Female Consumerism and Morality: Political Mobilization during the British Anti-Slave Trade Movement

Book titled "thoughts on slavery"

Students

2018
College

Faculty

Assistant Professor of History

Project Summary

On the eve of 1792, almost 300,000 British families had boycotted West Indian sugar. Grown and cultivated by slaves, sugar was Britain’s largest import and abolitionists were determined to send a message to a government that had rejected an abolition bill the previous year. British citizens hoped to put economic pressure on a slave-dependent industry in their quest for the abolition of the slave trade, and prominent abolitionists like William Fox published anti-sugar pamphlets and distributed them across the country. Although this sugar boycott did not have a crippling effect on the domestic sugar industry, the campaign was one of the first moments of widespread female support during the British anti-slavery movement. This non-consumption movement hinted at a large popular political commitment to anti-slavery, particularly from females. The campaign also showed that although females were not prominent in the public sphere of abolition, they could exercise their power as domestic consumers and have a place in the abolition movement.

This summer, I travelled to London and Stoke-on-Trent in order to investigate and learn more about the relationship between female consumerism and anti-slavery. I spent much of my time in London at the British Library and the Library of the Society of Friends, one of the largest Quaker libraries. At the British Library I spent time looking into anti-slavery pamphlets that were distributed across the country, poems written by women about the Atlantic slave trade, and newspapers that discussed the sugar boycotts. In Stoke-on-Trent, I was able to delve into personal letters and diaries at the Wedgwood Museum, which houses material related to Josiah Wedgwood, a prominent merchant and abolitionist. I found political pamphlets specifically address to female churches and prominent political figures like the Duchess of York — these were particularly helpful in learning about the connection that was drawn between a moral female consumption and anti-slavery. Personal diaries and poems I found also discussed the idea of wearing consumer products, such as the Wedgwood Medallion, as a sort of “anti-slavery fashion.” Researching at the archives also gave me access to collections of newspapers that were not digitized.

The opportunity to conduct archival research was critical to my project, as many of the sources from the late 18th century are not digitized. I was able to access different poems and literature written about anti-slavery that would not have been easily accessible. Additionally, trawling through different newspaper publications and collections of personal letters was a way that I was able to practically use many of the skills related to primary source research that I have learned in the classroom. Travelling to England and conducting archival research gave me the opportunity to apply knowledge I have learned in the classroom in a hands-on way.