Abolitionists and Free Produce

Away! ‘Tis loathsome! Bear me hence!
I cannot feed on human sighs,
Or feast with sweets my palate’s sense,
While blood is ‘neath the fair disguise.

“Oh Press Me Not To Taste Again,” Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, 1836

In 1791, when the British Parliament rejected a bill to outlaw slavery in the Empire, abolitionists protested with a new tactic: they stopped using sugar, the leading consumer product made by enslaved labor in the Caribbean. The boycott spread rapidly. Abolitionists in the United States later adopted the same tactic, with “free produce associations” appearing about 1829. For Americans, abstinence from imported products had a patriotic dimension: it recalled the Boston Tea Party and tea boycotts during the American Revolution.

Women led the free produce movement. They traded recipes for baked goods made with honey, maple syrup, or maple sugar, and they also abstained from coffee and slave-made cotton. They wrote tracts and letters urging others to join them. Some ran free-produce stores, and a few experimented with growing sugar beets.

In seeking to create what historian Carol Faulkner calls “an alternative economy,” free-produce advocates were forebears of today’s movement for fair trade.

Recipe for Antislavery Gingerbread

You can make almost any recipe “abolitionist” by replacing sugar, brown sugar, or molasses with alternative sweeteners.  Nineteenth-century abolitionists used honey, maple sugar, or molasses. Here is one gingerbread recipe, adapted from Epicurious:

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2″ pieces
  • 1/2 cup maple sugar or grated maple-sugar candy
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1 large egg, beaten to blend
  • 2 tsp. gingerroot, peeled and grated

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter 8″ square or round pan. Whisk first 6 ingredients in a medium bowl. Place butter in a large bowl and pour 1/2 cup boiling water over it; whisk until melted. Whisk in maple sugar honey, egg, and ginger. Add dry ingredients; whisk and pour into prepared pan.

Bake until a tester inserted into center of cake comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Let cool in pan for 10 minutes. Invert onto a wire rack; let cool. Slice and enjoy.  (If you add a cream cheese or other frosting, don’t forget to use honey or maple syrup to sweeten it.)

For further reading:  Carol Faulkner, “The Root of the Evil: Free Produce and Radical Antislavery, 1820-1860,” Journal of the Early Republic 27.3 (2007): 377-405.