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On the buried histories behind Henry Tate and Henry O. Havemeyer, their collections and two of today's most renowned art institutions.

  • Jun 02 2021
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Sugar barons Henry Tate and Henry O. Havemeyer are often revered for their philanthropic endeavors, including their massive donations of artworks to the Tate Britain in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, respectively. However, the sugar empires that financed these vast art collections also profited from the exploitation of enslaved peoples, indentured servants, and wage-laborers. The quotes below are taken from various sources, including statements from the museums themselves, hinting at the buried history behind these sugar tycoons, their collections, and two of today’s most renowned art institutions.

HENRY TATE (1819- 1899)

Henry Tate began refining sugar in 1859. Following the success of his sugar cubes, it wasn’t long until the company Tate & Sons (later, Tate & Lyle) grew into a British household name. With his amassed wealth, Henry Tate collected artworks and funded the construction of an art gallery—eventually named Tate Britain. Many of the paintings and sculptures he donated to the gallery have continued to be Tate Britain’s most iconic pieces of art.


“For his contemporaries, Tate was really the great magnate of British sugar. The very name, Tate, became synonymous with sugar: for example, quotations for refined sugar in London generally corresponded to the price of Tate cubes.”  [1]

“… the sugar industry on which both the Tate and the Lyle firms (the two merged in 1921) were built in the 19th century was itself absolutely constructed on the foundation of slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries, both in supply and in demand.”  [2]

“Raw sugar imported from the British Caribbean by the Tate or Lyle companies in the post-slavery era would have been from estates established under slavery but worked at that point by wage-labourers and, in the case of British Guiana and Trinidad, by indentured labour, a system which lasted into the early 20th century.” [2]

“The Indian indenture system was put into place by the British imperial government at the behest of sugar planters. The intention was to provide planters with a regular, assured, and cheap labor force similar to what they had under slavery, thereby alleviating their need to rely upon, or pay market price for, the labor of their former slaves.” [3]



“[Henry Tate] was a close friend of Sir John Everett Millais, [artist and] director of the Royal Academy. It had been Tate’s intention to donate his collection to the National Gallery, but the trustees were prepared to accept only a sample…[4]

“… a campaign was begun to create a new gallery dedicated to British art. With the help of an £80,000 donation from Tate himself, the gallery at Millbank, now known as Tate Britain, was built and opened in 1897. Tate’s original bequest of works, together with works from the National Gallery, formed the founding collection.” [5]

“[Tate] donated sixty-five of his own pictures, and three sculptures to the gallery. They included many which reflected his conservative taste, such as Orchardson’s “Her First Dance” and “The First Cloud”; Waterhouse’s “Lady of Shallot”; Millais’ “Ophelia,” “Vale of Rest,” and “North-West Passage”; and several by Tindeman, Reid, and – Queen Victoria’s own favourite – Sir Edwin Landseer.” [6]



HENRY HAVEMEYER (1847 -1907)

Henry O. Havemeyer was born into a sugar refining business. He dominated the U.S sugar industry and transformed Havemeyers & Elder into the American Sugar Refining Company (ASRC). Havemeyer’s immense fortune and power shaped labor practices, economies, and the arts. His donated collection transformed the Metropolitan Museum of Art and established the institution as a premiere hub for 19th century French paintings.


A legacy of Havemeyer’s life was his art collection. Throughout his life, he bought art, primarily with his second wife, Lousine W. Elder […] Many of the couple’s purchases were made under the guidance of Mary Cassatt, a significant painter in her own.

“Nearly two thousand works of art entered the Museum in 1929 with the Havemeyer bequest […] the collection has continued to grow in enusing decades, to reach a total approaching 4,500.” [7]

The scope of the collection is such that it enriches nearly every department of the [Met] Museum –
American decorative arts, American paintings and sculpture, arms and armor, Asian art, drawings, Egyptian art, European sculpture and decorative arts, Greek and Roman art, Islamic art, Medieval art, and prints and illustratated books – but none more brilliantly than that of European paintings.[7]



By 1907, the year of H.O. Havemeyer’s death, [American Sugar Refining Company] controlled 98% of U.S. sugar production.[8]

Their policy of expansion and commitment to staying at the forefront of technological innovation led, in the late nineteenth century, to the creation of the “Sugar Trust,” a monopolistic corporation that dominated the industry and generated massive wealth for various members of the Havemeyer family.[8]

An 1875 description of the refining process at the Havemeyers & Elder refinery lists some of the countries and regions whose raw sugar had arrived in Brooklyn: “Cuba, Porto Rico [sic], the English, French, and Dutch West Indies, Java, China, India, and the Philippine Islands…[8]

After abolition, sugar refineries increased the consumption of foreign sugar, particularly from Cuba and other colonial Caribbean islands, where people worked for incredibly low wages or where plantations depended on the labor of enslaved people of African descent.[9]




Read this piece in print in the issue 16 "Food Eats the Soul", out now!

    1. Chalmin, Philippe. “The Making of a Sugar Giant: Tate and Lyle, 1859-1989” Harwood Academic Publishers, 1990.
    2. Tate. “The Tate Galleries and Slavery.” Tate, 2019. <>
    3. Sturman, Rachel. “Indian Indentured Labor and the History of International Rights Regimes.” The American Historical Review, 2014.
    4. Rodger, Munting. “Tate, Sir Henry, First Baronet (1819–1899).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004.
    5. Tate. “History of Tate.” Tate. n.d. <>
    6. “Henry Osborne Havemeyer.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2018.
    7. Frelinghuysen, Alice Cooney, and Maryan Wynn Ainsworth. “Splendid Legacy the Havemeyer Collection;
    Metropolitan Museum of Art,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1993.
    8. National Park Service. “Historic American Engineering Record, American Sugar Refining Company,
    Brooklyn Refinery HAER No. NY-548” U.S. Department of the Interior, Retrieved from the Library of Congress. n.d
    9. White, Anne-Laure. “Building Havemeyer Hall: Charles Frederick Chandler and the Sugar Refining Industry.”
    Columbia University and Slavery. n.d. <



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