SUGAR AND SODA-The Trinidad-Demerara connection in the 19th century

(By Angelo Bissessarsingh)

In the bustling heart of the city of San Fernando in south Trinidad there is an old colonial graveyard called Paradise Cemetery. Among the many memorials of British officers, planters and clergy are a few which draw a tangible connection between the sugar-belt of the Naparimas (of which San Fernando was the capital in the 19th century) and that of Demerara in what was then known as British Guiana. One monument in particular reads:

“Isabella Wilhelmina Vass (nee Osborne,) the beloved wife of Alexander Holme Vass of British Guiana, who departed this life on the 18th day of June 1911 aged 37 years. When the day of toil is done, when the race of life is run, Father grant thy weary one life forevermore. When the breath of life is flown, when the grave must claim its own, Lord of life be our crown, and grant us life forevermore. “


Alexander was a Scotsman and manager of a sugar estate in Demerara before he came to Trinidad to work around 1900. Thirty years prior, the Colonial Company had erected what was then the British Empire’s largest sugar factory on one of its largest sugar estates, some four miles from San Fernando. Called Usine Ste. Madeline, it utilised the vacuum pan process which had already been put to good purpose in Demerara as one source recounted in the 1880s:


When the canes are cut they are brought in punts along the canals and deposited. They are put between large and heavy rollers, and the juice crushed out. The liquor, having been boiled to a certain density in the coppers, is put into a reservoir, and drawn thence by suction into a vacuum pan. It then goes into the centrifugals, the rapid revolving movement of which cleanses the sugar and makes it bright and dry, fit for immediate use. It is not necessary at this point to enter into any technical details. Suffice it to say that every possible experiment has been tried to increase the yield of the cane and improve the quality of the sugar, until now the Demerara crystals have a world-wide reputation. In Demerara an average of 2^ to 3 tons of sugar may be expected from an acre of cane. Upon estates particularly well situated, the yield is greater.”


The Usine Ste. Madeline quickly became a central refinery for a couple dozen estates which produced the bulk of the canes in the Naparimas. Moreover, from the 1880s onwards, a significant peasant farmer class had been established when thousands of indentured Indians (who began arriving in the island as labour in 1845) settled and became small cane farmers. These smallholders produced as much as 20% of the intake of Usine Ste. Madeline which was fed by a vast private railway network that fanned out over many miles. The rail yard was described by J.H Collens in 1887 as follows:


“When a stranger, during crop season, enters the busy mill-yard, with its network of railway lines—a sort of miniature Clapham Junction in its way—its lively little locomotives, ‘ Kit,’ ‘ Dart,’ and other members of the family, hurrying in with any amount of noisy bustle from all sides, with their burden of canes in tow. Here we see seven of these small but powerful ‘ Puffing Billies,’ six being constantly on the go during the busy period, with 104 clean, strongly-built trucks, carrying six tons each, for the transport of the canes from the different estates to the central factory. Inside the yard itself are over 1″5 miles of rail, and the seventeen offshoots cover a distance of 18.58 miles, irrespective of the Cipero and Usine St. Madeleine main lines. In all, there may be said to be 24-08, or over twenty-four miles of lines, railway gauge (4 ft. 8-J- in.), belonging to the company and converging towards the works. Here, too, apart from the serious business of sugar-making, are shops where turning, fitting, and smiths’ operations are carried on,so that any breakdown of the machinery may be promptly and effectually remedied without loss of time.”


The awesome infrastructural scope of Usine Ste. Madeline was hopelessly beyond the existing pool of technical competence available in Trinidad’s domestic sugar industry at the time and thus many experts from British Guiana (particularly Demerara) came to the Naparimas to manage the facility. Not only did the mechanics, boiler-men, railway engineers and mill supervisors come, but also agricultural technicians and overseers who knew how to maximise the productivity of the fields. Sugar was to dominate Trinidad’s economy at least until the 1920s when the oil industry got underway and thus the estates of Demerara were a steady supply of trained personnel for Usine Ste. Madeline and the Colonial Company. Even the sole newspaper in the Naparimas, the San Fernando Gazette (1850-96), published news items from Demerara thus exemplifying the solid link between the two territories. Common reprints were obituaries like this one:


“Mr. Templeton in Demerara. Aged 70 years. Partner in the firm of Pasley, Templeton and Co. of Demerara. Lived in the tropics from age 17, arrived from Trinidad about 1840 and had a dry goods business. Reported from the Argosy and Demerara Chronicle 24th April 1888”


Not all of the newcomers from Demerara were sugar-specialists. Some, like the Chinese Austin family, settled in Cedros in the far south-western tip of the island around 1890 and began manufacturing carbonated drinks. Indeed, almost the entire soft drink industry in Trinidad, at one time, bought its bottling and aerating equipment from Alexander Russell and Co. in Georgetown. Popular brands like Serra Kola Champagne and McShine’s aerated drinks owed their existence to machines imported from Georgetown. Though now largely forgotten, the ties between British Guiana and Trinidad during the reign of King Sugar greatly contributed to the economic well-being of the latter colony.



This 1890s photo shows croptime at Usine Ste. Madeline which was the largest sugar refinery in Trinidad and the British Empire when it was built in 1870. Many of its senior technicians were from Demerara’s sugar estates.

This 1904 ad from a Trinidadian magazine shows a soda water plant distributed in Demerara. Many small soft-drink manufacturers went into business with this equipment including the popular McShine and Serrao brands in Port-of-Spain.

Interior of a sugar factory near Georgetown in the 1920s showing the formidable machinery for making sugar, rum and molasses.


A sugar factory near Georgetown circa 1900

A sketch of Georgetown in the 1880s

This 103 year old grave in San Fernando, Trinidad, is the last resting place of the wife of a Scotsman from Demerara who was one of many who came to Trinidad between 1870 and 1920 to work in the sugar belt of the Napariams.

Sketch of Georgetown from the 1880s