Anti-Saccharite Cultures iii) Networks and Contentious Politics

27 Sep

In this third post on anti-saccharite cultures I’d like to bring attention to the sugar boycott as the prototype for performing contentious politics and for a range of social movements.

“Contentious politics refers to concerted, counter hegemonic social and political action, in which differently positioned participants come together to challenge dominant systems of authority, in order to promote or enact alternative imaginaries”

(Leitner et al., 2007: 1).

Failure of parliamentary politics

The slave sugar boycott became the key tactic to pressurize government policy on the slave trade after the failure of petitioning tactics and parliamentary pressure used by abolitionists in 1787-90. Social movement and contentious politics theory suggest that the closure of lines of communication between groups and governments is fundamental to the development of a political movement. Littler (2005), Brown (2006) and Micheletti (2003) have declared the slave produced sugar abstinence campaign of 1792 as the original prototype for Western popularised political activism; that in its conception, planning, implications and escalation of ideas into activism it became a blueprint for other forms of political protest and ethical consumption over the ensuing centuries. The video clip below is of the Manchester petition against the slave trade from 1806. Although dated over a decade after the anti-saccharite boycott, the petition gives a good impression of the scale of this new, extra-parliamentary politics.


The rise of political consciousness & trans-Atlantic anti-saccharite networks

Anti-saccharite networks spanned the Atlantic, the Irish sea, and the English channel. In 1789 Thomas Clarkson visited France for several months in an attempt to create a pan European anti-slavery abstention campaign. The French movement was given direction by the Amis des Noirs. At this time the French Empire owned more slaves even than the British (600,000 to 400,000). Hochschild  and Drescher note that Clarkson’s mission was a failure. The Amis des Noirs (founded in 1788) had hoped for a British petition to be presented to the French National Assembly. The French anti-slavery movement was too weak to mobilize a nationwide petition or boycott, and in three years presented fewer signatures to the French Assembly than Manchester provided to parliament in a month (Hochschild, 2005).

Anti-slavery networks developed over a long period and hijacked existing religious and commercial networks. In a rebuttal of Eric William’s thesis that anti-slavery was essentially a movement driven by national economic necessity, Drescher (1987) argues that support for the boycott depended on both widespread literacy and a tradition of British political consciousness and action. During the 1780s Quaker and Evangelical networks had awakened the public to anti-slavery through parliamentary petitions, poetry and minor publications. In Victorian Quakers, Elizabeth Isichei (1970) paraphrases the chocolatier George Cadbury in suggesting that Quaker networks were “religious-cum-kinships groups”, which comprised of many entrepreneurial individuals who had received a lifetime of training in self denial and “rigid abstinence from all luxury and self-indulgence” (Cadbury, 1909, in Isichei, 1970: 183).  The boycott movement was one of several movements within a movement of anti-slavery that created a metropolitan counter-culture.

Wedgewood anti-slavery medallion, circa 1795 

This culture inhabited small publishing houses, Anglican and Methodist and Quaker places of worship, women’s societies and coffee houses and domestic places of conviviality. Anti-slavery became a commercial enterprise that the elite and bourgeois could buy into through Wedgewood medallions, tea sets, and plaques. These specific places are the convergence spaces of the anti-saccharite movement. The boycott campaign targeted different classes with tailored rhetoric, and was transnational in exchanging and sharing knowledge and practices across the Atlantic, across different localities in existing networks while adapting and forging new ones (Featherstone, 2007).

Top: Corresponding Society London anti-slavery copper halfpenny token. Dated 1795. Obverse: A flying dove with an olive branch in its beak: “united for a reform of parliament “* 1795 *”. Reverse: Two hands joined in friendship: “May slavery & oppression cease  throughout the world”. Edge inscription: “Payable at London or Brighton”. See Featherstone, D (2009) for a historical geography of the Corresponding Society London.

Bottom: Thomas Spence’s London copper halfpenny token dated 1796. Obverse: A sailor press-ganging a landsman: “* British * Liberty * Displayed * 1795”. Reverse: Crowned, winged caduceus with cap of liberty: “We were born free – and will never die slaves”.

(Images courtesy of

From metaphorical sweetness to a platform for feminism

The boycott also enabled the beginnings of a feminist movement both in the UK and the United States. Claire Midgley has argued that the abolitionist Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 publication, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, made visceral links between the ‘vital blood’ of women and colonial slaves, a ‘vital blood’ which was used to “sweeten the cup of man” (2007: 42). Midgley’s central argument is that women abstained from the sensual sweetness of slave produced sugar whilst transcending their “metaphorical sweetness as domestic women” (ibid: 43); in this she echoes Sidney Mintz’s argument that male observers of the late eighteenth century believed that sweet things were the domain of women. During the boycott, women became the unofficial patronesses of sugar, and drinking unsweetened tea was tied to the intimacies of domestic femininity. Consuming women were the main targets of the blood-sugar topos: their figurative sweetness was under threat from the moral shock of drinking tea infused by the blood of slaves.

Isaac Cruikshank’s “The gradual abolition of the slave trade: or leaving of sugar by degrees in 1792”

The blood-sugar topos made literal the bourgeois tea party production of slavery. As with the Boycott Outspan Action boycott of the 1970s, the  feminine role as a figurative avatar of societal morality was pivotal (as I will argue in a forthcoming ‘Inspan Girls’ post). Less pronounced by the anti-saccharites was the reality of sugar consumption in 1790s Britain. By the 1790s more sugar was being consumed as a complex food substitute in workhouses, mills, factories and poorhouses than as part of a more variable middle class diet in tea houses and drawing rooms (Schivelbusch, 1993; Abbott, 2009). The working man, as planters and pro-slavery sympathizers liked to remark, needed his sugar, and was much the poorer (and less productive) without it.

Where the working man’s position had been calcified by new urban  divisions of labour and by lutherian work ethic discourse, the bourgeois woman was susceptible to boycott rhetoric through her position as a malleable signifier of purity. However, anti-saccharites didn’t simply turn to women, women actively embraced to the movement. Keela Jubas opines that as females were excluded from formal political processes, women had no option but to perform their disaffection through subaltern counter publics. The ‘feminine ideals’ of compassion and sentimentality and the metaphorical purity of the feminine body was in demand for expanding the movement, while female participation, tactics and roles in abolitionist politics marked a precedent in women’s rights. The contentious politics of the anti-saccharite movement both used femininity and the feminine body as an avatar of persuasion through purity and perfection, whilst providing the networks, the rhetoric and the platform for a nascent feminist movement.

Recommended further reading

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

Drescher, S (2001) Sisterhood and Slavery: Transatlantic Antislavery and Women’s Rights. Proceedings of the Third Annual Gilder Lehrman Centre International Conference at Yale University. Unpublished

Featherstone, D (2008) Resistance, Space and Political Identities The making of Counter Global Networks. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell

Leitner H, Sheppard E, Sziarto K (2007) The Spatialities of Contentious Politics. Trans. Inst. Br. Geogr.. 33 157-172

Littler, J (2005) Beyond the boycott. Anti Consumerism, cultural change and the limits of reflexivity. Cultural Studies, 19: 2: 227-252

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

Jasper, J (1999) The Art of Moral Protest: culture, biography and creativity in social movements. Chicago: University of Chicago

Klotz, A (2002) Transantional Activism and Global Transformations: The Anti Apartheid and Abolitionist Experiences. European Journal of International Relations. 8:49

Micheletti, M (2003) Political Virtue and Shopping. Individuals, Consumerism and Collective Action. New York: Palgrave, MacMillan

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

Midgley, C (2007) ‘Evaluating Women’s role in the slave sugar boycott’ , in Feminism and Empire:Women Activists in Imperial Britain, 1790- 1865. London: Routledge

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

Morton, T (2000a) The Poetics of Spice: Romantic Consumerism and the Exotic. C.U.P: New York

Routledge, P (2003) Convergence space: process geographies of grassroots globalization networks. Trans. of The Institute of British Geographers. 28: 333-49.

Schivelbusch, W (1993) Tastes of Paradise – A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxications. New York: Vintage

Sussman, C (2000) Consuming Anxieties Consumer Protest, Gender & British Slavery, 1713-1833. Stanford: California University Press

Tarrow, S (1998) Power in Movement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

2 Responses to “Anti-Saccharite Cultures iii) Networks and Contentious Politics”

  1. Tom Bradschetl March 9, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

    Who’s Brown (2006)? (Cited in the first Paragraph)

    • hughcrosfield March 17, 2014 at 4:45 pm #

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

object archives

reading and writing eccentric histories

Turbulent London

The historical geography of protests, riots and general mischief in London.

A contribution to the global dialogue on human trafficking


'Race', Ethnicity & Post-Colonial Studies: an interdisciplinary network

Conflict & Security

Our thoughts on Conflict & Security and anything else of interest in the field of International Relations.

cultivating alternatives

Research and writing on alternatives to the dominant order.

Experimental Geographies

"There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more" - Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1974: 156)

Le Clic

Un blog dédié aux blogs et autres médias sociaux.

New Seeds

a reading notes blog in rhetoric/composition and postcolonial feminist/antiracist theory

Andy Davies's Blog

A site

The Orient Views

The Indigenous views of the eastern world

Dr Alun Withey

Welcome to my blog! I am an academic historian of medicine and the body, and 2014 AHRC/BBC 'New Generation Thinker'. Please enjoy and let me know what you think.


researching philosophy and technology at the University of the West of England

This Sociological Life

A blog by sociologist Deborah Lupton

Asylum Geographies

Research and thoughts on asylums and their after-lives

Centre for Medical Humanities

This site has now closed

%d bloggers like this: