“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.
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.
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.