Living Histories of Sugar in Scotland and the West Indies: Transnationalisms, Performance and Co-creation

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh


Sugar is not just a commodity, but a set of social relationships across space and time. This project aims to recast how we think about, understand and live with the transnational and unfinished nature of the sugar industry in Scotland and the West Indies. Through a series of workshops with West Indian and Scottish performance artists, we will co-create songs, stories and visualisations that invite multiple and diverse interpretations of Scotland's role in the slave (18th-19th) and sugar trades (18th-20th centuries). During these workshops we will: 1) show how text and data mining can underpin new artistic material (songs) about sugar, enslavement and sugar work and assess whether these methods can increase access to audio data recorded in non-standard English; 2) create storylines for interactive performances that include visualisations, historical re-enactments and new and old storytelling songs; 3) begin concept work with museologists and industry professionals for a Mixed Reality (MR) experience to be developed with further funding.

The network will bring together Trinibagonian, Jamaican and Scottish actors and singers/songwriters with an international and interdisciplinary group of scholars with expertise in the histories and geographies of sugar, enslavement and indentureship (Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews), role playing history (Edinburgh), sound studies (Virginia Commonwealth, Texas), aural data mining (Edinburgh, Texas), data visualisation (Edinburgh, St Andrews) and MR (Abertay, Edinburgh). In year 1 we will generate aural and visual data, songs and storylines, drawing from previously-collected archival and oral history data about the Scottish sugar industry and ongoing (PhD) research about sugar, enslavement and indentureship in the West Indies. In addition to historical research into secondary literatures, we will explore digitised archival films, songs, oral histories, photos, cadastral and trade maps, landscape paintings, migration data and personal papers of Scottish families who owned Scottish estates, located in the Archive for Cultural Equity, the University of the West Indies Erna Brodber Collection, the Trinidad and Tobago National Archives, the National Libraries of Scotland and Jamaica, the Jamaican Memory Bank, the National Records of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh's Scottish Studies and Sound Archives. In year 2 we will finalise the interactive performance by utilising: 1) the storylines and songs co-created in year 1, and 2) visualisations developed in years 1 and 2 by two MA students in Design Informatics. Songs, stories and visualisations captured in the live performances, and audience feedback, will provide the groundwork for conceptualising the MR experience. MR concept work will be initiated at the end of the project during a final workshop with UK creative businesses and museologists. Our aim for both the performance and the MR conceptualisation is to reveal transnational sugar as both 'multiply-inhabited': involving different people across place and space, and 'multi-dimensional': involving a variety of social transformations, e.g. demographic, cultural, dietary, environmental.

With increasing interest in Scotland's involvement in slavery, the project offers a timely opportunity to develop understandings of the effects of sugar, enslavement and sugar work on both sides of the Atlantic. The primary public output of the project - two interactive live performances - will enable diverse audiences in Scotland and the West Indies to question established historical narratives and share their own living histories of sugar. The performances and other project activities will exist beyond the life of the project through a webpage (hosted on University of Edinburgh's Media Hopper and that shows how archival materials were repurposed through practices of co-creation, with links to the digital archival collections.

Planned Impact

Our beneficiaries will be:

1) Public audiences. Our events aim to change attitudes towards and awareness of Scotland's involvement in the sugar and slave trades. Zandra Yeaman (Communities and Campaigns Officer, Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights) has agreed to include Performance 2 in Scotland's programme for Black History Month (Oct 2021). EB and AN will apply for linked funding to create learning packs for Greenock schools to make use of project materials (songs/performance recordings). The project offers timely opportunity to engage audiences in Jamaica. The Jamaican Ministry of Culture (JMC) have growing interest in sugar-related events (e.g. Sugar Heritage Film Project). The JMC have agreed to work with the National Museum/Gallery of Jamaica and the Institute of Jamaica to promote Performance 1.

2) Museums. The project will benefit the McLean Museum (MM), Inverclyde Heritage Hub (IHH), National Museum of Jamaica (NMJ) and Tobago Museum (TM), in terms of connections and public visibility. Our goal is to offer museums new ideas on how to reach public audiences effectively, and to encourage critical engagement with Scotland's transatlantic geographies. We have links with MM and IHH (since 2015), supported by grants from Royal Society of Edinburgh and BA/Leverhulme. The project aligns with NMJ activities, such as exhibits about enslavement and reparations. The PI and JG (of NMJ) have plans for a travelling MR exhibition that could be integrated with related museum objects and activities. Given the pervasive influence of Scots in Tobago, and the relative lack of knowledge of these activities, TM is keen to collaborate with project members on future research and outreach activities.

3) Performance artists. A primary aim of this project is to rework established historical narratives by encouraging interactions between researchers and people with ancestral links to sugar, enslavement and sugar work. Our six artists all have links to the sugar industry. Their interpretations of historical materials will be prioritised in project activities. The project will help develop the professional portfolios of all participant artists. While most have been involved in projects related to sugar and/or slavery, none has had the opportunity to explore immersive technologies in creative work and performance.

4) Digital preservation specialists. Professionals tasked with preserving and providing access to audio collections are questioning how best to present these materials to researchers and the public. US Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Surveys in 2004 and 2012 both cite shared preservation networks and improvements in discovery and cataloguing as areas where research and development are most needed. This project is based on the premise that in many cases the best way to discover materials is through co-creative methods. The materials co-created from workshop 1 will provide examples to the digital preservation community in the US and UK about how established digital methods can be used in new ways to increase access to, knowledge about and interpretations of audio collections.

5) Creative businesses. Immersive technologies is a growing and export-intensive sector of increasing importance to the UK economy: approximately 1,000 UK companies specialise in immersive, with 4,500 jobs and £660 million in sales (2018 Immersive Economy in the UK Report). This project will connect companies and startups to international performance artists, museums and academics with a view to using methods developed by the project to expand creative portfolios and identifying new business opportunities and markets for immersive storytelling. The project is timely given its inclusion of MR design and immersive narratives within the heritage sector, a focus of the 2018 AHRC ISCF Audiences of the Future fund which highlighted Heritage as one of the core themes posited for its major Demonstrator grants.


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