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Drawing depicting slaves working at a sugar plantation.

The first sugar

Emma Christopher
Sugar and slavery are intertwined in the hidden story of Australia’s early industry.

A plaque in Tascott, on the NSW central coast, memorialises the man for whom the suburb is named.

An old, sepia portrait of a white, bearded man.
Thomas Alison Scott, pioneer sugar grower

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.

Drawing depicting slaves working at a sugar plantation.
Image from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua, in which are represented the process of sugar making, and the employment of the negroes, London: Thomas Clay, 1823, courtesy British Library

Williams may have been emancipated, or may have purchased his freedom from slavery. But it is more likely that he absconded and fled to England. He later claimed to have been a cook, suggesting he had taken the popular route to freedom by seeking work on a ship and passing himself off as a free man. After he arrived in Portsmouth, probably bound for London, he was arrested for theft. In July 1819, aged 23, he was sentenced to seven years’ transportation.

Williams arrived in Sydney on the transport Neptune in July 1820. In December he was sent north to Newcastle for another theft. Two years later he was ordered to Port Macquarie, newly established as a site of punishment for those who committed further crimes. But then came a glimmer of hope. At Port Macquarie Captain Francis Allman ‘procur’d 8 joints’ of sugar cane. Of all the men there, only James Williams knew what to do next.

Drawing depicting slaves planting sugar canes.
Image from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua, in which are represented the process of sugar making, and the employment of the negroes, London: Thomas Clay, 1823, courtesy British Library

Where other men had tried to produce sugar and failed, Williams took one plant and made 400. Allman was thrilled, rewarding him with clearance to return to Sydney. Soon, however, he was back, apparently sent merely on ‘suspicion of a crime’ with no conviction listed. After his return, showing remarkable resilience, Williams continued his work. He produced sugar and rum that was forwarded to Sydney in triumph.

It was only at this point that Thomas Alison Scott arrived at Port Macquarie and produced what he later claimed was the first sugar. That Scott’s story has been widely believed and recounted partly reflects the different fates of the two men. Scott lived out his very long life writing frequent letters to newspapers about sugar cultivation, forever framing himself as the nation’s foremost expert. His 12 children, countless grandchildren and great-grandchildren — one of whom erected the plaque at Gosford — have kept the story alive.

James Williams, by contrast, was in and out of jail for the remainder of his life, sometimes on the basis of dubious evidence, and by some accounts he was ultimately hanged. Illiterate, he struggled to record his own version of events. If he had children in Australia there is no record of them. His story is not celebrated.

Sugar cane field, Clarence River, North Coast District, NSW
Sugar Mill, Richmond River

But this alone does not account for the way Williams has been written out of history. Even at the time, Scott was challenged over his hubris. ‘How many times did you try to make sugar at the settlement before you made anything like it?’ one man asked, adding, ‘What you made yourself was not fit for dogs to eat before the poor black man shewed [sic] you the way.’ Newcastle commandant Captain Rolland agreed, writing that it was ‘the Negro who first planted the cane’.

So why, when Williams’ story was known at the time and then brought to light again in the 1950s, is it only Scott who features in the Dictionary of Biography? Some might suggest that the answer lies solely in Williams’ convict status, but this would be to miss the bigger picture. Williams has been largely written out of the story of Australia’s sugar history just as the achievements of people of African origin were overlooked, ignored or downplayed everywhere in the British Empire.

Drawing of slaves working in a boiling house.
Image from Ten Views in the Island of Antigua, in which are represented the process of sugar making, and the employment of the negroes, London: Thomas Clay, 1823, courtesy British Library

The deliberate omission of people of colour from the history books casts a long shadow across our world. As historians in the United States and the Caribbean are urgently arguing, it allows a white supremacy narrative to appear self-evident. People of colour are today striving to write their own triumphs into tomorrow’s history books. 

James Williams’ experience was unique, but he also represents a story that Australia has hardly begun to grapple with. He, as well as Scott, should have a place in our history.


The Scott family papers are held by the State Library of NSW.


Associate Professor Emma Christopher is a Scientia Fellow at the University of New South Wales and was the Library’s 2018 CH Currey Fellow. Her latest book is Freedom in White and Black: A Lost Story of the Illegal Slave Trade and its Global Legacy (University of Wisconsin Press, 2108).

This article first appeared in SL magazine, Summer 2019–20.