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Sugar Flames

by

Walking along refinery drive

down the harbourside I find

three balls of steel

corroded with rust, sweat and sugar.

Monumental minor

time dial turn

anti-ode as antidote

to a century and a half ago.

Fiona pulls into the harbour

carrying her precious cargo

hand cultivated raw cane sugar

precarious bodies, their coloured labour.

Machines refine sugar to white

for grocery aisles and lollipop tongues

sweet and sticky and sick, indistinguishable

candy or cavity or brown cadaver.

My mouth opens wide

drinking the harbour

swallowing grief

extinguishing the flames in my belly.

I light a match

flicking fire

watch

as the sugar flames burn.

/

My mind recalls an archival image, a black and white photo taken around 1959 that depicts the Australian Colonial Sugar Refinery located in Pyrmont.

An expansive body of water drowns the foreground. Ripples on the surface fade away, into the horizon where the Refinery perches. The image feels ominous. Across the waters a behemoth of industry stares back at me. I fixate on the body of water between myself and the ghost of the Refinery. Timelines collapse as I meditate on the history that unfolds beyond the frame: the journeys across the kala pani, my ancestral m/other(s) and thefields of sugar cane.

Walking along Pyrmont harbour, I search for clues to a century and a half ago. Luxury apartment buildings line the waterfront of an area that was once predominantly working class. I find some stairs towards the left and climb them, hoping for a better vantage point. I find Refinery Drive. As I walk further along the path, I come across three rusted-steel spheres nestled among bushes. Here, there is no signage, no plaque, no information. Just three steel balls that were salvaged from the site of the Colonial Sugar Refinery upon its demolition.[1]I return to the online space, mining for details about the remnants of this place.

In 1877 the Colonial Sugar Refinery commenced operations in Pyrmont, at a time when other refineries were being established in Queensland and Victoria.

The sugar behemoth swallowed the bodies of people who were trafficked, coerced, kidnapped, and forced to live and labour on its plantations, within and outside of Australia.[2] The indenture contract, the pendulum of the system, swings the debates on indenture between the categories of ‘voluntary’ and ‘slavery.’[3] Numbers and statistics (dis)locate coloured bodies against the balance sheets and economic profit of the colonial enterprise of white sugar.

During the nineteenth to early twentieth century, around two million Indian people were brought under indenture to live and work on plantation colonies across the Caribbean and the Pacific. The Australia-Pacific indentured labour trade also saw around 62,000 people from the Pacific and South Sea Islands removed, coerced and kidnapped to live and work on sugar plantations, notoriously so in Queensland.[4] In 1879, indentured Indian labour was introduced in Fiji as a colonial emigration scheme to secure labour for agricultural production. Under this system, around 54,500 men and 12,700 women were indentured from India to Fiji to labour on sugar cane plantations for Australia’s Colonial Sugar Refinery.[5]

These numbers are heavy and, buried under statistics, they carry the weight and stories of individual lives swept into a mass of forced labour migration.

A century and a half onward I sit along the boardwalk and stare out into the horizon, (re)turning across space and time. Further along the boardwalk, I come across wooden panels branded with yellow-painted words that spell out ‘MANUFACTURED & PACKED BY THE COLONIAL SUGAR REF CO LTD SYDNEY’ and label their products ‘GOLDEN SYRUP’, ‘TREACLE’ and ‘PURE CANE SUGAR’. Across the waters, a cargo ship fades into view from the distance.

In March 1912, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that ‘The Colonial Sugar Company’s steamer Fiona, from Fiji’ carrying ‘5064 tons of sugar and 1500 tons of molasses’ was in ‘Fiji when the terrific hurricane swept over the islands’ with ‘disastrous effects’: a ‘storm struck her [while] the Fiona was discharging coal… These were sunk, and several coolies drowned’.[6]

I weave across time, interrogating the weight of material and bodily statistics, speculating upon dreams of redemption. I arrive at the ship, Fiona, wondering what may have happened if it survived, if any Girmitiya snuck onboard and made it to Pyrmont.[7] I wonder what they would have thought entering the harbour. I wonder if they would have seen the black waters flowing here, too.

On numerous occasions the Refinery caught on fire. Sugar is a highly flammable material; ‘spontaneous combustion’ was often the cause.[8] I imagine the spectacle across the horizon, flames and smoke reaching into the sky.

‘For hours the firemen worked at the building, pouring tons of water on the molten sugar, burning wood and red-hot bricks, and at last they had the satisfaction of getting the flames under control… the flames rose probably 100ft in the air, and this soon attracted an enormous crowd of people, who came from everywhere.’[9]

Imagine this: a time-traveller, from everywhere and everytime, returns and lights the fire.

/

To return to history through place as an archive is to return to a past that is both living and haunted. As historian Fiona Murphy notes, the archive in Australia’s settler-colonial context is a space of ‘sorrow’ where ‘many ghosts lie in waiting, ghosts whom when spoken to may remedy the past, and the kind who should not be disturbed for their sullen intransigence may only do more harm.’[10] The geo-politics of archival material and monuments re-present the systematic violence, silences and erasures continuously felt in the afterlives of early colonialism.

If returning is to suggest an act of going towards or coming back to resume a previous condition, how do we make sense of the politics of time-travel when (re)turning to/from history? As critical theorist Josè Esteban Muñoz notes, ‘it is important to call on the past, to animate it, understanding that the past has a performative nature, which is to say that rather than being static and fixed, the past does things’.[11] Re-turning through time shapes a transformative site for affective encounters that challenge the tensions between past and present. By returning to the past, we open a channel for time-travel, where archival remains can be transmuted to actively reckon with and subvert colonial histories. 

/

Doctor/Reader, I may have archive fever.

The diagnosis of which compels us ‘to run after the archive… [with] an irrepressible desire to return to the origin’.[12] In her poem Archival-Poetics Manifesto, Narungga woman and activist-poet NatalieHarkinoffers a remedy to:

disrupt it all, through and beyond the colonial archive, with rupturing intent. Feed your desire to return to the origin as restless-gathering/feverish-hoarding. Honour what you conjure and recognise this as everyone’s story.[13]

I hear the archival sirens sing, pulling me in. I return and listen to their impossible sounds and silences. I try to alchemise the bitterness of the colonial archive into radical remedy, but I am still feverish.

Colonial Sugar Refinery in Pyrmont c. 1959. Courtesy of the Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

[1] ‘A bittersweet history of Sydney’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 3rd May 2018, https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/sugar-house-alana-valentine-pyrmont-history-20180503-p4zd1f.html (accessed: 5th September 2023); ‘Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR) in Pyrmont’, History of Sydney, 3rd July 2016, https://historyofsydney.com.au/colonial-sugar-refinery-pyrmont/, (accessed 5th September 2023).

[2] See Tracey Banivanua-Mar, Violence and Colonial Dialogue: The Australian-Pacific Indentured Labour Trade (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007).

[3] Hugh Tinker, A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas, 1830-1920 (Oxford University Press, 1974).

[4] ‘Australian South Sea Islander elders reflect on decades-long fight for recognition’, ABC News, 25th August 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-08-25/south-sea-islander-elders-reflect-on-fight-for-recognition/100401672, (accessed: 5th September 2023).

[5] Margaret Mishra, ‘Between Women: Indenture, Morality and Health’, Australian Humanities Review, 52 (2012): 70.

[6] ‘Fiona from Fiji’, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842-1954), 22 March 1912, p. 10.

[7] In the historical context of indenture, ‘Coolie’ was a derogatory term used to refer to the working class of Indian migrants. In Fiji, indentured Indian labourers referred to their labour contract as Girmit (a rural Hindi pronunciation of the English word ‘agreement’) and referred to themselves as Girmitiya.

[8] ‘Disastrous Sydney Fire: C.S.R Co’s Pyrmont Premises Gutted’, Bunbury Herald (WA: 1892-1919), 26 Oct 1918, p. 5.

[9] ‘Big City Fire’, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW: 1842-1954), 25 Oct 1918, p. 7.

[10] Fiona Murphy, ‘Archives of Sorrow: An Exploration of Australia’s Stolen Generations and their Journey into the past’, History and Anthropology, 22, (2011): 493.

[11] Josè Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, (NYU Press: 2009), 29.

[12] Jacques Derrida, ‘Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression’, Diacritics, 25:2, (2019):91.

[13] Natalie Harkin, ‘Haunting: Archival-Poetics 2’, in Archival Poetics, (Vagabond Press: 2019), 34.

Suzanne Claridge is a writer, researcher and artist of Indo-Fijian and Anglo descent living and working on Gadigal land, Sydney. Her research interests focus on counter histories, poetics and reimagining the archive.

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