Today, sprinkling a spoonful of sugar into your tea doesn’t say much about your views on human trafficking. But in the late 18th century in England, it did.

In 1791, about 400,000 Brits boycotted slave-made sugar from the West Indies as a protest against slavery and Great Britain’s failure to pass a bill abolishing the slave trade. Drinking tea was a hugely important social custom in England, and with the sugar boycott, it became a political one. As NPR put it, the sweet condiment “came to epitomize the evils of slavery.”

Great Britain benefitted economically from slavery, with slaves on plantations in the West Indies pumping out valuable trading goods like sugar, which also drove consumerism in England. The Empire also profited from the slave trade, trafficking more than 3 million Africans across the Atlantic Ocean between 1700 and 1810.

To abolitionists, this was morally abhorrent and had to end.  The sugar boycott provided the average British citizen with one way to not only advocate for the end of slavery, but to put a dent in the economic influence that slavery had on their Empire.

18th century sugar boycott political cartoon

A political cartoon by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey, hand-coloured etching, published 23 April 1791, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Printer William Fox started the boycott by publishing a pamphlet titled An Address to the People of Great Britain on the Utility of Refraining from the Use of West India Sugar and Rum.

William Fox's pamphlet to the public

A copy of the pamphlet from the Boston Public Library digitized HERE

That long titled boiled down to one main takeaway: every time you add sugar to your tea, you’re supporting slave labor. For those against slavery, opting out of sugar was a simple way to communicate a political and moral position on the hotly debated issue. Fox’s pamphlet surpassed Thomas Paine’s American Revolution-inspiring Common Sense as the most distributed pamphlet of the century.

According to the BBC, the boycott certainly made an impact: sugar sales plummeted by a third to a half, and hundreds of thousands signed petitions calling on the British Empire to outlaw the slave trade. As BBC put it, the boycott “is one of the earliest examples of consumers using their purchasing power to reject the trade in goods which have not been ethically produced.”

To meet tea-drinkers’ sugar fix, grocers started stocking sugar from the East Indies, where sugar production didn’t rely on slave labor.

At home, people made sure to let their tea party guests know where their sugar came from. Sugar bowls like the one below added the label “not made by slave labor” to assuage guests’ concerns about a host’s ethical or political stance.

sugar bowl

Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Today, Fair Trade, non-GMO Project, or Organic labels aim to both help consumers make informed choices and communicate those choices to others.

Some British citizens responded to the sugar boycott by switching to green tea, a beverage that didn’t call for sugar the same way black tea might to some palettes.

The sugar boycott lost its mojo as time went on—particularly as Brits saw the violence endured by French citizens for resisted the monarchy—but Great Britain did eventually abolish the trade of slaves in the British Empire in 1807. To incentivize Brits to follow the new law, the government threatened to fine ship owners a steep £100 for every slave found on British ships. Although the slave trade was now illegal, slavery itself remained legal 1833, when the British Empire abolished the practice in all its territories.

Be aware of what you put in your tea cup.  As history has proven, it may have a large impact.