Blood-Stained Commerce: Abstention and the British Slave Trade Debates

Friday, January 6, 2012: 10:10 AM
Iowa Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Julie Holcomb, Baylor University
In a speech before the House of Commons in 1791, William Wilberforce denounced the slave trade as a “commerce . . . written . . . in characters of blood.”  A year later, Mary Wollstonecraft asked whether sugar must be produced with “vital blood.”  Wilberforce and Wollstonecraft’s comments frame the temporal limits of the first organized abstention campaign, which at one point drew nearly 400,000 people who refused to consume the blood-stained sugar of the West Indies.

Historians have interpreted abstention as a reflection of Britons’ newly-developed market sensibility, reflecting contemporary anxieties about the influx of colonial slave-grown luxuries such as sugar.  Moreover, abstention is interpreted as feminine.  Consumed most visibly at the tea table, sugar symbolized the corrupting influence the “world of goods” might have on consumers, especially women.  From the movement’s inception, abstainers drew consumers’ attention to the link between domestic consumption and slave production; however, the gendered character of the movement developed in response to William Fox’s An Address to the People of Great Britain, the campaign’s first and most popular tract.

This paper begins by examining the material culture of the British tea table before moving on to a discussion of the publication of and the response to Fox’s tract.  As men and women responded to Fox’s call for abstention from slave-grown sugar, Britons increasingly focused on women’s consumer behavior, particularly as it was reflected at the tea table.  Were women capable of making the appropriate choice in the marketplace? Or were they too influenced by the dictates of fashion and sentimental rhetoric?  Commerce in slave-grown sugar thus became entangled with larger debates about appropriate male and female interests.  In moving the focus to the domestic tea table, abstainers generated widespread support from Britons who otherwise might not have participated in the boycott of slave-grown sugar. 

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