Monday, April 7, 2014

Regency Etiquette : When Slavery Made Sugar Unfashionable

Sugar chests with locks were popular in 18th century Regency Era home furnishings of the wealthy.
Sugar in novelist Jane Austen's England: 
Because it was so costly, sugar was kept locked up in the 18th century. It was sold in many grades, from the highly refined, pure white sugar that only the well-off could afford, down to the darkest of brown sugars used by the poor. Granulated sugar had been only recently invented and was not yet widely available. Sugar was molded into large, cone-shaped loaves weighing several pounds each that had to be broken up or grated before the sugar could be used.  Sugar cubes would not be invented until 1843 – if people wanted sugar for tea, they had to first break it into irregular lumps with special tools called “sugar nippers,” from which practices comes the traditional question “One lump or two?” ~ Bernadette Petrotta, Polite Society School
Sugar scuttles, servers and a cone of sugar ~ Sugar was molded into large, cone-shaped loaves weighing several pounds each that had to be broken up or grated before the sugar could be used. 

Regency Era "tea time” varied according to the time of day and type of foods to accompany one's tea.  The High Tea, or “meat tea,” was more of an early evening meal. It would have been accompanied by hot dishes like cottage pie, shepherd’s pie, or baked fish or other savory dishes with  root vegetables. The Afternoon Tea, or “low tea,” did not become the fashion until the early 1840s.  

For a time however, sugar in one's tea, or anything else for that matter, became very unfashionable across every segment of society. In Britain, women were very influential in the anti-slavery movement. Many authors in this time period emphasized the connection between British daily life and that of slaves. Famous poet, Robert Southey, spoke of tea as “the blood-sweetened beverage,” and Sir William Fox urged the tea drinker to “As he sweetens his tea, let him…say as he truly may, this lump cost the poor slave a groan, and this a bloody stroke with a cartwhip.” 

At a time when many citizens could not vote, the sugar boycott provided the underrepresented with a chance to act when Parliament had yet to do so. Isaac Cruikshank’s “The gradual abolition of the slave trade: or leaving of sugar by degrees in 1792” embodies the outcry against the consumption of slave-produced sugar in England
Concerned Regency Era women like Barbara Spooner Wilberforce,  (depicted by Romola Garai in the movie Amazing Grace), boycotted sugar in an attempt to end  the British slave trade. 

By 1791, according to Thomas Clarkson, an English abolitionist and leading campaigner against the slave trade in the British Empire, no fewer than 300,000 Britons had abandoned the use of slave-produced sugar in the West Indies. As Clarkson conducted his travels, he reported that there was no town through which he passed in which there was not one person who had stopped using sugar.
Quakers were at the forefront of the movement to boycott goods produced by slave labour in not only England, but the U.S. In 1824 Elizabeth Heyrick from Leicester in England wrote a pamphlet entitled “Immediate, not Gradual Abolition or An Inquiry Into the Shortest, Safest, and Most Effectual Means of Getting Rid of West Indian Slavery” which sold thousands of copies in Britain and the USA. She and many other women, many of whom were Quakers, believed that a boycott of sugar, one of Britain’s major imports, would help to make people aware of the suffering of slaves.
Some people used sugar from East India during this period. There were sugar bowls and other items produced which stated that the sugar a hostess or host was serving, had not been produced by slave labour. It seems that those who forsook sugar came from all classes and age groups within society. 
Inspired by her, women’s societies put out boycott pamphlets and started to compile a national list of all those who had given up West Indian sugar. Conditions in the plantations in which the slaves worked to produce sugar were appalling. Together with Susannah Watts she canvassed large areas of Leicester and promoted a boycott of sugar produced in the West Indies. By the following June almost a quarter of the town’s population had given up sugar. A few people used sugar from East India and there were sugar bowls and other items produced which stated that the sugar had not been produced by slave labour. It seems that those who forsook sugar came from all classes and age groups within society. 

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