Updated on 23 February 2021
The Anti-Slavery Sugar Bowl represents the Quakers’ key involvement in ending the slave trade.
In 1789, William Wilberforce, the British Member of Parliament and leader of the movement to end the slave trade, introduced Abolition Bill. He was helped in the creation of the bill by the Society of Friends, who, at the time, were barred from entering Parliament.
Free Produce Movement
Two years later, in 1791, the British Parliament rejected the Abolition Bill and many people took matters into their hands. The idea of a Free Produce Movement began to form among several abolitionist circles, not just the Quakers. Its aim was to promote goods that were ‘free’ from being made by slaves (not ‘free’ from cost). This would be a peaceful protest that would avoid any bloodshed.
If economic pressure could be put on slave-dependent industries, then this might accelerate end of the trade. An anti-sugar pamphlet by William Fox (not a Quaker) was published in 1791 and used strong rhetoric in its argument, such as the following:
“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”
Running into 25 editions and sellling 250,000 copies across both sides of the Atlantic, it was an instant bestseller that caught the public’s imagination – and would go on to be the bestselling pamphlet of the 19th century.
The British public had endured a long history of being under represented in Parliament. From the English Civil War Period (1642 – 1651) onwards, the government had not listened to the voice of the people at its peril. Now the people could bypass politics altogether and affect change by simply not buying either sugar or other slave-made products.
A revolutionary idea for the time.
The transatlantic slave trade had become its own industry because Britain was a such a huge consumer of rum, cotton, tobacco, coffee and sugar – all made with slave labour. Sugar was chosen as the abolitionist’s product of choice for two reasons. Firstly, it was a massive seller due to its popularity of being a sweetener tea and coffee. Secondly, sugar was sold and consumed in a wide variety of places making it an established part of society.
A year later, in 1792, the Free Produce Movement was up and running. The Quaker merchant, James Wright, put an advert in his local newspaper announcing that he would no longer be selling sugar. Part of the advert reads:
“Being Impressed with a sense of the unparalleled suffering of our fellow creatures, the African slaves in the West India Islands…..with an apprehension, that while I am dealer in that article, which appears to be principal support of the slave trade, I am encouraging slavery, I take this method of informing my customer that I mean to discontinue selling the article of sugar when I have disposed of the stock I have on hand, till I can procure it through channels less contaminated, more unconnected with slavery, less polluted with human blood.”
Slump Of Slave-Made Sugar
During a two-year period, the sale of sugar from the non slave-made parts of India increased and sugar sales from the all American slave-owning plantations slumps. The knock-on effect of this was to make the ownership of slaves more expensive. Of course, the plantation owners were still legally allowed to keep slaves but it would cost them.
The 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, outlawing British Atlantic slave trade, came into force and proved the Sugar Boycott a great success. However, the slave trade remained in existence and so the boycott was revived in the 1820s. The Free Trade Movement becomes a spearhead for the abolitionists goal of totally ending slavery in the British colonies.
The 1820s boycott went further than the 1790s boycott in that it called for any shop associated with slave-made to be boycotted – not just the goods themselves. Also, the later boycott was supported by a nationwide campaign of ant-slavery leaflets distributed by women’s associations – who at the time were not allowed to vote. As part of this publicity of public awareness good are made, such as sugar-bowls, to actively promote their non slave-made authenticity. The sugar-bowl pictured has the wording EAST INDIA SUGAR not made by SLAVES and is in the British Museum.
The Abolition of Slavery Act, aimed at finally ending slavery once and for all, passes in 1833. Arguably the world’s first large-scale boycott, the Sugar Boycott proved power to the people. In the United States, Friends were also involved in ending the slave trade with the Underground Railroad and the Quaker Benjamin Lay is widely considered the country’s first abolitionist.
Images from en.wikipedia.org/