‘Not Made by Slaves’ Review: Marketing to Abolitionists

From The Wall Street Journal:

As Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun. Demands for institutional divestiture of morally suspect assets, boycotts of goods from Goya beans to “blood diamonds,” and movements to promote ethically sourced consumer products from dolphin-safe tuna to fair-trade coffee, all have a long pedigree. Among the earliest expressions of American national identity was the 1765 nonimportation agreement among Boston merchants in response to British revenue acts, supported by boycotts of British goods by local households. And, starting in the late 18th century, antislavery activists in the Atlantic world urged consumers to refuse to buy products made with slave labor—primarily cotton cloth and sugar—to hasten the end of the international slave trade and ultimately slavery itself. Conscientious consumers flocked to free-labor goods and to such virtue-signaling items as emblazoned sugar bowls assuring guests that the content was “East India Sugar not made by Slaves.”

In “Not Made by Slaves,” Bronwen Everill, a lecturer in history at the University of Cambridge, terms this movement “ethical capitalism” and places it in the context of the 18th-century global consumer revolution that put luxury goods in the hands of the many. The book offers an important contribution by emphasizing West Africa’s role in the trade network that linked producers, merchants and consumers around the world. Just as Western economies traded for tropical luxuries such as tea, coffee and sugar, sophisticated African markets exchanged a highly valued commodity—unfree labor—for French wines, East Indian cottons and British firearms. It was this complex global trading community that the abolitionists sought to reform and that they disrupted in ways both foreseen and unforeseen.

Ms. Everill’s account rests on a chain of related events. In the late 1700s, opposition to the slave trade grew as the world came to appreciate the horrors of the Middle Passage between Africa and America. In their efforts to suppress the trade, antislavery activists asked Atlantic consumers to boycott goods associated with slave labor. But for the boycott to be effective, consumers needed to be certain the goods they bought were ethically produced. Antislavery traders thus began to source free-labor goods and, in early branding efforts, to identify them with labels such as “made by escaped slaves,” spawning an ethical-goods economy. In a parallel development, West African Islamic jihadists attacked local consumption of luxury goods and the international slave trade that supported those tastes, eventually banning the sale of slaves to non-Islamic traders and organizing boycotts of European goods such as tobacco and alcohol.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)