An anti-slavery sugar bowl

June 28, 2024

As part of ongoing efforts to update the displays in our glass galleries, we are excited to put a very rare example of abolitionist glassware on public display for the first time in the main gallery (131). This glass sugar bowl, with its deep blue colour and gilt letters that read: East India Sugar, Not Made by Slaves, is a striking symbol of the abolitionist movement in Britain. It represents a complicated and violent chapter of British history in which sugar became inextricably linked with the slave trade. Its brilliant colour and gilt decoration are not diminished by the fact that it has been broken and was painstakingly repaired. Anti-slavery campaigners understood the influence that domestic goods had on British society and realised that by circulating their message on useful every-day items, they could inspire political change. Like the anti-slavery medallions produced by Wedgwood in the late 18th century, abolitionist sugar bowls were a tangible symbol of their owner’s political views.

Sugar bowl, blue glass, inscribed in gilt with the words ‘East India Sugar / not made by / Slaves’, about 1820-30, probably made in Bristol, England. Museum no. C.14-2023. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The sugar boycotts

The 18th-century vogue for tea and coffee created a frenzied demand for sugar, which bolstered the West Indian slave trade. Anti-slavery campaigners organised two important sugar boycotts in 1792-1793 and 1825-1829 with the intention of forcing parliament to halt the trafficking of enslaved people through the British Isles and to its colonies. These boycotts were spearheaded by Quakers and other abolitionists such as William Fox (active in the 1790s), who published An Address to the People of Great Britain, on the Utility of Refraining from the Use of West India Sugar and Rum. In this pamphlet, Fox draws graphic parallels between the consumption of sugar and cannibalism. His metaphor asserts that by partaking in a food that was directly linked to slavery, the consumer was no better than a cannibal. The Anti-Saccharites’ message was so successful that it is estimated approximately 300,000 people participated the sugar boycotts.

John, Fourteenth Lord Willoughby de Broke, and His Family, Johann Zoffany (German, 1733-1810) about 1766, oil on canvas. This image is courtesy of the Getty Museum (

Domestic goods as agents of protest

Anti-slavery domestic goods are an early example of ethical consumerism, which seeks change by appealing to the moral character of consumers and their peers. Abolitionists sought to juxtapose the violent horrors of slavery with the elegant and restrained ritual of drinking tea which had been so fervently appropriated by British women in the 18th-century. In doing so, anti-slavery campaigners succeeded in querying the moral and virtuous nature of wealthy and middle-class women. For these women, participating in the sugar boycotts was a political statement, which signalled their righteous character to their peers while also adhering to societal expectations. Not only did boycotting sugar become fashionable, but so too did abolitionist iconography on domestic goods. By quite literally serving up abolitionist ideas on their tea tables, gentlewomen were able to take part in politics as never before.

Scan of an advertisement selling ceramic abolitionist sugar bowls. This image is courtesy Britain Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Although the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 made it illegal to directly participate in the slave trade in British colonies, the West Indies still used forced labour to harvest and produce sugar. This triggered the second wave of sugar boycotts from 1825-1829, which was when the bowl in our collection was made. 

Old advertisements tell us that other anti-slavery sugar bowls with similar slogans and decoration were produced and sold in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, these examples all appear to be ceramic rather than glass. An early 19th-century pamphlet tells us that Mrs. B. Henderson’s warehouse on Rye Lane, Peckham sold a variety of ceramic ‘East India Sugar Basins’ that read ‘East India Sugar Not Made by Slaves’ in gold lettering, very similar to the glass example in our collection. Recent research also suggests that some women’s abolitionist societies commissioned anti-slavery sugar tableware by well-known makers such as Herbert Minton, such as this jug in our collection, with profits going towards their cause.

The V&A glass sugar bowl

Most known examples of abolitionist sugar bowls are ceramic and few of these survive today. The V&A sugar bowl is a very rare example made of glass and is possibly one of only two known to still exist, the other is held at the British Museum. It almost certainly originally had a lid, which has since been lost or destroyed. It was probably made in Bristol, which was an important centre of glassmaking in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Bristol and its port were also a significant leg of the transatlantic slave trade, which poured lots of money into the city, its industries and its inhabitants. While glassmakers may not have directly supported the slave trade, they certainly benefitted from it financially by selling sugar bowls, decanters and other goods that were intended for commodities harvested by enslaved peoples. It is, therefore, particularly significant that Bristol manufacturers who had historically benefited so greatly from the slave trade in the 18th century, also sought to benefit from the later sugar boycotts of the 1820s.

Left: Sugar bowl and lid, Staffordshire or Sunderland, ca. 1820. Earthenware. H. 6″. (Image courtesy of the Chipstone Foundation; photo, Gavin Ashworth.) Inscribed “EAST INDIA SUGAR NOT MADE BY SLAVES”).,-Mythical,-Practical,-and-Sublime:-The-Meanings-and-Uses-of-Ceramics-in-America. Right: This image is courtesy of Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UK/Bridgeman Images

This glass sugar bowl represents a multifaceted and complicated era in Western history. The sugar boycotts were an influential protest that remind us that people have sought change through economic resistance for hundreds of years. Although anti-slavery goods successfully spread their message to a wider audience, we should be reminded that objects like this sugar bowl were a performative display of solidarity. White, middle- and upper-class people could display these objects while doing little else for the abolitionist cause. The absurdity of this performance is clearly felt when contrasting the decorous act of ‘taking tea’ sans sugar as a form of protest with the violence  to which enslaved people were subjected. Although the support of British people was imperative in the fight for abolition, we should not let this overshadow the conscious resistance initiated by enslaved people in securing their own freedom.

Next time you’re in the V&A do pay a visit to our glass galleries (Room 131) to see this rare example of abolitionist glassware. If you’re interested in learning more about abolitionist domestic goods ranging from anti-slavery medallions to handbags, come and see some examples that we hold in our collection.

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