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Shropshire Archives is open in a phased way from 21 April 2021.

Sugar Boycott

October 28, 20211:03 pmOctober 29, 2021 11:19 amLeave a Comment

A topic often referred to in Katherine Plymley’s diaries was the importation of sugar. Many members of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade were keen to point out that sugar was a product of slavery and buying West Indian sugar was supporting the slave trade. Non-conformist churches, especially Quakers, were active in promoting a boycott of sugar and other slave produced products.

Josiah Wedgwood had been one of the founding members of Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787. He produced ceramic products that promoted the abolitionist cause. Katherine records a visit she made to the Wedgwood family which she discussed over breakfast with Mr Clarkson who was visiting the Plymleys in October 1791.

“I mentioned that Mr Wedgewood’s family would not use any West Indian sugar, from a principle of not giving encouragement to the slave trade and that when I was at Etruria in May last they none of them eat sugar as the quantity they had sent for from the East Indies was not then arrived.”

Katherine Plymley diary, 20-21 Oct 1791, ref 1066/1

The boycott of sugar was something that whole families could take part in and women and children were encouraged to get involved. In 1791, William Fox had published a pamphlet, An Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Propriety of Refraining from the Use of West India Sugar and Rum, which was widely circulated. In January 1792, Katherine’s brother received a letter from Mr Clarkson remarking on the influence the pamphlet was having, “70,000 had been distributed and 25,000 had left off sugar”. He enclosed a copy and encouraged supporters to order copies from their booksellers. Katherine noted,

“My brother desired Mr Eddowes to order 500. His family have left off the use of sugar & the little people were the first to wish it.”

Katherine Plymley diary, 30 Oct 1791 – 9 Feb 1792, ref 1066/4

Another example of children being included in the abolitionist cause is this map, which although not specifically produced for children, has been pasted into a school atlas, Shropshire Archives ref MI1822/2. It shows the regions of the world where sugar can be grown and the text at the bottom explains the colouring and highlights the politics of the trade from the anti-slavery viewpoint.

“The parts entirely red represent the colony of Demerara &c. on the Continent of South America, and the Island of Jamacia, and the West Indies under the British Flag; and are the countries to which we are at present confined for the supply of Sugar, except by paying higher duties on that article from other quarters.

The part coloured blue includes nearly the whole of Africa, from which we are prevented obtaining Sugar by the devastating effects of the Slave trade, and also the prohibitions for the support of Slavery in the West Indies.”

The areas in were also green subject to prohibitive duties.

School Atlas, ref MI1822/2, published by J Cross, 18 Holborn, London. Price 3d.

Katherine mentions that the family had tried samples of various alternative sugars. She records that “the loaf sugars are very fine and the browns the cleanest and finest I ever saw” but adds that maple sugar has a peculiar taste.

Katherine Plymley Diary, Shropshire Archives ref 1066/28 (image used courtesy of Norman Trevor Corbett)

The cost and duties imposed on East Indian sugar is an issue Katherine documented at some length in December 1794.

“By a letter my brother received the other day from Mr Leaper (the Quaker who deals in East India sugar) we learn that great quantities have lately been imported, he incloses a sample… after paying carriage it will not come to 9d [a pound] and it is considerably superior in quality to what the grocers in Shrewsbury sell for 9d. Several of my brother’s friends have desired him to order, some a hundred weight [112lb], and others two hundred weight for them…

“If the enormous duty imposed on the importing East India sugar into England was taken off, the price would soon be reduced here, the West Indian planters would be obliged to find another means of cultivation and the slave trade in consequence would be abolished.”

Katherine Plymley diary, 20 Dec 1794 – 13 Feb 1795, ref 1066/31

It is estimated that 300,000 boycotted West Indian sugar; the campaign kept the issue of slavery in the public eye and spurred many to sign petitions to parliament. The drop in consumption made plantation grown sugar increasingly uneconomic and gradually weakened support for the slave trade.

You can read more about the  ‘juvenile enlightenment’ of children in the work of Professor Kathryn Gleadle.

Written by alisonm - Modified by sarahd

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