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FREE TRADE, FREE LABOUR, AND SLAVE SUGAR IN VICTORIAN BRITAIN*

  • RICHARD HUZZEY (a1)
Abstract
ABSTRACT

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, USArichard.huzzey@gmail.com
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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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1 Boyd Hilton, A mad, bad and dangerous people? England, 1783–1846 (Oxford, 2006), pp. 543–58, 572–88.

2 Benjamin Disraeli, Lord George Bentinck (London, 1852), p. 530.

3 The BFASS complaints are reprinted in Economist, 25 July 1846, p. 961.

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

5 As noted by Philip Curtin D., ‘The British sugar duties and West Indian prosperity’, Journal of Economic History, 14, (1954), pp. 157–64, at p. 157.

6 For three who do, see: David Eltis, ‘Abolitionist perceptions of society’, in James Walvin, ed., Slavery and British society, 1776–1846 (Baton Rouge, LA, 1982), p. 208; David Turley, The culture of English antislavery, 1780–1860 (London and New York, NY, 1991), pp. 148–9; G. R. Searle, Morality and the market in Victorian Britain (Oxford and New York, NY, 1998), pp. 57–9, 62.

7 Christine Bolt, The anti-slavery movement and reconstruction: a study in Anglo-American co-operation, 1833–1877 (London, New York, NY, and Toronto, ON, 1969), p. 20.

8 Howard Temperley, British anti-slavery, 1833–1870 (London, 1972), pp. 154–5.

9 Leslie Bethell, The abolition of the Brazilian slave trade: Britain, Brazil and the slave trade question, 1807–1869 (Cambridge, 1970), p. 273. For further examples, see Schulyer Robert Livingston, ‘The abolition of British imperial preference, 1846–1860’, Political Science Quarterley, 33, (1918), pp. 7792, at pp. 78–9; Christopher Lloyd, The navy and the slave trade: the suppression of the African slave trade in the nineteenth century (London, 1949), pp. 101–3; Elsie Pilgrim, ‘Anti-slavery sentiment in Great Britain, 1841–1854: its nature and its decline, with special reference to its influence upon British policy towards the former slave colonies’ (PhD thesis, Cambridge, 1952), pp. 95–6.

10 Duncan Rice C., ‘“Humanity sold for sugar!” The British abolitionist response to free trade in slave-grown sugar’, Historical Journal, 13, (1970), pp. 402–18. Rice's focus was on rebutting Eric Williams's account: Williams Eric, ‘Laissez faire, sugar and slavery’, Political Science Quarterly, 58, (1943), pp. 6785; Eric Williams, Capitalism and slavery (Chapel Hill, NC, 1944), p. 153.

11 Seymour Drescher, The mighty experiment: free labor versus slavery in British emancipation (Oxford, 2002), p. 166. Curiously, Drescher accepts Cobden's anti-slavery sincerity just a few pages later: Ibid., p. 174.

12 Catherine Hall, Civilising subjects: metropole and colony in the English imagination, 1830–1867 (Oxford, 2002), pp. 338–9.

13 On the institutional question, see Morgan, ‘The Anti-Corn Law League and British anti-slavery’.

14 Chamber's Journal, Apr. 1857, p. 244.

15 Times, 13 Sept. 1861, p. 6.

16 John Bright: Hansard, 3rd ser., 1848, xcix, 748; for other examples of such ‘moral economies’ behind the free traders' case, see: Hansard, 3rd ser., 1848, xcix, 1341–2; Economist, 25 July 1846, p. 956.

17 For assessments of the economic impact of the equalization of the sugar duties on the free labour colonies, see Curtin, ‘British sugar duties and West Indian prosperity’; W. A. Green, British slave emancipation: the sugar colonies and the great experiment, 1830–1865 (Oxford, 1976).

18 Schulyer, ‘The abolition of British imperial preference’, p. 84.

19 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1840, lv, 106–7.

20 For the League's influence on whig liberals, see John Prest, Politics in the age of Cobden (London and Basingstoke, 1977), pp. 72–102; Anthony Howe, Free trade and Liberal England, 1846–1946 (Oxford, 1997); Paul A. Pickering and Alex Tyrrell, The people's bread: a history of the Anti-Corn Law League (London and New York, NY, 2000). On Peel and Peelite attitudes to free trade, see Hilton Boyd, ‘Sir Robert Peel: a reappraisal’, Historical Journal, 79, (1979), pp. 585614, at pp. 596–611; Newbould Ian, ‘Sir Robert Peel and the Conservative party, 1832–1841: a study in failure?’, English Historical Review, 98, (1983), pp. 529–57, at pp. 549–52; A. J. B. Hilton, The age of atonement: the influence of evangelicalism on social and economic thought, 1765–1865 (Oxford, 1988), pp. 248–50.

21 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1841, lviii, 667, 1241.

22 Norman Gash, Peel (London and New York, NY, 1973), pp. 242–4.

23 Anon. [William Fox], An address to the people of Great Britain, on the utility of refraining from the use of West India sugar and rum (5th edn, corrected, London, 1791), p. 2.

24 David Brion Davis, Slavery and human progress (New York, NY, and Oxford, 1984), pp. 181–4; Davis David B., ‘James Cropper and the British anti-slavery movement, 1821–1823’, Journal of Negro History, 45, (1960), pp. 241–58; idem, ‘James Cropper and the British anti-slavery movement, 1823–1833’, Journal of Negro History, 46, (1961), pp. 154–73; Drescher, The mighty experiment, p. 116.

25 Drescher, The mighty experiment, pp. 131–44.

26 Tom Franzmann L., ‘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, at pp. 584–6.

27 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1833, xviii, 458–71; V. E. Chancellor, ‘Hume, Joseph (1777–1855)’, in Oxford dictionary of national biography (Oxford, 2004; online edn 2008: www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/14148, accessed 22 Feb. 2010).

28 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1840, lv, 97; Earl Grey made a similar appeal in the 1846 debate: Hansard, 3rd ser., 1846, lxxxviii, 539.

29 Thomas Carlyle, Past and present (London, 1840), pp. 1–9.

30 Hilton, A mad, bad and dangerous people?, p. 575; John Burnett, Plenty and want: a social history of food in England from 1815 to the present day (3rd edn, Abingdon, 1989), p. 15.

31 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1846, lxxxviii, 537.

32 Ibid., 1848, xcix, 1242.

33 Ibid., 1839, xlviii, 1022, 1840, lv, 80–1, 1841, lviii, 33, 103, 1844, lxxv, 178; Parliamentary Papers (PP), 1840, v (601), pp. 199–202.

34 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1840, lv, 97.

35 Herman Merivale, Lectures on colonization and colonies (2 vols., London, 1840–1), i, pp. 200–2; Ibid., ii, p. 311; W. P. Morrell, British colonial policy in the age of Peel and Russell (London, 1966), p. 169; G. R. Porter, The progress of the nation (3 vols., London, 1836–43), ii, 436–8; PP, 1840, v (601), pp. 185–208.

36 Economist, 2 May 1846, p. 565.

37 Colonial Gazette, 17 June 1840, as quoted in ‘T. H.’, Are the West India colonies to be preserved? A few plain facts; showing the necessity of immigration into British Guiana and the West Indies, and the utter futility of all efforts towards the abolition of slavery and the slave trade which do not include this (London, 1840), pp. 6–7.

38 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1846, lxxxviii, 522–3.

39 Ibid., 1848, c, 347–8.

40 Ibid., 1841, lviii, 88.

41 Ibid., 1841, lviii, 31–3.

42 Russell to Light (British Guiana), 15 Feb. 1840, in Select documents on British colonial policy 1830–1860, ed. K. N. Bell and W. P. Morrell (Oxford, 1928), p. 412; Morrell, British colonial policy, p. 151.

43 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1840, lviii, 131. See also Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, 25 July 1846, p. 8.

44 PP, 1842, xiii (479), p. iv; Drescher, The mighty experiment, pp. 218–19.

45 Thomas C. Holt, The problem of freedom: race, labor and politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832–1938 (Baltimore, MD, and London, 1992), p. xxiv.

46 Porter, The progress of the nation, iii, p. 40.

47 Merivale, Lectures, i, pp. 313, 326.

48 Christopher Leslie Brown, Moral capital: foundations of British abolitionism (Chapel Hill, NC, 2006), pp. 25–9; Turley, The culture of English antislavery, pp. 82–3.

49 Hall, Civilizing subjects, p. 379

50 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1846, lxxxviii, 44, see also 509.

51 Ibid., 1840, lv, 79–80; the success of free labour indigo was also cited: Ibid., 1848, c, 57.

52 Ibid., 1848, xcix, 1237–8.

53 Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 479.

54 Ibid., 1848, xcvi, 206.

55 Ibid., 1840, lv, 79–80.

56 Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 478; Economist, 25 July 1846, p. 956, 15 Aug. 1846, p. 1051, 19 Sept. 1846, pp. 1220–1.

57 Joseph Beldam, A review of the late proposed measure for the reduction of the duties on sugar (London, 1841), p. 17; another old ally of Macaulay, Henry Drummond, argued in similar terms: Hansard, 3rd ser., 1848, c, 12.

58 James Ewing Ritchie, Thoughts on slavery and cheap sugar (London, 1844), p. 6.

59 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1848, xcvi, 62–4, 71.

60 Ritchie, Thoughts on slavery and cheap sugar, p. 37.

61 Beldam, A review of the late proposed measure, p. 51.

62 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1841, lviii, 40–1.

63 Ibid., 1846, lxxxvii, 1311. See also Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 24–5.

64 On the productivity of Southern cotton, see Robert William Fogel, Without consent or contract: the rise and fall of American slavery (New York, NY, and London, 1989), pp. 72–7.

65 Economist, 1 Aug. 1846, p. 987. See also: Ibid., 25 July 1846, pp. 956–7; Hansard, 3rd ser., 1848, xcvi, 50–2.

66 For example: Manchester Times and Gazette, 11 July 1846, p. 4; Hansard, 3rd ser., 1848, xcvi, 85–6; Ibid., 1848, c, 59; Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 24.

67 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1848, xcix, 855–6.

68 Morning Chronicle, 11 May, 1841, p. 7.

69 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1841, lviii, 101; see also Lord Grey's prediction that free trade in sugar was the most likely way to end the slave trade: Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 538–9.

70 This marked the equalization of foreign and domestic duties on sugar. The final abolition of the duties was undertaken in 1874: W. M. J. Williams, The king's revenue: being a handbook to the taxes and the public revenue (London, 1908), pp. 38–9.

71 H. V. Huntley, Observations upon the free trade policy of England in connexion with the sugar act of 1846 (London, 1849), p. 29.

72 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1846, lxxxviii, 514. See also Ibid., 1846, lviii, 136–7; Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 503 and 45.

73 Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 534.

74 Ibid., 1841, lviii, 121.

75 Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 653; Samuel Wilberforce, Cheap sugar means cheap slaves (London, 1848), p. 13.

76 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1848, xcix, 1236–7; Ibid., 1848, xcvi, 50–2.

77 Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 122.

78 So argued Russell, Ibid., 1846, lxxxvii, 1314. There was at least one reply to this point: Wilberforce, Cheap sugar means cheap slaves, p. 8.

79 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1846, lxxxviii, 488. See also Leeds Mercury, 25 July 1846, p. 4; Hansard, 3rd ser., 1846, lxxxviii, 525.

80 See Hansard, 3rd ser., 1840, lv, 82.

81 Liverpool Mercury, 24 July 1846, p. 10; Hansard, 3rd ser., 1846, lxxxviii, 482; Ibid., 1848, xcvi, 85; Ibid., 1841, lviii, 98.

82 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1841, lviii, 37–8.

83 Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 517. See, similarly, Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 537.

84 British Library (BL), Add. MS 43845 (Joseph Sturge papers), fos. 13–14: Bright to Sturge, 1 Jan. 1843.

85 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1846, lxxxvii, 1335–6; see also Ibid., 1841, lviii, 86; Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 505. The distinction of sugar from all other slave-grown goods had, ironically, been used used by Labouchere, when explaining the whigs' opposition in 1840: Ibid., 1840, lv, 86.

86 Merivale, Lectures, i, pp. 296–7.

87 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1841, lviii, 43.

88 Economist, 1 Aug. 1846, pp. 986–7.

89 Ruth Ketring Nuermberger, The free produce movement: a Quaker protest against slavery (New York, NY, 1942), pp. 57–8; Temperley, British anti-slavery, p. 165.

90 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1846, lxxxviii, 115–16; Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 513.

91 A point they made during subsequent West Indian distress: Ibid., 1848, xcix, 758; Ibid., 1848, xcix, 782–3. By contrast, John Bright likened the planters to Oliver Twist, as they continually begged for more: Ibid., 1848, xcix, 1428.

92 ‘A resident in the West Indies for thirteen years’, The British West India colonies (London, 1853), p. 4.

93 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1846, lxxxviii, 141–3.

94 Ibid., 1840, lv, 102. See also Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 38.

95 Ibid., 1840, lv, 92.

96 Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 661; Drescher, The mighty experiment, p. 180. The bishop repeated the arguments in an 1848 speech reprinted as Wilberforce, Cheap sugar means cheap slaves, pp. 3–4.

97 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1848, xcvi, 103. See also Ibid., 1848, xcix, 1466.

98 PP, 1840, v (601), p. 119; Hansard, 3rd ser., 1840, lviii, 122; Ibid., 1848, xcvi, 102; Huntley, Observations upon the free trade policy of England, p. 39; Drescher, The mighty experiment, pp. 162–3.

99 This division in economic thought is mapped by Hilton, The age of atonement, and Davis, Slavery and human progress, p. 211.

100 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1846, lxxxviii, 650.

101 For example, there were fierce arguments over partisan credit or blame for British policy towards slavery: Ibid., 1841, lviii, 39; Ibid., 1841, lviii, 46–7.

102 Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 536–9.

103 Ibid., 1840, lv, 100.

104 Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 154, 158.

105 Ibid., 1848, xcix, 754–5.

106 Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 139.

107 Ibid., 1840, lv, 94–5.

108 Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 666.

109 Wilberforce, Cheap sugar means cheap slaves, p. 13.

110 Rice, ‘“Humanity sold for sugar!”’, pp. 411–15.

111 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1848, xcix, 751–2.

112 BL, Add. MS 43845 (Sturge papers), fos. 13–14: Bright to Sturge, 1 Jan. 1843.

113 Economist, 25 July 1846, p. 953.

114 Ritchie, Thoughts on slavery and cheap sugar, p. 26.

115 E. Archer, A letter to the Right Hon. S. Lushington MP and the opponents of free labour, showing that in their opposition to emigration from India to the British colonies they are virtually encouraging the slave trade (London, 1840). For BFASS opposition, see for example Thomas Clarkson, Not a labourer wanted for Jamaica (London, 1842).

116 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1848, xcix, 729–36. See also Ibid., 1848, xcix, 1384.

117 Drescher, The mighty experiment, p. 191.

118 Punch, 20 Mar. 1850, p. 130.

119 Bethell, Abolition of the Brazilian slave trade, pp. 325–41.

120 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1845, lxxxi, 1166–7; Ibid., 1849, civ, 785–7.

121 The differences between Cobdenite and Palmerstonian interpretations of free trade's implications for foreign policy are discussed more generally in Howe, Free trade and Liberal England, ch. 3, and Anthony Howe, ‘Two faces of British power: Cobden versus Palmerston’, in David Brown and Miles Taylor, eds., Palmerston studies II (Southampton, 2007), pp. 166–92.

122 This analysis is based on a comparison of divisions on the sugar duties and slave trade bills of 19 Mar. 1850 (Hansard, 3rd ser., 1850, cix, 1184–6) and 31 May 1850 (Ibid., 1850, cxi, 593–6). There were 331 MPs who voted in both divisions. 45 MPs voted for protection and coercion, 155 for free trade and coercion (the ministry position), 87 MPs for protection and pacifism, and just 44 MPs voted for free trade and pacifism. The comparison excludes both Robert Palmer and Sir Roundell Palmer, as it is not possible to correlate their votes on division lists where they both featured as ‘R. Palmer’.

123 For free trader and protectionist arguments that the cruisers acted in this fashion, see: Ibid., 1848, xcvi, 1107; Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 138–40; PP, 1847–8, House of Lords, xxii (467), 80–5.

124 Trollope was particularly critical of attempts by Brougham and the BFASS to regulate free immigration: Anthony Trollope, The West Indies and the Spanish Main (2nd edn, London, 1860), pp. 65–7.

125 Ibid., p. 110.

126 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1848, xcix, 1220–2. See concerns about black labour choices in the Report of the Select Committee on the West India Colonies, PP, 1842, pp. xiii, iv–v; Select documents on British colonial policy, 1830–1860, ed. Bell and Morrell, pp. 421–3.

127 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1846, lxxxvii, 1336–7. Others who still hung to this concern included the free trade abolitionists George Thompson and John Bright: Ibid., 1848, xcix, 1217–19; Ibid., 1848, xcix, 1427.

128 Ibid., 1850, cix, 1183.

129 Drescher, The mighty experiment, pp. 227, 210–11.

130 Hansard, 3rd ser., 1846, lxxxvii, 1315; Ibid., 1846, lxxxviii, 116; John Innes, Thoughts on the present state of the West India colonies (London, 1840), pp. 14, 28, 39; Ritchie, Thoughts on slavery and cheap sugar, p. 26; Hansard, 3rd ser., 1846, lxxxviii, 133–4; Ibid., 1848, xcix, 1384; Drescher, The mighty experiment, p. 165.

131 J. S. Mill, Principles of political economy (2 vols., London, 1848), i, pp. 297–8, 303–39, ii, p. 243; for a nuanced account of his view on free labour and comparison with American thought see James Huston L., ‘Abolitionists, political economists, and capitalism’, Journal of the Early Republic, 20, (2000), pp. 487521, at p. 496.

132 John Elliott Cairnes, The slave power (2nd edn, London and Cambridge, 1863), pp. 65–72, 341–5; Robert W. Fogel, ‘The origin and history of economic issues in the American slavery debate’, in Robert W. Fogel, Ralph A. Galantine, and Richard L. Manning, eds., Without consent or contract: the rise and fall of American slavery: evidence and methods (New York, NY, and London, 1992), pp. 161–3. The omission of Cairnes from Drescher's account of free labour ideology is noted by Rothman Adam, ‘Review of Seymour Drescher, The mighty experiment (Oxford, 2002)’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 24, (2004), pp. 634–6.

133 Trollope, West Indies, p. 104.

134 Ibid., pp. 100–6.

135 Trentmann Frank, ‘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, at p. 1090; idem, Free trade nation: commerce, consumption, and civil society in modern Britain (Oxford, 2008), pp. 2–7, 11–14; idem, ‘Political culture and political economy: interest, ideology and free trade’, Review of International Political Economy, 5, (1998), pp. 217–51.

136 The present author will return to this issue in a forthcoming article. On anti-slavery and providentialism, see Hilton, A mad, bad and dangerous people?, pp. 184–8.

137 This assertion chimes with the conclusion of Morgan, ‘The Anti-Corn Law League and British anti-slavery’, pp. 105–7.

* 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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