Slavery and sugar were closely linked.
Slavery and sugar were closely linked. Andreas Praefcke/Public Domain

Around 1828, a handful of British publications contained a very unusual advertisement. A certain B. Henderson wanted to inform the “Friends of Africa” that her china warehouse in England was selling assorted basins for sugar. These basins came emblazoned with bright golden letters, which read “East India sugar not made by slaves.”

Several such sugar bowls still exist, including the above one from the British Museum. They were part of a widespread movement in Britain and beyond to boycott products produced by slaves in the Caribbean. Slavery had made sugar products widely affordable for the first time in history. By the late 18th century, it was Britain’s largest import. But for some Britons, the harsh reality behind their cheap sugar was unconscionable. Starting in the late 18th century, abolitionists called for sugar boycotts to undercut slavery.

The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade led the charge for decades. In 1787, the same year the association was founded, the potter Josiah Wedgwood released a famous design that would appear on cameos (a type of jewelry), medallions, and abolitionist china: a kneeling slave pleading for freedom, often accompanied with the phrase “Am I Not A Man and a Brother?” In 1788, William Cowper, Britain’s most famous poet at the time, sniped at those who stayed neutral, writing:

I own I am shock’d at the purchase of slaves,

And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;

What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans,

Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.

I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,

For how could we do without sugar and rum?

The next year, Olaudah Equiano published his memoirs, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, one of the first widely read chronicles of slavery by a freed former slave. At the same time, abolitionists distributed hugely popular pamphlets that explained to sugar consumers that their sweets were directly connected to slavery. By 1791, hundreds of thousands had signed anti-slavery petitions, and when an abolition bill brought to Parliament failed, activists kickstarted a massive sugar boycott. It was one of the earliest economic boycotts in history.

This design, while now considered paternalistic, was once a common anti-slavery motif.
This design, while now considered paternalistic, was once a common anti-slavery motif. Public Domain

By 1792, some 400,000 Britons were either abstaining from sugar or sourcing it from India. (Many consumers believed that East Indian sugar, while still produced in grim conditions, was preferable to sugar produced under slavery.) James Wright, a Quaker shopkeeper, advertised that he would no longer sell sugar, “till I can procure it through channels less contaminated, more unconnected with slavery, less polluted with human blood.” Pro-slavery politicians soon complained that the popular press was against them.

These campaigns, however, didn’t destroy the vast slave-sugar industry. Even after the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act banned the purchase and sale of enslaved people in 1807, many British slavers defied the new law. They continued trading slaves across the Atlantic, sometimes simply by sailing under a different flag.

Yet historian Clare Midgley argues that sugar-abstainers permanently tied sugar to slavery in the public mind. When sugar produced by enslaved people continued to pour into the country, it inspired another boycott in the 1820s, as well as B. Henderson’s abolitionist sugar bowls. After more furious campaigning, Parliament passed the Slave Emancipation Act in 1833, which gradually ended British slavery in the Caribbean.

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