Bonbonniere - sweet box

Smoking, drinking and the British sweet tooth

The goods that could be grown in the tropical regions of the Caribbean and the Americas as a result of the transatlantic slave trade became extremely popular in Britain. Sugar and tobacco were two products that quickly became an essential part of the British lifestyle.

Initially it was only the rich upper classes who could afford such luxuries. As plantation economies expanded with millions of African people transported across the Atlantic as labour, the quantities of sugar and tobacco produced increased and became available to almost everyone.

Francis Drake first introduced tobacco to England in 1585, and Walter Raleigh made it fashionable. It was first grown on a large scale in Virginia, USA, where African people were enslaved to cultivate it in the 1620s. By the late 1630s more than 1m pounds (about 450,000 kg) of tobacco was being exported each year; by 1670 the figure was 20m pounds (about 9m tonnes).

Tobacco was also used throughout the system of slavery. In west Africa it was used to pacify captured Africans, it was also burned to fumigate the vacated quarters on the slaving ships. In the sugar colonies planters gave enslaved Africans pipes and tobacco.

Sugar was even more profitable than tobacco and even more widely used in Britain. It was grown throughout the Caribbean where the hot wet conditions suited it best.

Sugar was used to sweeten the naturally bitter drinks of tea, coffee and cocoa (all also grown in the tropics). It was also added to rice (another slave-grown product) to make rice pudding. Sugar had a big impact on the diet and the health (particularly the teeth) of British people. Rum, a product of sugar processing, became the mainstay of the British navy as well as ordinary people.

The museum collections in the north west of England and elsewhere clearly show how goods produced from slavery became almost universal within British society. There are sugar nippers, sugar castors, coffee pots and tea sets used for drinking sweet drinks, tobacco pipes and snuff boxes associated with smoking, and glasses and punch bowls that held rum.

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