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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