A plaque in Tascott, on the NSW central coast, memorialises the man for whom the suburb is named.
Thomas Alison Scott (T A Scott), it proclaims, ‘pioneered the sugar industry in Australia’. Scott’s status as Australia’s sugar innovator is noted everywhere from the Australian Dictionary of Biography to the website of the Freemasons, where he is also remembered as Australian Social Lodge member 260.
But the claim that Scott was the nation’s original sugar pioneer is doubtful, and plays down the contribution of another man, the unheralded and largely unknown James Williams. The story of these two men, one white and influential, the other black and captive, is a microcosm of the current controversy over slavery, memory and legacies being played out around the world.
Along with members of many other white families, Scott left Antigua when Britain made the transatlantic slave trade illegal. Believing that their lives there were ruined, many went in search of new opportunities to plant sugar with a labour force that could be coerced.
Scott’s first venture in Tahiti failed, and he continued on to Sydney. There he solicited Major Frederick Goulburn, colonial secretary and himself son of a wealthy sugar planter and slave owner, to promote sugar cultivation in New South Wales. When Goulburn agreed, Scott sailed for Port Macquarie to put his plan of using convict labour into action. Shortly afterwards, he began to vociferously declare success.
Such claims hide a different history entirely. When Scott arrived in Port Macquarie, a man named James Williams had already grown sugar successfully there. To Scott, however, Williams was immaterial; it was inconceivable that he might be a rival. And the reason went far beyond Williams’ convict status.
Like Scott, Williams was from Antigua; unlike Scott, he was described as having a black complexion and ‘black woolly hair’. His knowledge of how to grow sugar revealed the truth of his past: he had been born into slavery.