Chosen by Rhodri Lewis, former member of staff
In 1890, a young British man named John ‘Pitt’ Hornung decided to try his luck at founding a sugar cane plantation on the banks of the Zambesi in Portuguese East Africa. Battling setbacks such as flood, drought and plagues of locusts, Pitt succeeded where others had failed and would go on to establish one of the largest sugar cane plantations in the world: the Sena Sugar Estates. By 1920, Pitt’s estates comprised three factories and spanned some 14,000 square miles of Portuguese East Africa; a fourth factory was opened in 1924. A fleet of 25 British-built steam locomotives, a paddle steamer (also British-built) and other river craft were used to transport the cane around the countryside and down to the coast, where it was shipped to Pitt’s own sugar refinery in Lisbon.
Pitt’s extensive sugar empire would make him a fortune, enabling him to move his family to West Grinstead Park in West Sussex, where he lived the life of a country gentleman and established a successful stud, breeding 129 winners over 25 years.
Although Pitt died in 1940, the estates remained a family concern and continued to go from strength to strength. Extended throughout the 20th century, by the 1960s, some 14,000 people made their living via the Sena estates; however, the estates were sacked in 1986, during Mozambique’s devastating civil war, and production all but ceased. Today, the estates are owned and managed by various companies, including the French cooperative Tereos.
Most of the company’s archives were destroyed alongside the estates, but a small collection was retained by the Hornung family; this was presented to West Sussex Record Office in 2009 and forms one of our more unusual collections. The concession map, dated c1920, is my favourite item from the collection. It shows the extent of the estates and gives an indication of how much bigger they were to become. It is also incredibly eye-catching.
Page from Sena account book detailing native labour expenses and costs of establishing sugar cane, 1931-1940 (left), and page from Sena minute book detailing estimated costs of providing additional machinery and railway, 1908