Tate and Lyle: Imperial Artefact17 minute read

From the sugar in your coffee, to the ‘spectacular’ cultural hub on the Southbank of the Thames (Dean et al 2010), to a library in a so called cultural epicentre (Howarth 2002), Tate and Lyle runs fluidly and perhaps sometimes unnoticed through the experiences of the many visitors to London, and of course to the inhabitants of the vast city. Sugar, a vital part of many developing country’s foreign exchange and employment (Coote 1988), is also an integral part of modern day life, and Tate and Lyle, a multinational sugar company and the largest sugar cane supplier in the UK, not only satisfy our taste buds, but have also provided funding for a wealth of cultural artefacts dotted around the Capital (Welch and Wilkinson 2004), most famously perhaps, the Tate modern. Sir Henry Tate, one of the cofounders of the brand, and well known ‘Philanthropist’, along with many other donations, used funds to establish the Tate Library, found in the Multicultural South London district of Brixton. This essay will illustrate how the exploitative character of imperialism is being hidden “beneath a veneer of art and knowledge” (Wells 2007), through artefacts such as the Tate modern gallery and notably for this essay, the Brixton Tate Library, producing numerous cultural implications. The library, found in central Brixton, and presenting books in a variety of languages including Bengali, Chinese, French, German and many more, seems to fit in perfectly with the multicultural nature of this bustling area. Upon looking deeper however, the backgrounds of this famous sugar company start to show that although ‘freedom’ may have been given to the victims involved in the slave trade prior to its establishment, this development was largely symbolic, meaning that these glorified artefacts including the Tate Library, have been funded by a long line of imperial labour exploitation (Lindsay 1976) and therefore hold enormous cultural implications. I plan to illustrate how Tate and Lyle can be seen to be embedded in the labour exploitation that characterized much of the imperial era (Reinhart 2013), forming cultural implications for its formation of the library. I will go on to further assess this relationship, by analyzing some of the key imperial features which are still apparent at the library today, and further explain that the location of the Tate Library is particularly significant, heightening the impact of its controversial funding origins (Howarth 2002). I will go on to use Deborah Cherry’s work on Statues in the Square to pose the question, of whether we should cast out the ‘imperial connotations’ and cultural implications provided by the Brixton Tate library, and therefore ‘dislocate’ the site from its exploitative associations (Cherry 2006). Or whether we should conversely, leave it as a haunting reminder of the origins and history of the British Empire.

A primary cultural implication of the Brixton Library holding the name ‘Tate’, comes through its direct association with the Sugar trade and therefore a ‘haunting’ of its imperial past (Cherry 2006). Sir Henry Tate, originally a grocer from Liverpool, established Henry Tate and sons in 1859, a Sugar refiner which would in 1921 become Tate and Lyle, a world renowned ‘Sugar giant’ (Chalmin 1990). In 1833 an act was passed through British parliament, abolishing all forms of slavery throughout the British empire (Mathieson 1926), meaning that neither company overlapped with this oppressive period, though Tate began to build his wealth prior to this. Evidence however, has shown that in Jamaica especially, this progressive movement was largely symbolic “it meant primarily, that he would no longer be legally attached to a particular master or specific estate. Except for this fact, the ex-slave was required to continue to operate in a socio-cultural environment which remained immersed in the assumptions and values of slave society” (Curtin 1964). This suggests that there was an opportunity for Tate and sons and Tate and Lyle to remain deeply embedded in the exploitation of native colonial subjects, and entangled in the so called abolished slave trade (Curtin 1964). This is shown through the large inequalities that continued to fester throughout the mid and late 19th century in Jamaica, as illustrated by Louis Lindsay’s poignant reflection that “Even when sugar was king and the Jamaican colony was widely regarded as one of the brightest stars in the British empire, the majority of Jamaicans were abysmally poor”. Through convincing a large number of the Jamaican people of the essential benevolence of colonial power, Tate and Lyle, along with smaller sugar refiners, were able to mystify its employees convincing them of the benefits of the exploitation and colonialism itself (Chalmin 1990), and by the end of the 1930s, its “Lucrative deals with the Jamaican government, left them with control of the majority of the largest and best sugar plantations on the island” (Reinhart 2013). The cultural implication of this is possible unnoticed impact on the contemporary society of Brixton’s residents and the visitors to the library, as they continue to engage with an inherently imperial artefact, with roots in exploitation, a consequence even more significant and pertinent due to its location of Brixton.

Despite this rocky past however, as a noted philanthropist, Henry Tate, throughout his life time donated large sums of money to a breadth of charities & gifted the nation with a wealth of public assets. One of these being the Brixton Tate library, built in 1892, which plays an essential role in the local community (Urban 2015), offering books in a range of languages, and using new technologies to combat disability discrimination. The library can be found in central Brixton, and is a neighbor to Windrush square and the famous Ritzy cinema. The institution can be seen to be so integral to the Brixton community, that people regularly campaign to protect and defend the library against abolition, as it attempts to fulfil its role as a public library, building social capital and promoting “generalized trust in today’s multicultural society” (Audonson et al 2007). The institution is a ‘free library’ welcoming people of all ages and culture to use the the range of facilities which it provides, producing a positive cultural implication in itself. The history of this asset however, provides a perfect example of how British imperialism and capitalism “comes to be cloaked in the cloth of philanthropy”, through providing a free library aimed at edifying the working class, using the money from an exploitative engagement with colonial Jamaica.  The foreground of the library, originally used for sheep grazing, was bought by Henry Tate’s wife, Lady Ann Tate & signifies an act of enclosure which used private capital to acquire what was formerly public land. This contributed another cultural implication of this seemingly innocent artefact, suggesting that the Bourgois could determine what ‘public’ space should be used for, in this case, for the erection of a statue of Henry Tate, placed to look as though he “was gazing across the town centre, Lord of all he surveyed’, which “guaranteed Tate an enduring place in the iconography of Brixton’s landscape” (Wells 2007). The Plinth of the Statue of Tate reads “Sir Henry Tate, Upright Merchant, Wise Philanthropist” an essentially problematic labelling, especially with the use of the term ‘philanthropy’ a word utilized throughout the period of imperialism to “distance capitalism from its role in producing poverty” (Wells 2007). The description of Tate as an ‘upright merchant’ could also be considered misleading, if we are to accept the notion that he used such donations to cover the labour atrocities being carried out by his firm in the West Indies. The location of the Tate library in Brixton, along with Windrush square were described by the Architecture and urbanism unit as being “at the heart of Brixton and Black Britain’s history”. As Wells (2007) points out, how else has this connection been made, other than through Tate’s association with the Trade and employment in areas such as Jamaica, suggesting the “positioning of a white capitalist as being at the heart of Black Britain” an essentially paradoxical situation where a positive cultural implication may be hiding one that is intrinsically negative.

The imperial history of the location of the library, provides a pertinent addition to its cultural implications, not only because of its placing in what was considered the city at the heart of the British empire, but also because of Brixton’s cultural background and makeup. In the late 19th century, the area thrived economically as ‘a smart residential area’ with ‘ambitious architecture’ (Howarth 2002). However, after bombings destroyed large parts of Brixton in both world wars, there was severe damage, leading to an acute housing shortage and the abandonment of many of the large mansions which formerly housed the middle and upper class residents (Howarth 2002). This provided what was seen as an appropriate location to house the wealth of Jamaicans who responded to the ‘motherland needs you’ plea (Sharpe 1965 cited by Howarth 2002), as part of Britain’s first wave of post-war immigrants. The continuity of empire represented through the building of the library, provided a complex symmetry with the hostility that was shown to Jamaicans by white Britons in Brixton at the time of their arrival, in both the public and employment sector. This is reminiscent of the exploitation which occurred in the colonial era, ongoing despite Jamaica’s independence in 1962 (Hunter 2012). By the end of the 20th century however, Brixton was said to be heterogeneous in terms of both ethnicity and class, despite riots in 1981. It is noted as a peacefully multicultural area with 63% of its residents stressing the importance of harmonious social and cultural diversity (Robson and Butler 2001). Most sufficiently explaining the depth of this cosmopolitan area, was Nelson Mandela’s request to visit Brixton on his 1996 state visit to the UK, where he affirmed the area as “the unofficial heart of the African Caribbean community” (Agyeman and Evans 1996) and a soundly ‘multiracial’ area (Hamilton 1996). The labelling of Brixton in this way, makes it controversial that an artefact funded by a company so embedded in the exploitation of the Jamaican people, can sit harmoniously within an area where those whose ancestors were formerly mistreated (Cherry 2007). In a reflection of Andrea Stuart’s 2012 ‘Sugar in the Blood’ the economist commented that we should “spare a thought for the slaves on whose backs the Tate & Lyle’s sugar empire originally rose”, a past associated with the Tate library which may be going unnoticed.  The question which should be addressed, is should we leave such artefacts as a reminder of the past oppression of the ancestors of the now residents of Brixton, or should the origins of this artefact be dislocated, due to its corrupt cultural implications?

Even admitting its seemingly tainted origins, the presence of the library and its cultural implications, could be seen as positive for the creation of a dialogue between the past, present and future (Cherry 2006) of those involved in the Sugar Industry, and those who visit the library. Like Trafalgar square as Cherry analyses it, the library can be considered a contradictory imperial artefact as its funding from the sugar industry is an expression of imperialism, however its location in an area such as Brixton is a symbol of anti imperialism, due to its multiracial nature and cross cultural relations (Mavrommatis 2010). As Derrida (1994) explains, the past may ‘haunt’ the present and affect the future, a theory which can be applied to the library whereby due to its origins, subjects may be provoked to think about its exploitative imperial past, which could stimulate engagement and interpellation (Cherry 2006). The question at hand is that, however gruesome the past of modern states may be, should we be “consigning our history to oblivion”? The power of artefacts to “provoke a sense of unease, a discomfort about the colonial imperial past”, could prove beneficial to the acceptance of our histories over the “deletion of the signs and traces” of what has made Brixton and London as a whole, what it is today (Cherry 2006). As Freud explored in his theory of ‘mnemic symbols’, artefacts such as the Brixton library, have the power to make people contemplate the consequences of previous events, suggesting that it may be constructive to society to remember the past which has made the present. This engagement can create a discourse with the narratives of the past which may have otherwise have been forgotten, producing a ‘spectacle’ where “everything that was directly lived is now” represented in the distance (Debord 2002). Perhaps allowing the visitors of the library to engage in the continuity of the imperial struggles with which the inception of the artefact is associated, for “the past is inextricably entangled with the present” and “demands reckoning” (Cherry 2006).

The problem with using such positive constructions to legitimize an artefact and its right to remain, is that “monuments are deceptive” and they “may not be what they seem, or in their rightful place” (Cherry 2006). This can be said of the Brixton library. The library rather than showing the consequences of the past as suggested by Freud, is masking the exploitative background of the money with which the building was erected, with what seems to be solely glorification of Sir Henry Tate as a philanthropist, rather than the co owner of a company whose success was at least in part off the back of a corrupt imperial labour chain. Derrida explains that for this mourning process to be undertaken, and for the monument to become perhaps beneficial as a reminder of the people that were exploited, it is necessary to know what the artefact resembles or ‘who is buried there’ in this case, it is the Jamaicans who were mistreated and whom must be remembered, something which is not clearly apparent at the Tate library. A remedy to this may be illustrated by a suggested addition to Trafalgar Square. In 2004, the then mayor of London Ken Livingstone, pledged his support for the placing of a statue of Nelson Mandela in the square, expressing that “it will be a square of two Nelsons. The man up there, his battle of Trafalgar, was the defining battle that paved the way for 100 years of British empire, and Nelson Mandela looking down on this square will symbolize the peaceful transition to world without empires” (BBC News 2004). It may be more appropriate, if like this suggested addition to Trafalgar Square, instead of the noble statue of Sir Henry Tate the great ‘philanthropist’s’ bust having exclusive position, an artefact representing an employee, working on a sugar plantation, providing the cheap labour with which Tate and Lyle would use to contribute towards them eventually becoming the largest sugar cane provider in the UK to this day, could be placed alongside. This may help as Cherry (2006) explains, to ‘enhance the symmetry’ of the area and produce “a re-evaluation of the imperial history” …“speaking back” to the other artefacts, and working not to dislocate the Library from its imperial associations, but instead ensure a reminder of how the institution came to being.

Overall, as I have shown there are many cultural implications which can be observed from the Library as an imperial artefact. The first implication, concerning the fact that the library was funded by Tate and Lyle, questions the ethics of having such a monumental artefact which is clearly entangled in the mistreatment of Jamaicans during the imperial era, glorified in contemporary society. The second implication goes to question whether this artefact could be working constructively in Brixton, to build social capital and encourage the edification and therefore enrichment of culture of the people who populate the area (Audonson et al 2007). A further insight into the effects which may be at work, is the analysis of the history of Brixton as an area, and its imperial associations, whereby Brixton came to be known as the centre of the African Caribbean community, due to the large amounts of Jamaicans who were ‘called’ to Britain as post-war immigrants (Agyeman and Evans 1996). The latter part of the essay, considers whether the Library may be able to act positively to enlighten its visitors on the past exploitation which has inevitably produced the future (Cherry 2006), as it may act as a haunting of the results of oppression in the colonial period (Derrida 1994 cited by Cherry 2006). This as Derrida explains could help contemporary society to engage with what was and continues to be the effects of the imperial era. The final part of the essay however, questions the extent to which this is evident with the particular artefact in question. The Library seems to be supporting a company which was the result of Western imperialism, but simultaneously neglecting to exemplify quite how the company came to being. Whilst visiting the library, the people whose exploitation provided the cheap labour which helped Tate and Lyle grow to be so successful, is significantly distant, as there is a lack of recognition or even acknowledgement of the wrongs which have been enacted. The lack of any reference to the people who worked on the plantations in Jamaica, denies them voice, and the cultural implication of this is that they may not be recognized in contemporary society (Cherry 2006). It would be impossible even in a ‘postcolonial’ Britain, to cast out all that was produced from exploitation and not to have some aspects of the colonial era which has passed. As aforementioned however, in order for people to benefit from Derrida’s explanation of reflection of the hauntings of the past, we must establish as many dimensions of what made the past as we can, even if that does incorporate portraying Sir Henry Tate as both a ‘Philanthropist’ and an ‘Exploiter’.


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