The Hornung Papers
Members of the Hornung family gathered at West Grinstead Park to celebrate Pitt and Laura Hornung's 50th wedding anniversary, April 1934. George Garland Collection, West Sussex Record Office, reference Garland N9156, (c) West Sussex Record Office
The Hornung Papers– the administrative records of Hornung & Co Ltd, empire builders, founders and owners of the Sena Sugar Estates in Mozambique, the Compania de Cha Oriental Estate in Malawi, sugar refineries in Portugal and the West Grinstead Stud in West Sussex, amongst other concerns.
Although they are now virtually unknown – certainly in the UK - in their heyday, the Sena Sugar Estates of Mozambique formed one of the largest sugar plantations in the world and were home to the largest sugar factory in Africa. By the 1960s, some 14,000 people made their living via the estates.
The first sugar factory of the Zambesia region of Portuguese East Africa was founded in 1890 by the ambitious, determined and pioneering John Peter 'Pitt' Hornung, the son of Transylvanian immigrants who settled near Middlesborough, where they successfully traded in coal, iron and timber. Although born in Britain, Pitt was eventually sent to work in Portugal, where he fell in love with and married Laura de Paiva Rapozo in 1884; it was as a result of his marriage that Pitt had the opportunity to exploit a number of his father in law's concessions in Portugal's East African colonies.
General plan of concessions along the Zambezi River, c1910 Hornung Papers (uncatalogued), West Sussex Record Office, reference Acc 15353 (box 40), (c) West Sussex Record Office
After a number of unsuccessful attempts to establish other agricultural concerns (including opium) in the area, a chance encounter with a French agricultural ‘expert’ in South Africa, whilst Pitt was en route to Britain to visit his young family - who had moved there from Portugal - inspired Pitt to try one more crop on the concessions: sugar cane. Pitt was able to raise sufficient capital in Portugal to erect a small sugar processing factory in the area, planted his cane and then set about making the project a success.
Despite innumerable setbacks – including flood, drought and locust invasions, to name just a few – Pitt's venture eventually succeeded, seemingly against the odds. In 1906, he formed a company called the Sena Sugar Factory, and a second, larger factory was built in the Zambesia region. By 1920, Pitt and his backers had several interests in the region, which were amalgamated to form the Sena Sugar Estates. This company controlled some 14,000 square miles of Portuguese East Africa and comprised three sugar estates, a fleet of river craft, a coastal steamer and a sugar refinery in Lisbon; in 1924, a fourth factory opened in Zambesia, and 25 locomotives and 2,000 field trucks were required to serve Sena's factories, such was the scale of their output. Many of the company's fleet of vehicles – including its paddle steamer and locomotives – were made in the north of England and shipped out to the estates in Portuguese East Africa, where many remain to this day.
Thanks to his pioneering spirit and ruthless determination – and the labour of countless thousands of African men and women – Pitt rapidly built a substantial private fortune off the back of his sugar enterprise. In 1913, Pitt used some of this money to purchase the manor of West Grinstead and the manor house, West Grinstead Park, in West Sussex, enabling him to live the life of a country gentleman. Pitt’s fortune also enabled him to energetically indulge his passion for race horsing and the breeding of race horses, where he enjoyed remarkable success, breeding 129 winners over 26 years. Pitt also purchased Papyrus, the famous Derby winner, but the horse’s success was not reflected in his genes, as he failed to sire a single winner. Given Pitt’s success as a breeder, it is perhaps no surprise that his stud farm was taken over as a branch of the National Stud in 1949, after Pitt’s death in 1940 and the subsequent sale of West Grinstead Park.
After Pitt's death, the Sena Sugar Estates remained a family concern, and Pitt's descendents continued to operate the business, overseeing its expansion throughout the 20th century. But the onset of Mozambique's lengthy civil war in 1977 – just two years after it gained independence from Portugal – and the general intransigence of the Hornungs, saw the estates sacked and abandoned in the 1980s; the company's archives were destroyed alongside its crop, factories and machinery. However, the records of the London end of the business survived, and were deposited at West Sussex Record Office by family members in 2009.
Although by no means complete, the collection held at West Sussex Record Office – as yet uncatalogued – provides the only substantial, tangible written evidence of the establishment, rise and subsequent decline of an extremely important yet almost forgotten colonial entity. Furthermore, as the collection is virtually untouched, it offers students of African, economic, agricultural and colonial history a rare opportunity to develop new theories and understandings of the workings of a large scale plantation enterprise in Portuguese East Africa, as well as its national and international impact; in addition, those researching the national bloodstock of the 20th century will also find the records of the West Grinstead Stud an invaluable resource.
White & Veil's 'Capitalism and Colonialism in Mozambique' (Heinemann, 1980) provides extensive background information and analysis of Sena Sugar Estates and their impact on Portuguese East Africa. Much of the book was based on 'local' archives – that is, those held at the company's plantations – and is therefore the only real indication of the records that were lost when the estates were sacked.
As well as providing biographical details about the Pitt family, BM Collins' biography of Pitt Hornung, 'JP Hornung, A Family Portrait', includes information about the establishment and success of the Sena Sugar Estates, up until the death of Pitt Hornung in 1940.
An earlier collection of records about the running of the West Grinstead Stud was donated to West Sussex Record Office in November 1989, although many records relating to the stud can be found in the Hornung Papers.
Nichola Court, West Sussex Record Office
© All images by kind permission of West Sussex Record Office