Slave Labor in 19th Century Britain: A Bottom-Up Perspective

When one thinks of the slave trade, sugar production, and the abolitionist movement, it is easy to conclude that the eradication of the slave trade and the emancipation of slaves in Britain, the global hegemon at the time, was delayed until 1806 and 1834 respectively (Shapiro, 2008) largely because wealthy sugar plantation owners wanted to keep the cost of labor down, protect their massive estates, and safeguard their sugar empires. While this story may have held true in the early days of the slave trade, a much more complex situation unfolded once sugar became democratized and was commonplace among the British working class. I argue that the rise in the standard of living that poor British laborers experienced by having cheap access to “luxurious” sugar created a growing demand for the product, and, in turn, prolonged the use of slave labor on sugar plantations. 

The Changing Economics of Sugar from the 18th to 19th Century

An oversupply of sugar in the late 18th Century coupled with the eradication of protectionist policies which safeguarded the monopolistic control that West Indian planters had over the commodity led to a drop in the price of sugar and subsequently a much larger consumer base (Mintz, 1986, p. 161-162). Most early sugar plantation owners were furious that the British government ended its preferential treatment of West Indian sugar and resisted the government’s actions.

“They put up a determined resistance to…the abrogation of their monopoly. They were always on the warpath to oppose any increase of their duties on sugar.”

Mintz, 1986, p. 170

Despite the backlash from West Indian planters, the British government went ahead with pursuing a “free market” approach towards sugar and repealed the lower tariffs that it had previously afforded exclusively to West Indian sugar. As a result, competition among sugar producers increased, lowering the price of sugar, and making the product accessible to the masses for the first time (Mintz, 1986, p.161). Once sugar became more affordable in the 19th Century, the product quickly became a staple in almost all British households (Mintz, 1986, p.157). In fact, demand for the sweet commodity began to skyrocket as sugar became an important part of people’s diets, lives, and, most importantly, family budgets (Mintz, 1986, p.167) .

Real Sugar Prices and Sugar Consumption Per Capita in England, 1600-1850
Source: Hersh and Voth, 2009, p.15

As time progressed and sugar became even cheaper, the commodity was used in an array of new sweet delights including:

  1. Marmalades and Jams
  2. Condensed Milk 
  3. Chocolate
  4. Sherbert

Moreover, sugar became a critical source of calories for laborers who worked long hours in the factories and would often replace entire meals with a simple cup of tea sweetened with sugar. Lastly, from a cultural perspective, sugar continued to seem like a luxury and thus poor, working class Brits were finally able to join in and experience the feeling of privilege that comes with serving and being served sugar and sugary goods (Mintz, 1986, p.173).

The Changing Economics of and Sentiment Towards Slave Labor

It is in the context of the working class’s seemingly insatiable hunger for and dependence on sugar that the production of sugar from slave labor became inextricably linked to working class consumption of sugar in Britain. The fate and destiny of African slaves was no longer in the hands of the few political elite and ultra-wealthy plantation owners, but rather the British working masses who came to habitually consume the sugar they produced.

As British working-class laborers became accustomed to the higher standards of living that the fruits of slave labor afforded them, they also started to perpetuate a radical strain of racism that classified black slaves as sub-humans and disregarded their calls for emancipation (Hanley, 2016, p.108). For instance, working-class Brits felt that slaves neither deserved the attention of British abolitionists nor were “intellectually or morally equipped to appreciate it properly” (Hanley, 2016, p.103-104).

Figure 1. From Charles White,  An Account in the Regular Gradation in Man (1799). An example of some of the racist beliefs held at the turn of the century in Great Britain and other Western countries.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:C.White,_An_account_of_the_regular_gradation_Wellcome_L0031530.jpg#/media/File:C.White,_An_account_of_the_regular_gradation_Wellcome_L0031530.jpg

In fact, the growing animosity towards slaves that working-class Brits felt in the early 1800s stood in direct opposition to the growing abolitionist sentiment that was developing among political and economic elites (Hanley, 2016, p.103). For example, some wealthy Brits who—unlike the working class—no longer considered sugar to be a novelty began forming abolitionist groups and referring to sugar as “blood sugar” as it directly contributed to the exploitation of African slaves (Morton, 1998, p.87). Moreover, many of these well to do abolitionists attempted to dissuade their fellow Brits from consuming sugar by linking consumption of the commodity to the evil forces of “colonialism and exploitation” (Morton, 1998, p.88). 

“Sweetened drinks of tea, coffee, and chocolate were rendered suddenly nauseating by the notion that they contained the blood of slaves.”

Morton, 1998, p.87-88 

Meanwhile, most working-class Brits felt that their plight was being overlooked by political leaders and that the money and resources that were being poured into the abolitionist movement would have been better spent on improving the lives of white British laborers (Hanley, 2016, p.104). As a matter of fact, the large majority of the British working class was still excluded from voting and was angered by the fact that some political leaders appeared to be more focused in securing the political rights of a “distant and less deserving ethnic other” rather than laboring Englishmen (Hanley, 2016, p.104).

Great Reform Act of 1832 (above) transformed the British voting system and increased the number of Englishmen who were eligible to vote
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2f/Reform_Act_1832_First_Page.jpg

Conclusion

The evolution of sugar and the slave trade in Britain were interconnected: as sugar became more accessible to the working masses, demand for the commodity, and the slave labor that produced the commodity, increased. As a result, the economics of slave labor became a bottom up story, that is, the demand for slave labor was no longer driven by a few wealthy plantation owners but rather the entire British working class. Moreover, as sugar became more affordable, working class Brits became accustomed to the fruits of slave labor and fervently opposed abolitionism and any attempts to put an end to the lifeblood of their gradual increase in living standards. Ultimately, as capitalism flourished and sugar became more accessible to the working masses in Britain, the emancipation of slaves was significantly delayed.

Works Cited

Hanley, R. (2016). SLAVERY AND THE BIRTH OF WORKING-CLASS RACISM IN ENGLAND, 1814–1833. The Alexander Prize Essay. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society26, 103-123.

Hersh, J., & Voth, H. J. (2009). Sweet diversity: colonial goods and the rise of European living standards after 1492.

Mintz, S. W. (1986). Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin.

Morton, T. (1780). Blood sugar. Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire1830, 87-106.

Shapiro, S. (2008, July). Review: After Abolition: Britain and the Slave Trade Since 1807. Retrieved from https://origins.osu.edu/review/after-abolition-britain-and-slave-trade-1807

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