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The question of what to buy and where to buy it raises many different considerations. Consumers routinely encounter a range of competing claims on their moral and financial resources, including whether or not to support local producers, boycott tax-dodging multinationals, or buy fair trade products. These choices are rarely straight forward. Is a canvas shopping bag made in a Bangladeshi sweatshop a better ethical choice than a plastic bag? How do we reconcile differences in standards of living and working conditions when it comes to deciding what is morally acceptable in international supply chains? How do campaigns for fair trade and 'free' labour influence our perceptions of the 'distant others' who produce much of the food and clothing consumed in the Global North? These types of questions have a long and complex history. As we shall see, late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century boycotts in the United Kingdom of slave-grown sugar from the West Indies encountered many similar dilemmas. A closer look at this pioneering foray into ethical consumption only underlines how difficult it is for consumers to make clear-cut and effective moral choices today.
The anti-saccharite movement, as abstention from sugar for political and moral reasons came to be known, was closely tied to the British anti-slavery movement. Its historical peaks coincided with upsurges of British activism against the slave trade in the 1790s, and then against slavery more generally in the 1820s. The principle focus of the anti-saccharite movement was a boycott of West Indian sugar and rum as a means of undermining the economic foundations of slavery. For British consumers who abstained, slave sugar was regarded as morally, metaphorically and physically contaminated with the sin of slavery. ‘Are drops of blood the horrible manure,' one abolitionist poem asked, 'That fills with luscious juice the teeming cane?’
The advent of ‘free grown’ sugar
Against this backdrop, some enterprising East India merchants saw an opportunity to market their own ‘free grown’ sugar as an ethical alternative. Advertisements began to appear which presented the consumption of ‘East India Sugar made by Free People’ as a way of demonstrating support for 'the cause of Freedom...over that of Slavery.' By the 1820s, the use of supposedly ‘free-grown’ East India sugar was directly endorsed by the British based Anti-Slavery Society, which set up a depot for its sale in August 1824. Sugar bowls bearing the anti-slavery 'logo' of the kneeling slave and the motto 'East India Sugar, not made by slaves' became fashionable dinner table accessories, while placards were posted with the message 'by six families using East India sugar, one less slave is required.’
Blue glass sugar bowl inscribed in gilt, c. 1820–1830. Andreas Praefcke/Wikimedia Commons.
The sugar boycott and the ‘ethical’ alternative of East India sugar has often been presented as an unequivocal moral good. Some contemporary activists have even presented the East India case as an archetypal example of moral consumption triumphing over the horrors of slavery. The website ethicalconsumer.org, for example, notes that:
In 1791, after Parliament refused to abolish slavery, thousands of pamphlets were printed encouraging the boycott. Sales of sugar dropped by between a third and a half. By contrast sales of Indian sugar, untainted by slavery, rose tenfold in two years. In an early example of fair trade, shops began selling sugar guaranteed to be have been produced by 'free men'.
But was it really free?
The exploitative and often oppressive nature of colonial governance in India under the British East India Company (EIC) is rarely discussed in the context of the promotion of East Indian sugar. This is a notable omission, since agricultural production in India during this period (and also more recently) was directly linked to extreme poverty, caste-based inequalities and recurrent subsistence crises among the Indian peasantry, as well as the local use of domestic and agricultural slavery, bonded labour, debt bondage, and caste-based labour obligations. Put more directly: East India sugar was routinely produced under labour conditions that were far from entirely 'free'.
Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, it was West Indian planters who were the first to highlight this. They pointed out that even when not actually enslaved, impoverished Indian labourers were obliged to work for next to nothing. This found expression in pointed questions in the pro-slavery press regarding “the superior humanity of employing labourers at thruppence per day in the East, rather than slaves in the West, to whom every comfort consistent with their humble position is undoubtedly afforded,” as one article in the Liverpool Courier put it. Disregarded then and now as pro-slavery apologia, some of these West Indian accounts provided reasonably accurate critiques of the working conditions in some territories under EIC control. While no one today would accept the planters depictions of a ‘benign’ West Indian slavery, their attack on East India sugar raises questions about the selective nature of anti-slavery campaigning in a context of colonial exploitation, along with the effects of uneven access to information (and exposure to misinformation) on consumer decisions.
The British anti-slavery movement largely disregarded, denied or excused conditions in India during the 1820s. This changed in the late 1830s. Until 1838 British abolitionists had remained focused on the West Indies, and the continuation of coercive labour practices there under the guise of the apprenticeship system. This forced the newly emancipated slaves to continue working for their former masters for a set number of years. With the successful termination of this campaign, however, some key British abolitionists began to turn their attention to conditions in other parts of the empire, and to call attention to the existence of slavery in India and the devastating impact of East India Company rule there. Prominent anti-slavery orator George Thompson, for example, argued that a humanitarian scandal had been taking place unnoticed in the East Indies, in the form of famines that regularly carried off hundreds of thousands of British subjects in India. These catastrophes, he argued, were not the result of 'the divine hand', but of EIC misrule, as natural disasters were exacerbated by excessive land tax, lack of investment and EIC mismanagement of India's natural resources.
Despite decades of abolitionist rhetoric to the contrary, the moral dichotomy between East and West Indian labour regimes was far from clear-cut. This rhetoric instead masked a range of other considerations that shaped the campaign for East India sugar. These included individual abolitionists' personal, commercial and financial relationships with India and a range of subjective judgements about the relative nature of different forms of exploitation and oppression. While the boycott against West Indian, slave-grown sugar was remarkably successful on its own terms—with huge numbers of British consumers participating—it should be apparent that there was a significant gap between theory and practice.
This gap has important applications for our own times. The contradictions inherent in focusing on West Indian slavery over other forms of labour exploitation, including wage-slavery in Britain's industrialising cities and extreme poverty in some of its other colonies, resonate with on-going debates about the selective nature of popular moral campaigns. The paternalistic racism inherent in British abolitionists’ depictions of passive, victimised African slaves continues to be reproduced in problematic depictions of recipients of 'charity' from a ‘benevolent’ West.
Finally, we need to take note how traders with vested interests in East India appropriated ethical arguments to carve out a greater share of the sugar market for themselves. The evident hypocrisy and self-interest raises important questions about the relationship between humanitarianism, capitalism and commercialism in contexts where 'ethical' consumption can also be big business, and where (unverified) moral arguments can also be powerful marketing tools. A more nuanced view of the issues surrounding the use of East India sugar during historical anti-slavery campaigns can thus help us better understand not only the origins of ethical consumerism, but also some of its on-going problems and dilemmas.