Sugar and Slavery
It is impossible to think about sugar production in the West Indies without thinking about slavery. The labor of enslaved Africans was integral to the cultivation of the cane and production of sugar. Slaves toiled in the fields and the boiling houses, supplying the huge amounts of labor that sugar required. Overall some four million slaves were brought to the Caribbean, and almost all ended up on the sugar plantations. Conditions were harsh, and mortality rates were extremely high through all stages of slaves' lives. In some sugar colonies the slave population was ten times that of Europeans, and slave uprisings were an ever-present fear for the planters.
Slave trading was part of a highly profitable triangle of trade that spanned the Atlantic. Manufactured goods were traded to the West African coast for slaves, who were shipped to the sugar colonies (the infamous middle passage) and sugar, molasses, and rum were shipped from the islands to England. Slavery in England itself had been deemed illegal since 1772. The controversy over slavery in the sugar colonies was vigorously pursued in Parliament and in publication throughout the last quarter of the eighteenth century and up to the time of abolition of the trade in 1807 and emancipation in 1833.
The abolitionists' humanitarian and religious arguments against slavery found a sympathetic popular audience in England and America. One tool of the abolitionist movement was a boycott of slave-grown sugar, a consumer protest celebrated by contemporaries as a key component of abolition's success. The proponents of the boycott were given to liberal use of physical metaphor: in their writings sugar is equated with, or is figuratively imbued with, the blood, sweat, and tears of the slaves, and interpreted as a polluting substance - morally polluting the body politic.
The planters recoiled from the prospect of abolition and emancipation, finding in it a broad and conspiratorial attack on their financial interests and place in the empire. They had well-rehearsed arguments in favor of slavery, represented here by William Beckford, a large-scale Jamaican planter who wrote about the island while in prison, after having been unable to clear his inherited plantations of debt. The failure to make inherited plantations profitable is a story common throughout the later plantation era.
William Beckford A Descriptive Account of the Island of Jamaica: ... Observations and Reflections upon what Would Probably be the Consequences of an Abolition of the Slave-trade, and of the Emancipation of the Slaves. By William Beckford, esq. Author of Remarks on the Situation of Negroes in Jamaica ... 1790
Beckford 's defense of slavery is threefold: he portrays the slaves as fortunate in their situation compared to both English peasants and the life they would have lived in Africa; he argues that slaves wouldn't be happier under emancipation, and that the freed slaves would run riot, starve, or both; and he paints slavery as part and parcel of an economic system crucial to the well-being of Britain. Like many apologists for slavery, he urges reformation of the ways the slaves are treated, as an alternative to abolition and emancipation.
"If abolition, unconditional, unqualified abolition shall take place, our interest in the West-India islands must be at an end ... the revenue will suffer an annual diminution of three millions at least ; the price of sugar, which is now become a necessary article of life, must be immediately enhanced; discontentment and dissatisfaction may dismember the empire..."
William Fox An Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Utility of Refraining from the Use of West India Sugar and Rum. 1791
In 1791-2 measures to abolish the slave trade were debated in Parliament. The three pamphlets in this volume were part of the public controversy surrounding the debate.
The first pamphlet is credited with being the most widely distributed pamphlet of the eighteenth century, going through 26 editions in a year, with perhaps as many as 250,000 copies printed in Great Britain and America. It is also credited with solidifying abolitionist forces by focusing them on the sugar boycott. The author, a reforming dissenter and radical pamphleteer, imputes direct responsibility to the consumer for all the evils of slavery.
"The slave-dealer, the slave-holder, and slave-driver are virtually the agents of the consumer, and may be considered as employed and hired by him to procure the commodity."
Andrew Burn A Second Address to the People of Great Britain; Containing a New-and Most Powerful Argument to Abstain from the Use of West India Sugar. 1792
The author of this second pamphlet was a marine officer who served in the West Indies in the late 1750's.He goes from the metaphor of contamination to a literal reading of it, and describes the manner in which sugar is contaminated by the blood, sweat, and worse of the slaves who produce it.
Strictures on An Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Propriety of Abstaining from West-India Sugar and Rum ... 1792
"My reason tells me, and experience tells me, and medical authority assures me, that sugar is not a luxury; but has become by constant use, a necessary of life; and great injury have many persons done to their constitutions by totally abstaining from it."
Tyler Family Papers On Sugar Undated
This undated poem, from the Tyler Family Papers, is typical of the language of the boycott, contrasting the tempting sweetness of sugar with the cruel injustice of slavery, and making liberal use of the metaphor of blood as the price of sugar.
"No – I abhor thee tempting food
Hugh Boyd McNeile Slave Labor versus Free Labor Sugar. Speech of the Revd. Dr. McNeile, Delivered at a Public Meeting Held at Liverpool, 13th. June, 1848. 1848
Fifteen years after the passage of Emancipation, slavery in the production of sugar was still a topic of debate. In this speech the author responds to an argument that the lack of slave labor for the plantations was a bar to free trade and therefore against the national interest, consciously posing a humanitarian argument against an economic one.