Regency Activism and Boycotting Sugar

People tend to think of activism, protests, and boycotts as a modern (i.e started with hippies in the 60’s) phenomena, but they aren’t. Political and social activists for change has been protesting/rioting and boycotting goods to ‘vote with their money’ for hundreds of years.

One of the big products to boycott from the mid 18th century until the complete abolition of slavery in England and it’s territories in 1833 was sugar.

The sugar sold in England in this time period was made predominately on English-owned sugar plantations in the Caribbean, plantations that were relied on slave labor to produce their product. While it was illegal to transport slaves after 1807, it was still legal to own your fellow humans, and sugar planters in the islands and the newly-formed United States and its territories (like the territory of Orleans in modern Louisiana) were always seeking a way around it. The British navy would capture and confiscate any slave ship they caught and release the captives, but a few ships always slipped through the net. Moreover, there was slave trading between the southern areas of the US and the not-too-far away Caribbean and West Indies.

In short, buying sugar meant that your were economically supporting slavery.

The abolitionists, determined to end slavery as soon as possible by whatever means possible, went after sugar with a vengeance. Abolitionist William Fox and a Baptist activist named Martha Gurney produced a pamphlet entitled An Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Propriety of Refraining from the Use of West India Sugar and Rum (1791), which neatly summed the problem up:

If we purchase the commodity we participate in the crime. The slave dealer, the slave holder, and the slave driver, are virtually agents of the consumer, and may be considered as employed and hired by him to procure the commodity…In every pound of sugar used we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh”

Female abolitionists, many of whom were part of the new evangelical movements in the UK, would deliver these pamphlets door to door. To aid the cause, the most popular cartoonists of the day, men like Gillray and Cruikshank, joined in to make the reasons for the boycott understandable to anyone who couldn’t read the pamphlets:


The British people, most of whom did not want to be the kind of rubbish who suborned slavery, started boycotting sugar with a fervor. However, many people still had a sweet tooth. What to do? Buy the slightly more expensive sugar that wasn’t made by (theoretically at least) slaves. Thus, people started buying sugar from India, much in the same way many modern consumers try not to buy clothes that have been made in sweatshops by an exploited developing-world labor. It costs more, but you are at least one step removed from something you find morally or ethically or environmentally or socio-politically repugnant.

Of course, it is hard to find clothes that aren’t the product of de facto slave labor, since “the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights released a report alleging that workers producing clothing for Walmart, Target, Macy’s, Kohl’s and Hanes at a factory in Jordan have been routinely beaten, underpaid and forced to work hours in excess of what the local law allows. The report added that workers have been forced to live in bed bug-infested dormitories that lack heat and hot water, despite the snow and ice that are a feature of local winters.” But I digress.

In the Regency, they would have special sugar bowls to announce to any guests that their sugar was not the gross byproduct of wretched misery. (Well, it probably was, but it wasn’t technically made by slaves.)

Regency Era Sugar Bowl

Of course, there were some people still avoided all sugar, somewhat like vegans avoid all animal products regardless of how ‘cruelty-free’ the milk and eggs are proclaimed to be, because no one was producing non-exploitive sugar. The purists who eschewed all sugar were probably rewarded by the continued use of their un-rotted teeth, so there is probably a karmic lesson for us there.

Although the sugar boycott could a big bite out of the plantation owner’s bottom line, the plantations were driven into bankruptcy as much by the government sucking up the millions of pounds of tax revenue from the sugar trade as from the boycott. The plantation owners could have survived either the taxes or the boycott or American sugar prices undercutting them on the larger world market, but most of them could not survive all three.  Nevertheless, the planation system of sugar production would not truly disappear until the abolition of English slavery in 1833. In the end the boycott and abolitionists won not because they economically hurt the sugar planter, but because the boycott raised public awareness of the horrific reality of the slave system enough that it turned the tide of public opinion against slavery.

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