Ethical American consumers have struggled to pressure the sugar industry to abandon slavery with less success than their British counterparts

Sam Watts, 22, watched the coast of Virginia disappear while aboard a domestic slave ship in the fall of 1831. Andrew Jackson was president and the slave traders had bought Watts for US $ 450 ( approximately $ 14,500 in 2022 dollars). They tore him away from several generations of his relatives for a journey of no return.

After the ship docked in New Orleans three weeks later, Edmond J. Forstall, banker and entrepreneur, bought Watts for $ 950. Its new owner put Watts to work making barrels at Louisiana’s new sugar refinery – the largest of its kind in the world at the time.

Watts worked under the whip of a supervisor, but he perhaps felt less miserable than the 36,000 slaves of Louisiana forced to work on plantations producing the sugar that goes into its barrels. The cultivation, cutting and processing of domestic sugar cane cost even more than the production of cotton or tobacco.

Watts’ unpaid work has fueled a supply chain with tragic human costs. Surely most Americans today would like to think that consumers who knew their sugar was grown and processed by slaves living in the United States would refuse to buy it. But historical records point to a greater opposing force: the rise of American capitalism, which, before the Civil War, was fueled by unpaid labor.

Government support for sugar started very early

Louisiana producers began producing molasses in the 18th century and granulated sugar in 1795. Production increased after the United States bought Louisiana from France in 1803. The federal government was already protecting national sugar. with a customs duty on imported sugar.

In the 1830s, strong demand and creative funding from international investors also supported Louisiana’s sugar industry. In the same year that Sam Watts was bought and sold, Senator Henry Clay wrote that “a repeal of the duty would force the Louisiana planter to abandon the cultivation of sugar cane.”

Sugar had by then gone from a luxury to a very popular ingredient that was an integral part of the American diet.

Molasses and cane sugar were as American as apple pie. They flavored everything from Boston baked beans to the syllabub, a dessert of sweet whipped cream mixed with cider or wine.

Sadly, historical records indicate that most Americans who bought a liter of molasses or a pound of refined sugar crystals did not know or care much about the struggles of Sam Watts and tens of thousands of other Afro- Americans like him. Sugar was an object of prestige, a sign of wealth and refinement.

Many Americans consume sugar and possibly molasses – a byproduct of refining sugary foods – when they eat beans.
Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

British abolitionists have proposed a model

From the 1780s, British abolitionists had urged and organized consumer boycotts to end the transatlantic slave trade. Sugar was the engine, and activists like the poet Robert Southey condemned those who “sipped the watered down drink” with a clear conscience.

They published brochures and circulated petitions urging consumers, especially women, to stop buying sugar made by slaves. The children also got involved.

In 1791, in Manchester, England, some 300,000 people promised to boycott sugar from the Caribbean. Sales have dropped dramatically. Abolitionists have flooded Parliament with petitions to end the transatlantic slave trade.

Britain made the involvement of its subjects in trade illegal in 1807. Yet sugar producers in the Caribbean, including Jamaica and Cuba, continued to force hundreds of thousands of slaves to manufacture sugar. sugar.

Elizabeth Heyrick, a Birmingham philanthropist, led an even more successful English boycott of West Indian sugar in the 1820s.

British boycotts made at least one symbolic difference, as abolitionists made consumers sympathize with bonded laborers at a time when national interests were shifting away from the sugar industry due to evolving international alliances.

The limits of consumer pressure

Although the United States banned the landing of foreign captives destined for slavery in 1808, it allowed the national slave trade to flourish for another five decades.

American producers were mainly in competition with Cuban sugar producers who could still import African captives. Newly enslaved people often arrived on American-owned ships.

Free African-American and white Quaker abolitionists sought to emphasize the connection between unrequited labor and the abundance it produced. Before supply chain management existed as a systematic process, those working to abolish slavery pointed out that dollars spent on sugar fueled forced labor and degradation of black people who made and processed sugar. sugar and other products.

To this end, the Quakers formed the Free Produce Society of Pennsylvania in 1827 to combat slavery in supply chains providing consumer goods.

In 1830, African-American abolitionists created their own similar organization, the Colored Free Produce Society of Pennsylvania. Its 500 members have used their collective power to demand that cotton, sugar and tobacco be made by free workers. Judith James and Laetitia Rowley, two blacks from Philadelphia, co-founded another group, the Colored Female Free Produce Society soon after.

Members of this organization were linked to the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the hub of the Philadelphia abolitionist and community organization. He urged consumers to use their purchasing power to free slaves.

In 1834, William Whipper, Philadelphia’s most successful black businessman, opened a free labor store next to Mother Bethel Church. In New York City, African-American abolitionist David Ruggles was only selling free sugar and encouraging others to follow suit.

By 1838, the Free Produce Movement, as it was called, had become the American Free Produce Society.

But these scattered individual acts of conscience have failed to force the sugar industry to stop relying on forced black labor. The efforts of American abolitionists to educate the public and organize boycotts also failed to stop growing demand, as sugar prices plummeted until the Civil War disrupted production of the popular commodity.

An overflowing teaspoon of sugar, held over a pile of more sugar
So sweet, but at what cost for human rights?
Victor De Schwanberg / Scientific photo library via Getty Images

Demand for sugar has soared

Rather than cutting back, Americans consumed more and more sugar.

When Watts went to work at the Louisiana sugar refinery, the average US resident was eating 13 pounds a year. By 1850 the total had climbed to 30 pounds.

In many places, empowerment has not ended coercive labor practices. The relationship between the emancipated workers and the sugar barons and other planters who employed them came even closer to slavery.

Sugar workers in Thibodaux, Louisiana, for example, lived in most of the same neighborhoods as before the Civil War. When they unionized and tried to strike for better wages in 1887, white townspeople slaughtered farm workers and their relatives, killing 60 people.

In Texas, sugar cane plantation owners used convicts to cultivate and process their sugar cane. Many prisoners forced to make sugar were teenagers convicted of minor offenses, often by Jim Crow courts.

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The 2019 discovery of 95 African-American sugar workers’ gravesites buried on a Texas prison farm provided a glimpse of the toll of sugar labor on black workers, many of them children.

The Free Produce Movement may not have been successful in stemming the human rights atrocities that occurred in the sugar supply chain in the 19th century. But many activists are still drawn to the link made by American and British abolitionists between the purchasing power of consumers and the possibility of improving working conditions.


This article is one of a series examining the effects of sugar on human health and culture. To view all articles in this series, click here.

Rachel J. Bradford