Introducing the 1791-93 slave sugar abstention campaign

26 Sep


A cross section of the slave ship Brookes (1789), showing the horrific conditions of passage suffered by 482 men, women and children who were contained in the hold for the trans-Atlantic journey from the West coast of Africa to the Caribbean. Copies of this drawing were distributed by the Abolitionist Society in the UK as part of the sugar boycott.

Commodity boycotted: West Indian sugar

Specific egregious concern: The slave trade

Core themes: Enslaved labour, achieving spiritual purity, the perceived moral decline of Empire and creating moral credit and legacy, philanthropic concern, extra-parliamentary politics, romanticism, radical food politics, blood-sugar topos

Key boycotting organizations: Philadelphia & British Society of Friends, The Anti-Slavery Committee, The Abolition Committee, Amis des Noirs

Companion tactics: Petitions, buycotts (East Indian sugar), publishing witness accounts of slavery, developing a freed slave republic producing free labour commodities, civic & parliamentary debating, commercial endorsement, political networking, poetry writing and readings.

Key activist contact points: Manchester, London, Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Oxford, Sierra Leone, Philadelphia, New York, Paris, Edinburgh

Keywords:  Abstension, Moral-suasion, Purity, Complicity, Responsibility, Benevolence, Witness,  Philanthropy

Topoi: blood/sugar, tears/sugar, sweetness/bitterness

The politicisation of sugar consumption by the anti-saccharite campaign was so successful that between 300,000 – 500,000 people across the UK, or roughly ten percent of the population, abstained from consuming West Indian sugar between 1791 and 1793. In 1792 British government received 519 anti-slave trade petitions. When these petitions failed to produce parliamentary action, the boycott was implemented. The radical, extra-parliamentary nature of the boycott campaign meant that it only received official endorsement of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade for a few months in 1793. For many of the leading abolitionists the Anglican/Quaker alliance of the boycott movement headed by the confrontational radical Thomas Clarkson had become too subversive. In the context of the explosively reactionary era of the French revolution, the weak monarchy where public debates over George III’s sanity were commonplace, and the slave rebellion in San Domingue (Haiti), the extra parliamentary politics of the boycotters seemed a threat to constitutional power. The boycott marked the beginning of a range of cultural and political trajectories that continue to develop today. Over the next few blog posts I will map out the importance of the inaugural food boycott by developing five cultural contributions that the anti-saccharite movement made to a globalizing culture of food activism.

Recommended further reading:

Abbott, E (2009) Sugar – A Bittersweet History. London & New York: Duckworth Overlook

Baucom, I (2006) Specters of The Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Davis, D (1975) The Problem with Slavery in the Age of Revolution. 1770-1823. Ithaca: Cornell University Press

Mintz, S (1985) Sweetness and Power – The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin

Sheller, M (2003) Consuming the Caribbean. London: Routledge

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