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This article reconsiders the sugar duties controversy in early Victorian Britain. Rather than representing the defeat of abolitionism by free trade zeal, the sugar question was a contest of two varieties of anti-slavery thought which had previously co-existed: one believing that slavery's immorality was accompanied by its productive inferiority to free labour and the other asserting that slavery's profits in this world were punished outside the marketplace. West Indian decline after the end of protection led to a revision of free labour superiority, with providential externalities replacing marketplace competitiveness. The episode demonstrates how little most Britons understood the welfare of black freedmen to be connected to anti-slavery after emancipation. A fuller appreciation of the slave sugar debate furthermore recovers an important abolitionist strand in the new ‘human history’ of free trade.

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The Macmillan Center, 34 Hillhouse Avenue, P.O. Box 208206, New Haven, CT 06520–8206,
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The author wishes to thank the editors and anonymous referees of this journal, David Brion Davis, Lawrence Goldman, Simon Morgan, J. R. Oldfield, Steven Heath Mitton, Andrew J. Ratledge, and William Whyte – as well as participants of seminars at Oxford and Yale Universities – for their comments on earlier drafts of the argument presented in this article.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Simon Morgan , ‘The Anti-Corn Law League and British anti-slavery in transatlantic perspective, 1838–1846’, Historical Journal, 52, (2009), pp. 87107.

Robert Livingston Schulyer , ‘The abolition of British imperial preference, 1846–1860’, Political Science Quarterley, 33, (1918), pp. 7792

C. Duncan Rice , ‘“Humanity sold for sugar!” The British abolitionist response to free trade in slave-grown sugar’, Historical Journal, 13, (1970), pp. 402–18

Eric Williams , ‘Laissez faire, sugar and slavery’, Political Science Quarterly, 58, (1943), pp. 6785

David B. Davis , ‘James Cropper and the British anti-slavery movement, 1821–1823’, Journal of Negro History, 45, (1960), pp. 241–58

L. Franzmann , ‘Antislavery and political economy in the early Victorian House of Commons: a research note on “capitalist hegemony”’, Journal of Social History, 27, (1994), pp. 578–93

L. Huston , ‘Abolitionists, political economists, and capitalism’, Journal of the Early Republic, 20, (2000), pp. 487521

Frank Trentmann , ‘Before “fair trade”: empire, free trade, and the moral economies of food in the modern world’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 25, (2007), pp. 1079–102

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The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
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