Anti-Saccharite Cultures i) Moralising Consumption and Enlarging the Political Sphere

26 Sep

Mary Birkett Card (1774-1817). No likeness survives. This is the title page of the second edition of her Poem on the African Slave Trade

OPPRESSION! thou, whose hard and cruel chain,
Entails on all thy victims woe and pain;
Who gives with tyrant force and scorpion whip,
The cup of mis’ry to a Negro’s lip;
Marks with stern frown thy wide, unhallow’d reign,
And broods with gloomy wing o’er Afric’s injur’d plain!

First stanza of A Poem On The African Slave Trade, 1791, by Dublin based Quaker, Mary Birkett. The poem is addressed specifically to female consumers of sugar.

In this first post on anti-saccharite cultures I want to briefly point toward some of the wider political issues at stake during the time of the sugar boycott.

The anti-saccharite campaign’s underlying rationale of consumer sovereignty, and its spiritually inflected argument of ‘moral’ responsibility over distance (both explicitly outlined during the movement in the anti-saccharite pamphlets and poetry of Quakers William Fox and Mary Birkett respectively), represented a key moment of self-realisation in the European political tradition.

This was the realization that the political sphere, and indeed the politically active, could be enlarged beyond the traditional boundaries of parliamentary debate through the use of petitions, boycotts and strikes. The sense of national political transformation dovetailed with international events; with the birth of the United States, the French revolution, and later the Haitian independence from European sovereignty. The anti-saccharite abstinence campaign (which is posthumously described by historians as a boycott) is contextualized by Evangelical and Quaker narratives of self purging, saving souls, complicity, denial and sacrifice, and with the moral crisis, and sense of corruption and introspection regarding Britain’s global role that followed American Independence in 1783. The anti-saccharite campaign explicitly tied the individual consumer of sugar to a wider European and global geopolitics whilst attempting to ‘moralise’ consumption.

Recommended further reading:

Boehmer, E (2002) Empire, the National, and the Postcolonial, 1890-1920. Resistance in Interaction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Brown, C  (2006) Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism. Chapel Hill: University of Northern Carolina Press

Breen, T (1988) Baubles of Britain: The American and European Consumer Revolutions of the Eighteenth Century. Past and Present 119: 73-104

David, H (2007) Transnational advocacy in the eighteenth century: transatlantic activism and the anti-slavery movement. Global Networks: A Journal of Transnational Affairs. 7:3, 367-82 (16)

Hilton, M (2009) Prosperity For All-Consumer Activism in an Era of Globalization. Cornell: Cornell University Press

Hochschild, A (2005) Bury the Chains. The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery. New York: Macmillan

Midgley, C (1996) Slave sugar boycotts, female activism and the domestic base of British anti-slavery culture. Slavery & Abolition, 17: 3, 137-62

Trentmann, F (2004) The Modern Evolution of the Consumer: Meanings, Knowledge, and Identities Before the Age of Affluence. Cultures of Consumption Research Programme. Working Paper no 10

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