Laura Eastlake

Sugar Bowl from abolitionist period (1820-1830) inscribed ‘East India Sugar. The Produce of Free Labour’. Image: Maritime Museum, Liverpool. MMM.1994.111

Sugar is in the bloodstream of modern Britain. Whether we enjoy it as a treat or worry about it as an increasingly urgent health risk, navigating our relationships with sugar is a national challenge.

Where health research dating back to John Yudkin’s Pure, White and Deadly (1972) has established beyond question the harmful effects of sugar on our health, work being done by EHU Nineteen Research Centre for Nineteenth Century Studies is uncovering the cultural consequences of Britain’s national sweet tooth in collaboration with heritage, business and community organizations.

Nineteenth Century Legacies

Our craving for sugar has its roots in the nineteenth century. Production rose from c.245,000 tons in 1800 to 6.1 million tons by 1890, and with the industrial revolution came the mechanized mass production of many of the popular sweets and brands that we continue to consume by the millions today.

But as sugar percolated into everyday life through tea-drinking and sweet-eating, it became dissolved into cultural bloodstreams as well as literal ones. It became not just a substance but a symbol – a shared point of reference through which politicians, writers, artists, and social campaigners could speak about some of the most pressing issues of the day.

In 1833, for instance, Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act, emancipating more than half a million enslaved people on Caribbean sugar plantations over the remainder of the decade. The legislation came into force after decades of abolitionist protest which included mass boycotts of slave-produced sugar. In 1791 abolitionist and former enslaved person Quobna Ottobah Cugoano had insisted that ‘It would be better to sip the West-India sweetness by paying a little more money … than to drink the blood of iniquity at a cheaper rate.’ Poet Robert Southey (1774-1843) called sugar the ‘blood sweetn’d beverage’ and pamphleteer William Fox insisted that ‘in every pound of sugar used we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh.’ Seemingly domestic acts of sugar consumption were made analogous to the cannibalistic consumption not only of slave bodies, but of human bodies and blood.

The abolitionist campaigns show us that how we consume sugar has always been a political act. But they also reveal that the power of sugar can be symbolic as much as economic. Sugar offers us a way to analyse and understand how legacies of the past continue to shape not just our physical health and economy, but how we articulate our wider national identities, values and tastes.

Contemporary Connections

The North West of England is a region that has been particularly shaped by histories of sugar. Liverpool itself was a centre for sugar imports but also one of the UK’s largest nineteenth-century slave ports. Sugar, then, can offer to heritage organizations like the International Museum of Slavery or Tate (built on the wealth of Victorian sugar tycoon Henry Tate) a lens through which to re-view and reinterpret their collections and forge new thinking around colonialism and decolonialisation.

But we have also seen histories sugar bringing people together in local community projects. In Bootle, the Gateway Collective is a social enterprise seeking to tackle loneliness and health inequalities through community gardening and the production of a range of locally-made jams! The Collective has recently received Heritage Lottery funding to research the life and work of philanthropist and industrialist William Pickles Hartley (1846-1922), who built the Hartley’s Jam factory and worker’s village in Ainsdale in 1888. Edge Hill researchers and students from the MA in Nineteenth Century Studies are working hand-in-hand with the Gateway Collective on research and public engagement activities for 2024.

It seems that – even though sugar continues to be a serious health problem – understanding its history can help point the way towards happier and healthier communities in the future.