Claire Midgley has perceptively identified the British campaign to abstain from slave-grown sugar as a major event in both the history of antislavery and of women’s action. It helped to create a popular identification of sugar consumption and the Atlantic slave system. The campaign was also a major stepping stone in the development of female activism within the abolitionist movement. Abstentionism was launched in 1791, partially in reaction to Parliament’s decisive defeat of [William] Wilberforce’s first motion to abolish the British slave trade. It was an attempt to overcome a failure in politics by action in the spheres of civil society and the market. The initiators of the movement believed that women were both susceptible to the message and essential to the campaign. Abstention did not overtly intrude into public space. It was an organized, unobtrusive and non-violent form of collective action. It did not even require the contentious gatherings that preceded other forms of antislavery agitation like national petitioning. The movement operated private encounters, door to door, family to family, and dinner table by dinner table. In 1791-92, Thomas Clarkson, traveling the length and breadth of England and Wales in pursuit of a second mass petition, estimated that 300,000 persons of “all ranks,” party preferences and denominations were participating. The boycott received press coverage in every major provincial town. The efficacy of women in linking sugar to slavery was widely recognized.
~ Seymour Drescher (October, 2001)