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24 September 2014

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The humble cup of tea tells an amazing story

No Sugar For Me

Julyan Drew
The minister of the Newlyn Trinity Methodist chapel, the Reverend Julyan Drew explains why a protest campaign more than 200 years ago means that many people in Cornwall refuse to take sugar in their tea.

Please note the images of John Wesley in this feature are reproduced with the kind permission of the Trustees of Wesley's Chapel, City Road, London.

This year is the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slavery. One of the key figures in the abolitionist movement was John Wesley, who was one of the founders of Methodism. The Methodist Church was and still is very strong in Cornwall. It was almost the established church here. Most of us who were reared here, were taught not to have sugar in our tea because Mr Wesley said that we shouldn't as a protest against the slave trade.

John Wesley
A painting capturing Wesley in action

Many slaves were used in sugar production and Mr Wesley thought that a boycott of sugar by devout Methodists would be a good way of  showing disapproval of a trade which he despised. It's thought that in those days most people would normally have taken sugar in their tea so that refusing it was more unusual than it might be today. It was, perhaps, one of the earliest examples of people power. Of course, we Methodists had a particularly Cornish way of being involved in that boycott, we said that there was an exception when we had a pasty.

Wesley became interested in slavery when he went to, what was then the British colony of Georgia in America, in 1736. There he saw slavery around him and saw the conditions in which the slaves lived and worked, and how they were treated. On the long sea voyage back to England he taught a young black man how to read and write. It's thought that the young man was probably a slave.

John Wesley
John Wesley in Ireland

It was around 40 years after his trip to Georgia that the abolitionist movement was starting to take off. Wesley's own experience of slavery in Georgia was still on his mind. So he set about writing his pamphlet called 'Thoughts upon slavery'. It contained a very  careful and considered approach to the issue. He set out, for everybody to read, the conditions in which the slaves were kept and worked.

Excerpt from 'Thoughts Upon Slavery'  by John Wesley

"When the vessels arrive at their destined port, the Negroes are again exposed naked to the eyes of all that flock together, and the examination of their purchasers. Then they are separated to the plantations of their several masters, to see each other no more. Here you may see mothers hanging over their daughters, bedewing their naked breasts with tears, and daughters clinging to their parents, till the whipper soon obliges them to part.
And what can be more wretched than the condition they then enter upon? Banished from their country, from their friends and relations for ever, from every comfort of life, they are reduced to a state scarce anyway preferable to that of beasts of burden.

Thoughts Upon Slavery
An edition of John Wesley's book

The time they work in the West Indies, is from day-break to noon, and from two o'clock till dark; during which time, they are attended by overseers, who, if they think them dilatory, or think anything not so well done as it should be, whip them most unmercifully, so that you may see their bodies long after wealed and scarred usually from the shoulders to the waist. Did the Creator intend that the noblest creatures in the visible world should live such a life as this?"

Although it was a carefully set out piece of work, the pamphlet was not without emotion. It was very clear that Wesley considered the slave trade utterly immoral and inhuman, and not something that anyone who called himself a man could  be involved in.

Excerpt from 'Thoughts Upon Slavery'  by John Wesley

"Are you a man? Then you should have an human heart. But have you indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as Compassion there? Do you never feel another's pain? Have you no Sympathy? No sense of human woe? No pity for the miserable? When you saw the flowing eyes, the heaving breasts, or the bleeding sides and tortured limbs of your fellow-creatures, was you a stone, or a brute? Did you look upon them with the eyes of a tiger? When you squeezed the agonizing creatures down in the ship, or when you threw their poor mangled remains into the sea, had you no relenting? Did not one tear drop from your eye, one sigh escape from your breast? Do you feel no relenting now? If you do not, you must go on, till the measure of your iniquities is full. Then will the Great GOD deal with You, as you have dealt with them, and require all their blood at your hands."

John Wesley
A later portrait of John Wesley

Wesley made his views on slavery known in his sermons and speeches as well as in writing. He wasn’t afraid to carry his message to the heart of the slave trade in ports like Liverpool and Bristol. One on occasion in Bristol, Wesley was preaching to a large gathering which descended into uproar and violence. It’s thought that the slavers sent people into the crowd to disrupt the meeting.

It was more than 200 year ago that early people power helped bring an end to slavery. So it's remarkable that many members of my congregation and other Methodists across Cornwall, and around the country, still refuse sugar in their tea 'on account of Mr Wesley'.

last updated: 22/02/07
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