Where Did They Get the Sugar?

About four years ago, I learned about modern-day slavery.  I couldn’t believe it; weren’t there international laws preventing slavery or something?  I’ve looked it up; there are.  But of course that doesn’t matter to people who want to enslave other people.  Human rights — who cares?

I cared, so at the beginning of my senior year of high school, under the tutelage of my older sister, I converted to fair trade only for coffee and chocolate (yes, I gave up eating chocolate).  I learned what constituted slavery (force, fraud and coercion) and what fair trade really meant.  I learned about the sex trade, something that weighs on my heart and gives me the itch of anger.  I got posters with facts about the cocoa trade and Fairtrade International (one of the two main fair trade labeling organizations).  I became a minor connoisseur of fair trade chocolate brands.  My favorite is Divine Chocolate, which is endorsed by Freema Agymen from Doctor Who/Law & Order UK!  Another good brand is Endangered Species Chocolate — not only is their chocolate fairly traded, but they donate part of the proceeds of each product to relief efforts for endangered species around the world.  Each bar that you buy has a picture of an endangered animal on the outside of the wrapper, and on the inside there is a brief overview of the animal, how it became endangered, and what it means for the chocolate to be fair trade.

My sister Kaleigh has always been a huge inspiration for me in my fair trade endeavors.  Probably because she is much more awesome than I am (who has bought fairly traded clothing?).  I remember the joint excitement the last time we were in Portugal together when we stumbled across this sign:

Gelado, anyone?

So fair trade is a big deal for me, and it’s a big deal for the world.  Due to the nature of international trade, we don’t always know where our products are coming from.  When we remain ignorant as to origins, we don’t have to deal with the truth of production (production which often includes slave labor).  A great video series to watch that talks about workforce exploitation is The Story of Stuff.

But the concept of fair trade is not new, not new at all.

Last week, I read The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina by Gerda Lerner.  Sarah and Angelina Grimké were famous abolitionists and women’s rights advocates in the first half of the nineteenth century.  And they went fair trade.  Of course, the language that they use for the same concept is different; they call it “free.”  But the label makes sense for their context — slavery was a legal institution, so “free” products were those produced without slave labor.  Today, something “free trade” would be a part of the free market (and generally the free market incites people to exploit other people).

Sarah and Angelina Grimké

So Sarah and Angelina, as well as Angelina’s beau and eventual spouse Theodore Weld all converted to free-grown products.  Even when the initiative proved to be difficult and most of the other abolitionists abandoned it, the Grimké sisters and Theodore stuck to it.  At Theo and Nina’s wedding (because they are close, personal friends and I can call them Theo and Nina), everything that they wore and ate was free-grown.  Where they got the sugar for the cake, I don’t know.

The end of institutionalized slavery in the United States was a major accomplishment for human rights, but only the beginning of a struggle that in its various shades and nuances have come to define the modern world.

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One thought on “Where Did They Get the Sugar?

  1. An Observer says:

    Dear Maggie–Thank you for all those links and this terribly important discussion. I am fascinated that the Grimke sisters found such an early way to “speak truth to power.” It is still true today: consumer power, when practiced in support of the defenseless, is a game changer. I also love Divine chocolate– I heard a rumor about a sea salt/dark chocolate version and I can’t wait to try it!

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