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Anti-Saccharite Cultures v) Black London and Testimony

30 Sep

In this, the fifth and final blog entry on anti-saccharite cultures, I consider the importance of the presence of former slaves and slave narratives to the anti-saccharite movement.

Adam Hochschild records that by the 1780s there were upwards of five thousand black men, women and children in London. The British, attempting to undermine American colonist ‘property’, offered emancipation to any slave who abandoned their American owner. Many of these former American slaves arrived in Britain attached to military units soon to be discharged from service. Others bought their freedom after a period of service as domestic slaves for wealthy families, or managed to escape from bondage.  Although the majority of black people who living in London were unaccounted for by the general public, there were a number of exceptions. Below, I introduce two Atlantic creoles whose experiences, achievements and reputations became integral to the anti-saccharite movement:

Olaudah Equiano 

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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.

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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.


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Anti-Saccharite Cultures ii) Moral Capital

27 Sep

In this second post on anti-saccharite cultures I situate the sugar boycott at the juncture between economic necessity and individual and collective forms of religious sacrifice and purging.

Moral capital and hegemonic cycles of capital

Questions surrounding the sense of personal responsibility and morality felt by the anti-saccharites have been raised by several historians. Christopher Brown argues that a variety of political actors felt that they could accrue moral capital from framing “anti-slavery initiatives as an emblem of national character” (2006:27), as a way of sustaining the reputation of an empire perceived to be declining. Drawing from Arrighi and Braudel’s work on the longue durée and hegemonic cycles of capital accumulation, and with a historian’s keen eye for hindsight, Brown suggests that creating moral capital by vindicating British liberty was a seductive way of extending the British hegemony of capitalist relations before the transition to the American cycle of dominance.

Arrighi’s cycles of capitalist accumulation based on the temporal development of Money-Capital-Money phases (1994). Diagram B  outlines M-M phases that mark the transition from one  global hegemon to another. Brown argues that the abolition of the slave trade was one of the means to ‘civilize’ power and lengthen the British dominated long nineteenth century.

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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.

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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

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