Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Boycotting Goods Produced by Slaves

Quakers were at the forefront of the movement to boycott goods produced by slave labour.

In Britain several women were influential in the anti-slavery movement, and came to see boycotting as a key campaigning tool. In 1824 Elizabeth Heyrick from Leicester wrote a pamphlet entitled “Immediate, not Gradual Abolition or An Inquiry Into the Shortest, Safest, and Most Effectual Means of Getting Rid of West Indian Slavery” which sold thousands of copies in Britain and the USA. The pamphlet made it clear that conditions in the plantations in which the slaves worked to produce sugar were appalling.

Heyrick and many other women, a large number of whom were Quakers, believed that a boycott of sugar, which was one of Britain’s major imports, would help to make people aware of the suffering of slaves. Inspired by her, women’s societies put out boycott pamphlets and started to compile a national list of all those who had given up West Indian sugar. Together with fellow-campaigner Susannah Watts she canvassed large areas of Leicester and promoted a boycott of sugar produced in the West Indies. By the following June almost a quarter of the town’s population had given up sugar.

Some supporters of the campaign used sugar from East India instead, and sugar bowls and other items were soon produced which stated that the sugar in them had not been produced by slave labour.  Those who forsook sugar seem to have come from all classes and age groups within society.  Quaker William Allen had given up sugar before he was eighteen years of age. Grocers stopped selling sugar from the West Indies and reported that sales of sugar from East India had increased tenfold. According to a newspaper report two Quakers in Cornwall toured the county on foot and found that more than 12,000 people had stopped using sugar. Anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson gave his backing too, and it was estimated that at the height of the boycott 400,000 people had given up the use of sugar from the West Indies. To some extent the boycott of sugar was symbolic as people in Britain continued to consume other products made by American slave labour such as tobacco, coffee and cotton, but awareness of these was not raised systematically in the same way.

In America Elias Hicks spoke forcefully against slavery and was one of the early leaders of the anti-slavery movement. In 1811 he produced a pamphlet against slavery and encouraged his followers to join the boycott against the products of slavery. He would not use rice, sugar or cotton. It is said that even on his death bed he refused to be covered by a blanket made of cotton that had been produced using slave labour.

The “free produce” movement was a boycott of any goods produced with slave labour. It was seen as a way of fighting slavery by having consumers buy only produce from non-slave labour. The movement was active in North America from the beginning of the abolitionist movement of the 1790s to the end of slavery in the 1860s. In 1826 in Baltimore, Maryland, Benjamin Lundy opened the first “free produce” store that only sold goods that had been produced by non-slave labour. In the same year Quakers in Wilmington, Delaware, drew up a charter for a formal free-produce organisation. In 1827 the movement expanded and Thomas M’Clintock and others founded the Free Produce Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In 1838 several such groups came together to form the American Free Produce Society, which developed the idea further as it aimed beyond boycotts and early forms of conscious consumerism, by creating several pamphlets, tracts and the journal Non-Slaveholder. The association, although larger than the predecessors, did not grow large enough to start benefiting from economies of scale and as a result the prices were always unsustainably higher than the slave produced goods they were trying to replace.

In 1847, in Cincinnati, Levi Coffin established a warehouse selling goods not produced by slave labour. For a time the business prospered but was eventually forced to close. It was difficult for abolitionists to ascertain which goods were wholly produced by free labour. The American Free Produce Society disbanded in 1847 as there was insufficient support of the boycott. In the previous year Quakers had founded The Philadelphia Free Produce Association of Friends. Quakers who had organised the earlier Free Produce Society continued their activities until 1856.

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Further Reading and Credits

The bowl is in the British Museum, London and bears the inscription EAST INDIA sugar not made by SLAVES. © Trustees of the British Museum