Smoking, drinking and the British sweet tooth


Made in Staffordshire, England, 1760s
Copper, handpainted with enamels and gilt

Object number 1958.467
Bequeathed by Harold Raby

See this object at Manchester Art Gallery This object may not always be on display. Please check with the venue before visiting.


Bonbonniere is a French word, meaning container for 'bonbons' or sweets. This tiny little box, decorated with painted scenes of idealised English landscapes, was made during the 1760s, and would once have held small, breath-freshening minted sweets. At this time, sugar was still a highly valuable commodity and could only be afforded by the wealthy. The sweets it contained were almost certainly made from sugar cane that was cut and processed by enslaved Africans on British owned plantations in the Caribbean.

The West Indies became the world's largest producer of sugar during the 1700s, fuelled by the import of millions of enslaved Africans to work the plantations. As production increased, prices in Britain gradually fell and sugar became an integral part of the British diet across all social classes, taken in drinks such as tea, coffee and chocolate and eaten in jams and puddings. The British government imposed taxes on sugar from any other source and ensured that Britain was also sole supplier of all goods imported into British controlled colonies.

This information was provided by curators from Manchester Art Gallery.



Performance poet Tina Tamsho-Thomas wrote the following response to the bonbonniere as part of Manchester Art Gallery's programme to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade:

I am Bonbonniere,
made in my masters' image,
elegant, delicate, decorative, attractive, delightful,
veneered, refined, ornate, beautiful.
Emblem of Europe's plundered wealth and power.

I am Bonbonniere,
possessed by prosperous, profiteering, predatory pirates
who made their heap, their pile, their mint, their ill-gotten gains
from madness, insanity, misery, cruelty,
base inhumanity, bastard brutality,
butchery, debauchery, depravity, iniquity,
gluttony and greed.

I am Bonbonniere,
from my exquisite minted mouth I wretched
Europe's bitter anthem and sweetened the stench
of blood-drenched world hypocrisy.

I am Bonbonniere,
owned by respected, up-right, self-righteous,
judicious, un-clean living, filthy rich, scum,
parasites feeding off the fat of the land.
African heritage, African land.

View a film of Tina's performance of this and other poems at Manchester Art Gallery. You can also view more responses to the bonbonniere by going to the interactive artwork Chained Reactions.