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New uses for sugar in the British West Indies

August 10, 2011

University of York – by Sabine Clarke

In the summer of 1940, officials at the Colonial Office in London conceived a new and radical vision of economic development for the British West Indies. The proposal was that instead of being consumed as a foodstuff, cane sugar produced in the colonies of the region could be used as a raw material to make fuels, medical products and synthetic goods such as plastics. The hope was that by taking advantage of an expanding market for manufactured products, the British West Indian colonies would see a revival in their economic fortunes.

The price of cane sugar had reached an all-time low in 1934, and officials were pessimistic about the long-term future of an industry that produced a commodity in oversupply. During the 1930s there had been strong criticism of the social deprivation that existed in the colonies and there was concern that further decline in the sugar industry would led to nothing but “unemployment, distress and misery” for the populations of the region. While distress was not limited to workers in the sugar industry, and sugar was no longer the principal export of all the Caribbean colonies, it remained the largest employer. Riots across the region in the 1930s demonstrated to the British government that discontent among workers in this industry could threaten the stability of entire territories, and even the integrity of the Empire as a whole.

Historians have noted how the economic and social problems of the British West Indies during the 1930s were important in allowing for the reform of policy that led to the 1940 Colonial Development and Welfare Act, but the nature of economic plans for the British West Indies after 1940 has received little attention. It has sometimes been stated that officials abided by the recommendations made by Lord Moyne’s commission, which had investigated the social and economic problems of the region in 1938. With regard to the problems of the sugar industry, however, this claim is mistaken. In their emphasis on diverting cane sugar to new industrial uses, and in proposing to foster industrial development in Britain’s Caribbean colonies, plans conceived by officials after 1940 marked both a departure from the commission’s recommendations and a significant break with the policies of the past.

A failure by historians to acknowledge the novelty of new plans for the British West Indies is most likely the result of a more general neglect by scholars of the role that scientific research had come to play in official thinking by 1940. The Colonial Office’s plans to transform the economies of the British West Indies were predicated on finding new uses for sugar through scientific research it was sponsoring. This was an ambition made possible by the creation of a substantial research fund as part of the 1940 Act. An allocation of £1 million each year from 1945 worked to elevate the Office to the position of the second largest sponsor of scientific research in Britain, after the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. The period after 1940 saw a strongly technocratic turn in colonial policy; a number of new research committees were formed at the Colonial Office, populated by scientists drawn from Britain’s most prestigious research establishments. There was an emphasis on recruiting specialist researchers to the colonial service, and around 40 research institutions were operating across the Empire by 1952.

Norman Haworth, winner of the 1937 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Wellcome Library

Norman Haworth, winner of the 1937 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Wellcome Library

In making and executing its plans to find new uses for British West Indies sugar through scientific research, the Colonial Office was inspired by the interwar production of motoring fuels and organic chemicals based on molasses as a raw material. One legacy of intense interest and activity by government, business and scientists in the fields of microbiology and organic chemistry after World War I was significant experience and expertise in Britain in the generation of products derived from alcohol produced by fermentation. The Office was lobbied by a number of individuals, including the scientist Chaim Weizmann, to support the development of molasses- based industry, and there was ardent support from others for programmes of research into microbiology and sugar chemistry. The Nobel Prize- winning chemist Norman Haworth informed the Office that as a potential raw material to produce synthetics, sugar was purer than molasses, it was abundant and it could compete with coal and oil in terms of price. As a consequence of this endorsement, the Office funded Haworth’s work at Birmingham University and created two new laboratories in Trinidad to investigate the uses of sugar and its by- products and for work in microbiology. Aside from the aim of acting as a spur to economic development in the British West Indies by creating new products to be exploited by industry, these laboratories were intended to be a demonstration of Britain’s commitment to modernising the colonies. Officials claimed that locating this research in Trinidad would enable the island to take its place in the international exchange of knowledge that was characteristic of scientific research.

The laboratories in Trinidad can also be seen as an attempt to assert the role of the British Empire and British expertise in directing development in the British West Indies. The late colonial period saw a number of alternative models and sources of advice for Caribbean development, including those of the USA, which promoted its experts and development ideas through the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission. British officials found their vision of economic development was marginalised in the 1950s as Caribbean politicians and intellectuals increasingly privileged the regional context over the imperial when seeking models of industrial development, with many turning to Puerto Rico’s ‘Operation Bootstrap’ as a source of inspiration.

In the end, the search for new uses for sugar furnished little in the way of new products and industries during the late colonial period, with the exception of a blood plasma substitute named Dextran. A number of factors contributed to the failure of this programme, including the reluctance of sugar companies in the British West Indies to diversify when the prospect of independence for Britain’s colonies made their future uncertain.

Sabine Clarke is a Lecturer at the Department of History, University of York.

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