Sweet racism: who took the jam out of Jamaica?

The Great Argyll he goes before,

He makes the cannons and guns to roar,

With sound o'trumpet, pipe and drum,

The Campbells are coming, Ho-Ro, Ho-Ro!

The Campbells they are a' in arms,

Their loyal faith and truth to show,

With banners rattling in the wind,

The Campbells are coming Ho-Ro, Ho-Ro!

The firm of Robertson’s jams remains today as an outstanding tribute to the heyday of British colonialism and to Scotland’s place as a senior partner within that endeavour. Not only did James Robertson’s product depend heavily upon sugar from Jamaican and other Caribbean plantations, it’s brand was marketed entirely on the racist image of the golliwog – the happy plantation minstrel popularised in The Black and White Minstrel Show and before that in Enid Blyton’s a children's book called The Three Golliwogs featuring the simpleton’s Gollie, Woggie and Nigger whose favourite song was the popular nursery ryhme Ten Little Nigger Boys.

However, the Robertson’s jam’s racist branding is not just a relic of the distant past. As recently as 2001 its brand director Ginny Knox declared:

"We sell 45 million jars of jam and marmalade each year and they have pretty much all got Golly on them. We also sell 250,000 Golly badges to collectors and only get 10 letters a year from people who don't like the Golly.”

Originating in Paisley, Robertson’s enterprise was part of a Glasgow region already bustling and brimming over with sugar related industries and products. Sugar was everywhere: it was in every side street and waterfront warehouse; it was there in every packet, barrel and confectionary product; sugar was gold and oil bound together in a delicious treacle. Like the sands of the Kalahari and the waters of Niagra Falls, there was an endless and abundant supply stimulating new appetites and triggering ever greater ambitions. And most of it came from the sweat and toil of Jamaican slave labour.

Along with cotton , tobacco and coffee, sugar revealed the true import of the triangular slave trade. With every stir of the spoon, sugar made the world go round. From the tea gardens of Bengal to the coffee fazendas in Brazil, sugar forged a singular bond between oceans and continents. Tea from the East Indies and sugar from the West Indies, it was a perfect union. Compared to the sugar rush in Britain, California's gold came a poor second. Such was its premier ranking in trade and manufacturing that Britain's annual per capita consumption of sugar mushroomed from a mere 4lbs in 1704 to 18lbs in 1800 and then 90lbs in 1901 - a 22-fold increase to the point where Britons had the highest sugar intake in Europe.


There were many sugar producing islands but the Caribbean jewel in the British crown was undoubtedly Jamaica which became the focus of Britain’s slave trade and a foundation stone for Scottish capitalism’s ever increasing fortunes. Scotland had comparatively low levels of direct involvement in the maritime trade in slaves from Africa to the New World. From 1706 until 1766 there are 31 recorded slave voyages from Scotland. Of these, 19 left from Glasgow’s satellite ports at Greenock and Port Glasgow. The direct voyages from Scotland are estimated to have carried in the region of 4,000 to 5,000 souls into chattel slavery.

However, what the Scottish merchants, landowners and industrialists lost in the slave trade they more than made up for in slave ownership, particularly in the Caribbean islands of Grenada, Barbados, Trinidad, Tobago, Antigua and above all Jamaica. In the vanguard of this Scottish slave settlements were the Campbells, so much so that by the mid 18th century, there was a virtual empire of them on the island.

Beginning with the military veteran of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, Colonel John Campbell, this one family's presence alone grew to such an extent that five of the Campbell cousins owned almost 21,000 acres of prime Jamaican land. This was not the only Campbell family in Jamaica during the period of slavery and the Campbells were not the only Scottish plantation owners either. At the beginning of the 19th century there were some 10,000 Scots in Jamaica with a host of plantations enjoying names such as Hampden, Glasgow, Argyle, Glen Islay, Dundee, Fort William, Montrose, Roxboro and Dumbarton. In total Scots owned a cool one third of Jamaican plantations. Not all of them were resident. When slavery was abolished in the 1830s with a handsome compensation scheme for lost property, the number of awards for Scottish absentee landlords in Jamaica was 274.

Perhaps the most prolific of all the Campbells involved in this sordid business, was the Glasgow based firm of John Campbell, senior & co, known also as the Campbells of Possil. Its founder John Campbell inherited his wealth from the Virginia tobacco trade and developed the company into a multi-faceted business based on financing, ownership and trade in sugar. The partnership of the firm was structured entirely on a kinship system, with Campbells from various branches of the family on the male side constituting the 15 partners who ran the company at the height of its powers. In addition to owning substantial plantations in Demerara, the firm had its own fleet of ships and a financial wing that funded various trade and business ventures throughout the Caribbean.

In addition to constituting one of the mainstays of the sugar elite, the firm was also a pillar of the Glasgow commercial establishment as a whole. Besides becoming one of the principal holders in the Union Bank, they held investments in urban property, railways, factories and insurance companies. John Campbell himself was one of the founders of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and was part of a colonial elite whose wealth found its way into every corner and crevice of Glasgow's growing commercial grandeur.

By its very nature as an elite class, it’s reproduction depended upon a highly selective system of intermarriage between members of other families whose wealth derived from different branches of the colonial trade. Such was the case for example in the marriage of one of the Campbells to the daughter of Kirkman Finlay, Glasgow’s Lord Provost, President of the Chamber of Commerce, and a mogul in Scotland's cotton manufacturing who was instrumental in suppressing Clydeside’s infant labour movement.

By the early 19th century Scots owned a third of Jamaica's plantations which supplied the huge sugar warehouses at Greenock. This was reflected in the many slave plantations with Scottish names such Monymusk, Hermitage, Hampden, Glasgow, Argyle, Glen Islay, Dundee, Fort William, Montrose, Roxbro, Dumbarton, Old Monklands and Mount Stewart. And just as today’s Jamaican flag is modelled on the Scottish saltire, a huge swathe of Jamaica’s capital city Kingston comprises neighbourhoods and districts with Scottish names.

Long before the gollywog was a twinkle in James Robertson's eye, he was preceded by the firm of John Buchanan & Bros in Cowcaddens, makers of confections, preserves and peels. Founded in 1858 and dependent on the ever increasing supplies of sugar from the Caribbean, the firm's premises required a 4-story warehouse and factory building covering an area of approximately 3 acres and employing some 500 workers.


Naturally, previous to its arrival there, the raw sugar itself had first to be planted, harvested, processed, packed and then shipped to the ports in Greenock and Glasgow. Behind every pot of jam or bag of sugar that made its way onto our breakfast tables, lay the toil and suffering of enslaved Africans on the plantations owned by hundreds if not thousands of Scots in the Caribbean. Then there were the merchants, the shipbuilders, the toolmakers, the bankers and the many other allied industries which grew and profited from this sweet racism.

One such industry was coopering and it was in this industry that the Greenock descendant of the world famous Tate and Lyle sugar firm began to accumulate his capital.

Making so many types of wooden barrels was quite a craft. Their size and shape varied enormously as did the different skills, materials and tools involved in their production. Whether it was a hogshead, firkin, puncheon or tierce, they all had at least one common characteristic. Besides being made from a sturdy wood to withstand the rigours of the transatlantic trade, the barrels had to be waterproof either to keep the liquids in or to keep moisture out.

As the main vessels for carrying the likes of rum, tobacco, gunpowder, sugar, wines, flour and cotton, the West Indian trade guaranteed a prosperous future for skilled coopers. Indeed, such was the scope and intensity of this trade that significant fortunes arose from businesses capable of producing these casks in large numbers and in a timely fashion.


Beginning with the near monopoly of the tobacco trade enjoyed by the Glaswegian tobacco merchants know as the Virginia Dons, millions of these wooden containers were made each year as the West Indies trade expanded into sugar and cotton.

It was from this trade and business that the sugar refiner Abram Lyle first prospered before investing as a partner in the shipping company owned by John Kerr. Lyle had a reputation for being as tight as the bilge hoop on one of his casks and, unlike some of his contemporaries, he was not inclined towards the kind of philanthropy that decorated their fortunes with contributions towards the municipal purse. This was despite the fact that Lyle and Kerr's shipping company was the proud owner of one of the biggest fleets in Greenock if not throughout Scotland as a whole.


The West Indies trade was not the exclusive driver of this meteoric rise. Many a steamer was also built for the East India company, but it was undoubtedly the sugar and cotton plantations which marked the fleet's transformation from minnow to shark. As its total tonnage grew from 161 tons in 1849 to 22,000 tons in 1880,



Lyle's shipping wealth enabled him to diversify his investments and become owner of the Glebe Sugar Refinery in 1865. Although sugar houses had existed in Glasgow before, it was Greenock which became the beating heart of a sugar trade and refinery business that was instrumental in Clydesides industrial revolution.

Of all the mighty sugar merchants and refiners which derived super profits from the Caribbean plantocracy, the best known to us is the British company Tate & Lyle. Perhaps a lesser known fact is that the origins of Henry Tate's sugar business are to be found in former slave port of Liverpool and that his partner Abram Lyle was a Clydesider whose business operations were likewise founded upon the West Indies trade.

Together with Liverpool and London, Glasgow and the west of Scotland dominated the importation and refining of this precious commodity. Greenock was the centre of this and its position as the cradle of British sugar refining earned it the name Sugaropolis. Lyle's Glebe refinery was one amongst many refineries in Greenock with an annual production of 50,000 tons in 1852, rising to a million tons twenty years later.

Slavery in the British colonies had been abolished 30 years previously. Not that this led to any substantial improvement in the working and living conditions of the new wage slaves. Hence in the very same year when Lyle took over the sugar refinery in Greenock the military governor of Jamaica conducted a widespread massacre of African-Jamaican workers during the Morant Bay rebellion.



This was a key episode in the history of Caribbean resistance and resulted in the deaths of 400 directly from the muskets and sabres of the English militia, not to mention hundreds of others who were first captured and then summarily executed.

In the meantime in Cuba, the biggest of all the sugar producing islands, slavery prospered for another 20 years and remained a major source of sugar imports into Great Britain. In fact, raw sugar imports into Great Britain peaked in the early 1870's with their value being between £4.2 million and £4.02 million between 1872 and 1873 respectively. A report of this trade noted the dominance of merchant ships from Cuba during this period:

"The amount of shipping employed in the sugar trade is very large. Last year there arrived in the Clyde 416 vessels, of about 140,000 tons, or an average of 335 tons. About 400 of these discharged their cargoes at Greenock. With the exception of 16 vessels from Mauritius, 2 from Java, and 30 from Dunkirk and Antwerp, the cargoes were from the West Indies and Brazil, 184 vessels being from Cuba alone."

It is highly improbable, if not inconceivable, that Lyle and others did not profit from this trade.

These then were the conditions which spawned the sugar giant Tate & Lyle and made Abram Lyle one of the major Clydeside magnates populating the tableau of colonialism that coloured Glasgow's burgeoning economy. But it was the slave plantations of Jamaica with their Scottish owners and overseers who paved the way. In a process that excerbated the impoverishment of the Jamaican masses, and enriched of the colonial elite, Scottish capitalism began its meteoric rise, giving Glasgow in particular its title of Second City of Empire. In a future article I will show how this same process was accompanied by the exploitation and immiseration of Clydeside labour leading to the 1820 uprising and beyond.