Anti-Saccharite Cultures iv) Radical Food as a Matter of Taste

27 Sep

“The links between First World “taste” and Third World suffering are understood by the producing nations and it has become evident that increasingly their destiny has become, in effect, a secondary effect of shifts in First World consumption patterns” (Daniel Miller 1995:3).

“Oh ye who at your ease sip the blood-sweetn’d beverage”(Southey, 1797)

Integral to the slave sugar boycott were changing ideas about food consumption. The blood-sugar topos (the ‘guilt trope’ and idea that sweetened drinks of tea, coffee and chocolate could suddenly become nauseating as they were linked to the blood of slaves) is considered by Timothy Morton to have been part of a wider culture of radical food. The guilt and horror of eating human flesh by association was supplemented by an increasing sympathy for bodies in pain. According to Thomas Laquer (1990) an intensified public sympathy for bodies in pain percolated society through scientific discourse.  Biological evidence of maladies and suffering derived from rigorous attempts at objective autopsy reports and in the ‘realistic’ documentation and depiction of the body and its organs.

18th-century journal page showing the heart of King George II of Great Britain (1683-1760), as examined following his death from an aortic aneurysm and rupture of the right ventricle. This artwork depicts the heart and vessels filled with wax. The examination was carried out by the king’s physician Frank Nicholls (1699-1778). This page is from volume 52 (1761-2) of the journal ‘Philosophical Transactions’, published by the Royal Society of London. Courtesy of

In short, Laquer’s argument is that as people of eighteenth century Britain became more body literate, they were increasingly able to imagine and sympathise with the pain of others. Anti-saccharite depictions of the black body in pain or suffering were explicitly geared towards motivating disgust, outrage and pity.

A coloured print by George Cruickshank from 1792. The text at the bottom reads: “The Abolition of the Slave Trade, Or the inhumanity of dealers in human flesh exemplified in Captn. Kimber’s treatment of a young Negro girl of 15 for her virjen [modesty]” Shows John Kimber (left) with a whip in his hand, young African girl suspended by her ankle from a rope over a pulley.” This etching partly inspired the title of this blog. Kimber was the captain of the slave ship the Recovery and became a celebrated case for slave abolitionists after apparently stringing up a girl and killing her as punishment for her refusal to eat. Image courtesy of

Boltanski (1999) and Scarry (1985) argue that once suffering or pain is represented, or requires a witness, it becomes political and the subject of pity. Unlike compassion, which Boltanski argues is practical and occurs over embodied face to face encounters between a sufferer and a spectator, pity tends to make from particulars generalizations, and is usually distantiated and articulates the politics of the witness. While bringing consumers and producers closer together by economic implication, I believe anti-saccharite publications and performances simultaneously created distance between consumers and slaves. This was achieved through reifying witness accounts and images of slave helplessness and subservience, and by reducing slavery to being an issue where the purity of the white (non) consumer was at stake in an anthropoemic relationship with the sugar produced by the black slave.

The sugar boycott was clearly as much a matter of taste as  morality. Anti-slavery combined with romanticism and ethics on vegetarianism and animal concern to create a meta-narrative on food consumption that has similarities with contemporary food movements that promote vegetarianism, ‘slow food’, animal rights and fair trade in a broad opposition to pure profit capitalism (Morton, 2000; Sheller, 2003). Put crudely, the logic of the anti-saccharites was that sometimes consuming less could be better – the movement was pedagogic in that people learnt that shopping for sugar could also be about the process of withholding purchase.

Today Shreck (2007) defines radical food activism as the use of food commodities and food related practices as a way of contesting social hegemonies. In the 1790s alternative forms of food consumption emerged with the china makers Wedgewood and Henderson introducing ‘East India Sugar Basins’ made to contain sugar from India that was not tainted by the blood of slaves. Sheller (2003) and Morton (2000) note that the debate over sugar consumption reduced slavery to a matter of taste, manners and etiquette. Cartoonists satirized the paradox of the bourgeois abolitionist concerned about the plight of slaves many miles away whilst denying the hard working ‘free’ English labourer of affordable sugar in their tea and coffee.

Recommended further reading

Boltanski, L (1999) Distant Suffering, Morality and Politics. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press

Laqueur, T (1990) Making Sex: Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud. Harvard: Harvard University Press

Miller, D (1995) Acknowledging Consumption: A Review of New Studies Ed. D Miller. Routledge, London

Scarry, E (1985) The body in pain: The making and unmaking of the world. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Shreck, A (2007) “Resistance, Redistribution, and Power in the Fair Trade Banana Initiative” in Wright, W & Middendendorf, G (Eds.) The Fight over Food. Pennsylvania: Pennysylvania State University Press

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