The Guardian’s story of how Big Sugar engineered a sweet-washing of sugar’s health hazards should remind us that sugar has long had an disreputable history. It was, after all, a product of slave plantations in the Americas for centuries, and campaigns against “slave sugar” by British and American abolitionists were some of the earliest uses of the economic boycott.
Quakers in both the US and Great Britain abstained from all slave products (sugar, indigo, rice, cotton) from the 1750s, and more general campaigns against “blood-stained sugar” took place in the 1790s and 1820s in Great Britain. Great Britain eventually banned the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself (in the British Empire) in 1833. This was long considered a great moral victory.
Eric Williams, who would go on to be the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago upon independence from Great Britain, was one of the first to question this analysis. In 1943 he wrote in Political Science Quarterly that slavery had become unprofitable by the early 19th century, and a rising sector of capitalists in Britain were more interested in fostering and protecting the nascent industrial revolution than commodities like sugar.
For Williams, “free trade” and economic liberalism killed off slavery, not petitions, boycotts, and moral persuasion. “The attack on West Indian slavery was in a larger sense only part of the general attack on monopoly and imperialism which characterized the transition of English economy from mercantilism to laissez faire.”
Of course, history is nothing if not a contest of interpretations. C. Duncan Rice and others now go beyond the “Williams thesis,” however groundbreaking it was. Rice wants to return some credit to the abolitionists themselves and complicate a economically-deterministic view.
After all, British abolitionists saw that slavery was a moral evil and continued the fight beyond the 1830s because slavery still existed elsewhere, notably in the United States, Cuba, and Brazil. Transatlantic abolitionist connections were close until US Emancipation, and continued beyond that (in fact, anti-slavery organizations still fight the good fight.) Additionally, richer histories of abolition show that it wasn’t just a middle class movement: it attracted people from all stratums of society on both sides of the Atlantic. The notion that “everybody” then supported slavery, and that historical figures who did are not to be condemned by the judgement of history, is factually baseless.
So if you find yourself considering a boycott on sugar, you’re in good historical company.