Colonialism and the expansion of empires

Cup and saucer with sugar cane and cotton flowers

Made in Staffordshire, 1890s
Earthenware, with printed decoration

Object number 16.33
Purchased, 1933

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Cup and saucer with sugar cane and cotton flowers

This teacup and saucer is printed with a pattern of sugar cane and cotton flowers. These two crops were produced in increasing quantities on slave-worked plantations in the West Indies and across the southern states of America during the 1700s and 1800s. They became two of the most valuable commodities in European trade.

The West Indies became the world's largest producer of sugar during the 1700s, fuelled by the import of millions of enslaved Africans to work the plantations. As production increased, prices in Britain fell and sugar became an integral part of the British diet across all social classes, taken in drinks such as tea, coffee and chocolate and eaten in jams and puddings.

This teacup was made in the 1890s, well after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1838. However, in order to maintain their supply of sugar, the British replaced the slave labour force with men and women from India. Mostly they came from the north east of India, including the area which is modern Bangladesh. Strictly speaking, such workers were not enslaved but indentured labourers. However, the manner of their recruitment and the conditions in which they lived and worked in the Caribbean made their lives little better than slaves. There are still sizeable populations of their descendants in the Caribbean today, mostly in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.

This information was provided by curators from Gallery Oldham.