Slave-free Sugar: exploring the economic linkages between sugar, British industrialization, and abolition

As the global commodification of sugar served to enrich European markets, laying the groundwork for an industrialized and pre-capitalist economy, the discourse around the abolition of slavery also shifted. The growing efficacy of arguments for the abolishment of slavery coincided with the emergence of technological advances and changed  labor needs. In short, as the efficiencies around sugar production increased to drastically decrease the amount of human capital required in its production, the need for slave labor diminished.

For example, the scholar Eric Williams, in what is now referred to as the “Williams Thesis”, argued that central to the development of Britain’s economy into a capitalist and industrial one was its accumulation of economic surplus through slavery and that it was the decline of the  sugar economy rather  than morality that led to Britain’s abolishment  of slavery and slave trade in the British West Indies. [1] In Capitalism and Slavery, it was “the commercial capitalism of the eighteenth century developed the wealth of Europe by means of slavery and monopoly. But in so doing it helped to create the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century, which turned round and destroyed the power of commercial capitalism, slavery” explains Williams. [2] In Sweetness and Power, Mintz explains that during debates against and for both the slave trade and slavery, the future of Britain’s sugar production figured into such discussions. [3] (Mintz, 1985, p. 68)

Not all scholars shared Williams view, for example Solow explains how Eltis and Engerman, respected scholars, countered that Britain’s sugar industry when compared to its others was not its most dominant nor did it have strongest ties to Europe’s economic growth and development. [4] (Solow, 2014, p. 49) While the economic debate around the linkages between Atlantic trade and the industrialization of Britain are contested, scholars like Inikori have clarified that the central concern of Capitalism and Slavery was Williams exploration of the causality between “between industrial capitalism in England and the abolition of the slave trade and slavery by the British government” [5] (Inikori, 2012, p. 14) and demonstrate the overall economic basis of  British abolition. [6]  

On the other hand, economic linkage between slavery and sugar consumption in Britain was very much in the public consciousness; for abolitionists, it was a link they attempted to break through a campaign of public awareness, consumer activism through the boycott of sugar from the British West Indies. [7] (Carmichael, 2015, p. 8) In protesting the horrors of slavery, abolitionists called upon the British people to abstain from consuming and buying sugar from the British West Indies, thought to be derived from slave labor,  to undermine the economic foundations of slavery through collective action. [8] (p. 25)

Changing consumer habits based on increasing consumer awareness of how  a product was produced or not produced was central to the consumer’s economic resistance to slavery, which included buycotts. For example, a strategy adopted included other colonial sugar producers marketing their product as “free sugar” signaling to consumers that the commodity was derived from non-slave labor which may have correlated with “positive brand association (Figure 1). [9] (p. 67) This technique is not too dissimilar from today’s usage of certifications of the ethical and sustainably sourced/produced products, like coffee and chocolate for example. 

east_india_sugar_not_made_by_slaves_glass_sugar_bowl_bm
Figure 1. East India Sugar Bowl

Finally, the development of print culture introduced new strategies for promoting the boycott campaign included literary and visual materials to shape the public discourse. [10] (p. 26) For example, in 1791 James Gillray released “Barbarities in the West Indies‟ a cartoon satirising horrors and atrocities of sugar slavery (Figure 2) , the image worked to make explicit the link between human suffering  and violence  through the institution of slavery and sugar sourced from the British West Indies.

NPG D12417; 'Barbarities in the West Indies' by James Gillray, published by  Hannah Humphrey
Figure 2. Barbarities in the West Indies, by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, hand-coloured etching, published 23 April 1791 (NGP D12417)

All in all,  historical scholars continue to debate to what extent sugar played a role in Britain’s industrialization and the emergence of capitalism, arguing primarily the economic importance of sugar to Britain overall. However, even while this is the  subject of ongoing  historical debate, it may be reasonably inferred that for many British consumers, the economic link between sugar and their consumer behavior  and consumption habits  was well understood. This is most easily demonstrated in their resistance to slavery using economic strategies like the boycott of British West India sugar and buycott East India sugar. This would become one of the earliest examples of consumer and food activism. 

Endnotes

[1] Selwyn H. H. Carrington. (2003). Capitalism & Slavery and Caribbean Historiography: An Evaluation. The Journal of African American History, 88(3), 304–312. http://doi.org/10.2307/3559074

[2] Williams, Eric (2015-09-17). Capitalism and Slavery (Kindle Locations 5839-5843). Lulu.com. Kindle Edition.

[3] Mintz, S. W. (1985). Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin.

[4] Solow, B. L. (2014). The Economic Consequences of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

[5] Inikori, J. E. (2002). Africans and the industrial revolution in England: A study in international trade and economic development. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[6]  Ibid.

[7] Carmichael, L. (2015). Fetishism and the Moral Marketplace: How Abolitionist Sugar Boycotts in the 1790s Defined British Consumers and the West Indian” Other” (Master’s Thesis,Victoria University of Wellington). Retrieved from http://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10063/4941/thesis.pdf?sequence=1.

[8]  Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

Sources

Carmichael, L. (2015). Fetishism and the Moral Marketplace: How Abolitionist Sugar Boycotts in the 1790s Defined British Consumers and the West Indian” Other” (Master’s Thesis,Victoria University of Wellington). Retrieved from http://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/bitstream/handle/10063/4941/thesis.pdf?sequence=1.

Inikori, J. E. (2002). Africans and the industrial revolution in England: A study in international trade and economic development. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mintz, S. W. (1985). Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin.

Selwyn H. H. Carrington. (2003). Capitalism & Slavery and Caribbean Historiography: An Evaluation. The Journal of African American History, 88(3), 304–312. http://doi.org/10.2307/3559074

Solow, B. L. (2014). The Economic Consequences of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Williams, Eric (2015-09-17). Capitalism and Slavery (Kindle Locations 5839-5843). Lulu.com. Kindle Edition.

Image

Figure 1. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:East_India_Sugar_not_made_by_Slaves_Glass_sugar_bowl_BM.jpg

Figure 2. http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitLarge/mw61443/Barbarities-in-the-West-Indias-Indies

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