By Mike Kaye
Last updated 2011-02-17
In 1791, thousands of pamphlets were printed which encouraged people to boycott sugar produced by slaves. Estimates suggest some 300,000 people abandoned sugar, with sales dropping by a third to a half. Some shops advertised goods which had been produced by 'freemen' and sales of sugar from India, where slavery was not used, increased tenfold over two years.
Hundreds of thousands of people also signed petitions calling for the abolition of the slave trade. Many supported the campaign against their own interests. For example, in Manchester (which sold some £200,000 worth of goods each year to slave ships) roughly 20% of the city's population signed petitions in support of abolition. The size and strength of feeling demonstrated by these popular protests made even pro-slavery politicians consider the consequences of ignoring public opinion. One pro-slavery lobbyist of the time noted that the 'Press teems with pamphlets upon the subject ... The stream of popularity runs against us.'
Mobilisation of the public remains an essential tool in achieving political change. The sugar boycott is one of the earliest examples of consumers using their purchasing power to reject the trade in goods which have not been ethically produced. This is the equivalent of the modern day Fairtrade campaign. Similarly, people continue to sign petitions to indicate to politicians and their government concerns over particular issues. For example, in recent years, tens of thousands of people have signed Anti-Slavery International's petitions against bonded labour and trafficking in people, and millions of people have petitioned against post office closures.
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