Smoking, drinking and the British sweet tooth

Slavery and sugar consumption

by Dr Emma Poulter

By the nineteenth century most people in Britain consumed sugar, the majority of which was grown on West Indian slave plantations. Protective duties placed on West Indian sugar meant that these sugar plantations had a virtual monopoly of Britain's domestic sugar market. This remained the case until the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1838.


Sugar was used to sweeten tea, coffee and cocoa and to make desserts. Indeed, the West Indian lobby actively encouraged tea consumption because they knew it was good for the sugar business, the more tea the British drank, the more sugar they consumed. Rum from the Caribbean, which is made from sugar, was also widely available in Britain.

According to the historian James Walvin:

‘Late eighteenth century British social life was unimaginable without the sweet produce of slave labour'.

There are numerous examples across the museum collections in the Greater Manchester area of items, which demonstrate the increasingly widespread availability, and consumption of sugar. These include sugar cutters, sugar tongs, sugar crushers, sugar sifters, sugar bowls (for example Oldham has a late eighteenth-century Bristol glass sugar bowl) as well as a jelly mould and sugar box (Salford), and punch ladle (Rochdale).