watson Co Ltd Archive, UGD202/3406

“Where are the people?”

The first thing you notice about the drawings is the language of human anatomy and food which recurs throughout. The machines have “mouths” which are filled by “feeders”. Discussion was sober, as we thought about the hands and mouths these machines were deployed to replace. It is no coincidence that the company started business in the wake of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Founded in 1840, just two years after the end of the apprenticeship scheme which held enslaved people in continued bondage in the British Caribbean, the machines made in Glasgow provided a new source of free labour for sugar plantation owners keen to preserve their profit margins.[3]

These records of orders for parts also brought to mind the people who maintained and repaired the machines. Which people, now legally emancipated from enslavement, remained on the plantations to repair and maintain the machines who took over from their fellow workers? The group reflected on the dehumanization of the records, and how this mirrored the depopulation of the plantation as the people whose work had nurtured the land were pushed to the margins.[4]

“That is where the Prime Minister lives”

The geography of the records reveals the diverse history of the Caribbean. One of the records, selected by Sharon Alexander-Gooding to be part of the Call and Response Exhibition, shows a drawing of a boiler part sent from the Vale Royal Estate, signed by an HS.[5] Vale Royal Estate, formerly known as “Prospect Pen” in Kingston, Jamaica, is now the official residence of the Prime Minister of Jamaica, wince the government took it over from the British colonial governor.[6] The residence was once at the centre of a forced labour camp where enslaved people were forced to grow and process sugar. In 1833, its owner Simon Taylor received reparations, for the freedom of the people he enslaved. It then became a sugar plantation after emancipation. HS, whoever they were, drew this detailed schematic on that plantation and sent it off for craft workers in Glasgow to replicate. Stories beyond and after slavery are in that drawing.

The geography of the account-books reflect something else about the post-slavery Caribbean. Mirlees & Tait were not only trading with the post-emancipation colonies, they also sent sugar machines to Cuba, Puerto Rico and Brazil, where slavery was still legal until late in the 19th century. In Puerto Rico, not only did slave owners receive reparations in 1873, this fund was paid by the emancipated people themselves, who had to buy their freedom.[7] The uneven imposition of slavery and emancipation across the Caribbean demands that researchers in these kinds of archival holdings pay more attention to the diversity of the region. The Caribbean is not a country, as we could paraphrase from Africa.  

“What is discarded?”

This is a question for both the archivists and the environmental scientist. Tateh Champion, PhD Student, and Ayo Ogundero, both graduate students instigated this thoughtful discussion. It is clear what has been wilfully discarded and destroyed along the way by powerful historical forces, the individual experiences and lives of enslaved people; the hopes and ambitions of those newly-emancipated; the craft and care that went into making houses and homes that have been left undocumented, on the edges of land that has been pilfered. But these records also raised the question of the detritus of the plantation. How has it reshaped the land and the landscape? Machines from Mirrlees and Tait are scattered in fields and ditches.[8] How is the soil? What can (and can’t) it grow now? A metaphor for the archives suggests itself in the comparison between the exhausted and depleted dirt of the plantation and the papers and accounts of the colonial archive. What does “decolonising the archives” mean when we are working with the documentary manifestations of the shockwaves of slavery, imperialism and exploitation?

Drawing of a bung hole borer 1862
University of Glasgow Archives, Mirrlees Watson Co Ltd Archive, UGD202/1939)


[2] We used the “Global History Hackathon” playbook developed by Hannah-Louise Clark and others to bring together an interdisciplinary group who had no previous particular expertise or knowledge of this collection to generate ideas for research projects and collaborations.  The event was attended by: Moira Rankin, ASC, Sharon Alexander-Gooding, UWI Archives, Sonia Black, UWI Archives, Christine Whyte, College of Arts, Tateh Champion, PhD Student, MVLS, Ayo Ogundero, PhD Student, Engineering, Jules Koch, Archives MSc student, Louise Redhead, Archives, Sarah Gambell, Information Studies. This blog was written by Christine Whyte, who offers heartfelt thanks to the participants and others who have engaged in these discussions  – apologies for any omissions and errors, they are entirely mine.

[3] John E. Crowley, ‘Sugar Machines: Picturing Industrialized Slavery’, The American Historical Review, Volume 121, Issue 2, April 2016, Pages 403–436,

[4] Geoff Palmer talks about how his family bought land at the edges of the plantation on which their ancestors were enslaved.



[7] Christopher Schmidt‐Nowara (2000) The end of slavery and the end of empire: Slave emancipation in Cuba and Puerto Rico, Slavery & Abolition, 21:2, 188-207, DOI: 10.1080/01440390008575312


Categories: Archive Services, Archives and Special Collections, Special Collections

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1 reply

  1. What a wonderful piece!

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