How 18th Century Quakers Led a Sugar Boycott to Protest Slavery

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Julie L. Holcomb, Baylor University

(THE CONVERSATION) Purchasing fair trade, organic, locally made, or cruelty-free items are some of the ways consumers today seek to align their economic habits with their spiritual and ethical views. For 18th century Quakers, this led them to abstain from sugar and other products produced by slaves.

Quaker Benjamin Lay, a former sailor who moved to Philadelphia in 1731 after living in the British sugar colony of Barbados, is known for smashing his wife’s china in 1742 at the city’s annual Quaker gathering. Although Lay’s actions were described by a newspaper as “public testimony against the vanity of drinking tea”, Lay also protested the consumption of slave-grown sugar, which was produced under horrific conditions in colonies. sugar fields like Barbados.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, only a few Quakers protested the enslavement of Africans. Indeed, individual Quakers who protested, like Lay, were often disavowed for their actions because their activism disrupted the unity of the Quaker community. From the 1750s, Quaker support for slavery and the products of slave labor began to erode, as reformers such as Quaker John Woolman urged their co-religionists in the North American colonies and England to to bring changes.

In the 1780s, British and American Quakers launched a massive, unprecedented propaganda campaign against slavery and the products of slave labor. Their aim to create a broad, non-denominational anti-slavery movement culminated in a boycott of slave-grown sugar in 1791, supported by nearly half a million Britons.

How did the anti-slavery sugar movement go from actions of the few to protest of the masses? As a scholar of Quakers and the anti-slavery movement, I argue in my book “Moral Commerce: Quakers and the Transatlantic Boycott of the Slave Labor Economy” that the boycott of slave-grown sugar finds its originated in the actions of ordinary Quakers seeking to draw closer to God by aligning their Christian principles with their economic practices.


The golden rule

Quakerism originated in the political turmoil of the English Civil War and the disruption of monarchical rule in the mid-17th century. In the 1640s, George Fox, the son of a weaver, began a long period of spiritual wandering, which led him to conclude that the answers he sought did not come from the teaching of the church or scripture, but rather from his direct experience of God.

During his travels, Fox encountered others who were also seeking a more direct experience of God. With the support of Margaret Fell, the wife of a wealthy and prominent judge, Fox organized his followers into the Society of Friends in 1652. Itinerant Quaker ministers embarked on an ambitious program of missionary work traveling across the England, the North American colonies and the Caribbean. .

The restoration of the British monarchy in 1660 and passage of the Quaker Act in 1662 brought religious persecution, corporal punishment and imprisonment, but did not dampen the religious enthusiasm of Quakers like Fox and Fell.

Quakers believe that God speaks to individuals personally and directly through the “inner light” – that the light of Christ exists within all individuals, even those who have not been exposed to Christianity. As Quaker historian and theologian Ben Pink Dandelion notes, “this intimacy with Christ, this relationship of direct revelation, is the only founding and defining [Quakerism]. … Quakerism built its identity around this experience and this insight.

This experience of intimacy with Christ led Friends to develop distinct spiritual beliefs and practices, such as an emphasis on the Golden Rule – “Whatever you would have men do to you, do the same for them” – as a fundamental guiding principle.

Quakers were expected to avoid violence and war and reject social customs that reinforced superficial distinctions of social class. Quakers were expected to adopt “simple dress, simple speech, and simple life” and tell the truth at all times. These beliefs and practices allow Quakers to emphasize the experience of God and reject the temptations of worldly pleasures.

Stolen items

In the minds of slave traders and slave owners, racial inferiority justified the enslavement of Africans. In the 18th century, the slave trade and the use of slave labor was an integral part of the global economy.

Many Quakers owned slaves and participated in the slave trade. For them, the slave trade and slavery were just common business practices: “God-fearing men going about their ungodly business,” as historian James Walvin has observed.

Yet Quakers were far from united in their views on slavery. From the late 17th century, individual Quakers began to question the practice. Under slavery, Africans were captured, forced to work, and subjected to violent punishment, even death, all contrary to the Quakers’ belief in the Golden Rule and non-violence.

Individual Quakers began to speak out, often linking the enslavement of Africans to the consumption of consumer goods.

John Hepburn, a Quaker from Middletown, New Jersey, was one of the first Quakers to protest slavery. In 1714 he published “The American Defense of the Christian Golden Rule”, which catalogued, as no other Quaker had done, the evils of slavery.

Although the publication of Hepburn’s book coincided with statements issued by the London Yearly Meeting, the leading Quaker body of that period, warning of the effects of luxury goods on Quakers’ relationship with God, “The American Defense “did not result in any significant outcry. among the Quakers against slavery.

Quaker Benjamin Lay also published his thoughts on slavery. He also refused to dine with slave owners, be served by slaves, or eat sugar. Lying also dressed in coarse clothes. In smashing his wife’s crockery, he asserted that fine clothing and china were luxuries that separated Quakers from God. Lay’s actions proved too much for the Philadelphia Quakers, who disowned him in the late 1730s.

Quaker anti-slavery and sugar

Like Lay, Woolman was also shocked when he saw the slaves’ conditions. For Woolman, the slave trade, the enslavement of Africans and the use of the products of their labor, such as sugar, were the most visible signs of the growth of an oppressive global economy driven by greed, an evil that threatened spiritual well-being. of all. Consumed most often in tea, sugar symbolizes for Woolman the corrupting influence of consumer goods. Shortly after his travels in the South, Woolman, who was a merchant, stopped selling and consuming sugar and sugar products like rum and molasses.

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The sweetness of the sugar hid the violence of its manufacture. The sugar cane plantations of the Caribbean were infamous for their high mortality rate and their lack of food, shelter and clothing. Working conditions were brutal, and tropical diseases contributed to a 50% higher death toll on sugar cane plantations than on coffee plantations.

Until his death in 1772, Woolman worked within the structure of the Society of Friends, urging Quakers to abstain from slave-grown sugar and other products of slave labor. In his writings, Woolman envisioned a just and simple economy that benefited all, freeing men and women to “walk in that pure light in which all their works are done in God.” If Quakers allowed their spiritual beliefs to guide their economic habits, Woolman believed, the “true harmony of life” could be restored for all.

Attempts by 18th century Quakers to align religious beliefs and economic habits continued into the 19th century. Woolman, in particular, influenced many who believed that it was possible to create a moral economy. His diary, published in 1774, is an important text on religiously informed consumer habits.

In the 1790s and again in the 1820s, British consumers, Quakers and non-Quakers alike, organized popular boycotts of slave-grown sugar. Although the boycott of sugar and other products of slave labor did not lead to the abolition of slavery on its own, the boycott raised awareness of the connections between an individual’s relationship with God and the choices he has made in the market.

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