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  • Writer's picture Gary Bills



A loaf of white sugar: it might as well be marble, so hard it is, so perfect. So unused. Behind thick glass at the little museum it could be mistaken for the nose-cone of a rocket, it might be a shell of phosphorus, from the Somme. But this is far older than monkeys in a Sputnik and older than a slaughter in the mud; this Pain de Sucre made by slaves who cut the cane, and cut the cane, and died, was packed like a guilty secret in the hold and sent four thousand miles to Bristol Docks where rows of ships were loud with groans and chains. Young traders, fat on Caribbean sweat and fine Plantation White, to sweeten tea, secured the swing of commerce with a whip, when life was cheap for those with ready cash. The owners of this cone, they must have loved it; they never cut its flanks with iron teeth. For years it must have hardened in a pantry, a muslin-mummy, safe from time and flies, till no-one even knew that it was there; forgotten in the dark: this pregnant crime


HQ magazine. 20th anniversary issue

Copyright ©:

Gary Bills

This poem has also been published on the Best Poems site - and elsewhere, and the overall response has been positive: although the subject matter does raise a number of questions which are not so easy to answer.

In my poetry and short stories, I have often examined the thorny problem of human cruelty. I am not seeking a 'thumbs up' emoticon to say I do not really understand how cruelty can arise: how one human being can treat another so badly. I understand the causes, I think, but I can't understand why the impulse to be cruel is not held in check. After all, we are all on this planet for a very short while, and yet so many folks waste the brief time they have seeking profits at the expense of others: and it is frequently a terrible expense. The problem is, most of us are living in a capitalist society, and capitalism is not really a political system - it is a form of monetary administration: and there is quite a difference. Politics by definition is for the people; but capitalism is for profit. Now, the by-products of capitalism often lead to an increase in material comforts, and capitalism can also lead to social advancement. However, the bottom line is, there is no bottom line. If the pursuit of profits is seen as the highest end, then anything can be justified through a warped and evil logic: including slavery, which is the commodification of human beings.

The problem is, people tend to be greedy, and this greed can make them cruel. Human lives can be - and were - destroyed in the pursuit of profit. But profit can be power too, and where power becomes the currency, inequality will swiftly follow. I remember seeing the mansions of the communist chiefs, on the shores of Snagov Lake in Romania. Clearly, to paraphrase Orwell, in that society, some were more equal than others!

This is why I think, it is important to remember the Slave Trade, and also the Holocaust, not because those memories make us feel good about ourselves, because they remind us how terrible human beings can be, in the pursuit of profit, and also ideology. Hopefully, human behaviour will be moderated in future because of the horrors of the past; although I am not very hopeful.

I wrote about a cone of sugar because, not so long ago, that commodity was valued more than human life. I really did see a cone of sugar in a little museum, and it set me a-wondering…

The UK, as well as the USA, were major hubs of the slave trade and Bristol was an important port for slave trips. Even when those ships had delivered their human cargo to the Caribbean, on a triangular journey that obviously included stops in Africa - even when those ships returned home empty, before another long journey, they must have been "loud with groans and chains" - for human beings can sense the lingering miasma of human misery.

I am not black, and I have no black ancestry - as far as I know: but I write about this because I am a human being. Personally, I don't have the answer as to how we can limit greed and prevent cruelty; but to recognise cruelty, and how it arises is, I think, a step in the right direction.

PS: My wife, Heather is currently animating this poem, and her excellent work will be published here in the near future.

Slave ship by BZfilm animations. 2018.

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