Sugar and the slave trade

The ingenious wording of a certain English china warehouse’s advertisement for sugar basins in the early 1800s exploited the contemporary wave of liberal thinking: “East India Sugar not made by Slaves,” the pots were printed, thus enabling the purchaser to display his conscience publicly. “A Family that uses 5lb of Sugar a Week,” the advertisement continued, “will, by using East India instead of West India, for 21 Months, prevent the Slavery, or Murder, of one Fellow Creature! Eight such Families in 19½ years will prevent the Slavery, or Murder of 100!!” The equation of 5 pounds for 21 months, or 450 pounds being equal to the life of one slave, was a very extreme calculation. Most of the evidence from the 17th century, when conditions were primitive, life was cheap, and slaves could be obtained relatively easily in West Africa, would equate 1 life with half a ton of sugar. By 1700 it was parity: 1 ton = 1 life. By the end of the 18th century, it was nearer 2 tons equaling 1 slave’s life. So these figures are polemical rather than accurate. Yet this is the central conundrum of the whole sad story , it is also one of the major puzzles of modern history. Sugar remains one of the great moral mysteries.


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