Case 5 pamphlets on sugar duties and taxes

The Sugar Trade


During the growth and development of the plantations, Britain hewed to Mercantilist policies of trade, which dictated self-sufficiency: sources of supply (agriculture and industry) were to be developed domestically. The effect of this, via the Navigation Acts, was to protect the planters' trade, guaranteeing them markets for their sugar within the empire. In the nineteenth century, the British government began to experiment with Free Trade policies, and with the passage of the Sugar Equalization Duties Act in 1851 (putting all sugar imports into the empire on par) the planters lost an important prop to their trade.


Controversy over the sugar duties was a constant from nearly the beginnings of the sugar colonies until the repeal of all sugar tariffs in 1875. The duties were a significant source of revenue to the British government, and the planters made much of the fact in their arguments for one or another favor from Parliament.


The planters had a strong lobby in London in such groups as the West India Planters Association and the West India Planters and Merchants. There were certain standard arguments the planter interest used, all depicting the key role that the sugar islands played in the empire: that West Indian shipping was the nursery of British seamen, necessary to insuring Britain's naval might; that Parliament was duty-bound to protect the property, investments, or livelihood of British subjects in the sugar colonies; and that damaging (or failing to protect) sugar production and trade would lose the government its revenue from the sugar duties.


Plenty of voices in Britain were critical of the planters and their protections by the system of trade. A popular image of the planters portrayed them as favored by the government: beneficiaries of a closed system of trade, with their markets guaranteed by the Navigation Acts, and their profits assured by the growing British appetite for sugar.The most successful planters were apt to leave their plantations in the care of managers, and enjoy their profits from home; reports also came back from the islands of the luxurious lifestyle of the planters there. All of this contributed to the image of planters as lucky players in a colonial get-rich-quick scheme.


Besides the volumes displayed here, the Clements also holds three volumes of the acts of Parliament relating to the sugar trade, stretching from the mid eighteenth to the early nineteenth century, 1761 to 1813, taking in the period of the American Revolution with its dislocations of trade, and the years right after Abolition, when the fortunes of the established sugar colonies began markedly to decline

Edward Littleton The Groans of the Plantations: or A True Account of their Grievous and Extreme Sufferings by the Heavy Impositions upon Sugar, and Other Hardships 1689

This is an early instance of what would be a long trend in pamphlets from the planter interest. Littleton, a planter and judge in Barbados, gives what will become a familiar litany of complaints. He protests that the duties on sugar have brought the planters to the brink of ruin. He also makes a point of the planters' other woes: soil exhaustion and poor crops, and high prices for slaves. This last complaint would disappear from the planters' publications as abolitionist sentiment gained strength.

Considerations Against Laying any New Duty upon Sugar; wherein is Particularly Shewn, that a New Imposition will be Ruinous to the Sugar Colonies, Insufficient for the Purposes Intended, and Greatly Conducive to the Aggrandizement of France 1744

The State of the Sugar-trade; Shewing the Dangerous Consequences that must Attend any Additional Duty There-on. 1747

These two pamphlets were published during King George's War (1744 -1748) when sentiment against France was running high. Both raise the specter of French commercial and naval preeminence in the West Indies in order to argue the economic interests of the planters.


Both make the customary complaint that the duties are too high, and will ruin the planters and destroy the viability of the plantations. From this, they derive a threat to Britain's strength as a nation, making the argument that if the plantations decline, so will the empire's commercial, and subsequently naval, might.


"SINCE it is thus apparent that the Manufactures and Traffick, and consequently the Navigation, Wealth and naval Power of Great Britain, depend, in great Measure, on the Trade of our Sugar Islands, it seems but reasonable it should meet with all due Encouragement."

Edmund Potter The Sugar Duties: A Letter To The Rt. Hon. W.E. Gladstone, M.P., Chancellor of the Exchequer 1864

Alfred Fryer. The Sugar Duties: An Examination of the Letter Addressed by Edmund Potter, M.P., to the Rt. Hon. W.E. Gladstone, M.P. 1864

At issue in these two pamphlets is whether there will be a uniform duty on all grades of sugar, or a classified scale of duties for various raw and refined sugars. Potter advocates the uniform duty, saying that it will stimulate competition, and better sugar will therefore be sent by the planters. Fryer raises the Free Trade banner and accuses Potter of protectionism, arguing that since a uniform duty favors the importers of more highly refined sugar, it will drive less-refined sugars from the market, stifling competition rather than encouraging it. Fryer represents himself as defending the sugar revenue, and also the interests of the consumer. What he doesn't make explicit is his defense of the interests of the refiners in the British Isles. These two are bound in a volume of 11 different pamphlets on the sugar duties, mostly from 1863 and 1864, when the question of the duties was before Parliament.


"The increased price arising from diminished supply consequent upon the withdrawal of low sugars from the market, falls upon the consumer. The greater expense of highly manufacturing sugar in the tropics instead of refining it at home, must be borne by the consumer."