East Indian Sugar: The Sweeter of Two Evils

The search for sugar that wasn’t produced by slave labor led the British to another faraway colony: India. But was Indian sugar ever free?

Sukhada Tatke

October 4, 2021

East Indian Sugar: The Sweeter of Two Evils
Sugarcane and sugar production in 1790s India (Frans Balthazar Solvyns , 1760–1824)

In the summer of 1791, centuries away from the advent of social media, a pamphlet went viral in Britain. The treatise urged people to take responsibility for a collective problem — to abstain from sugar produced by slaves in the West Indies. The abstention would become what many believe to be the first ever modern consumer boycott.

With over 200,000 copies distributed over the next few months in Britain and the U.S., “An Address to the People of Great Britain on the Utility of Refraining from the Use of West India Sugar and Rum” became among the most widely circulated documents of its time. Though published anonymously, the pamphlet appeared to be the work of bookseller William Fox, one of the era’s most prolific and revolutionary pamphleteers.

Fox held every consumer of West Indian sugar complicit in the slave trade, and urged them to be agents of change, especially since the British Parliament was “not only unwilling, but perhaps unable, to grant redress.” He wrote in his address: “A family that uses only five [pounds] of sugar per week, with the proportion of rum, will, by abstaining from the consumption 21 months, prevent the slavery or murder of one fellow creature...in every pound of sugar used, the produce of slaves imported from Africa, we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh.” 

For over 40 years, the sugar boycott that followed led to debates on what constituted ethical consumption in an era where thousands of petitions demanding an end to the slave trade flourished. The search for “free” sugar, not made by slaves, led Britain to turn to another faraway colony for production: India. But was Indian sugar ever free? It turns out, not really.