This article examines how debates and policies concerning the nutritional standards of West Indian slaves were shaped by comparisons to the eating habits of other laboring and impoverished groups in early nineteenth-century Britain and the Empire. Planters and abolitionists argued over the relative adequacy of slaves' sustenance vis-à-vis European laborers since at least the late-eighteenth century. Proslavery figures insisted that the supposed ease of procuring subsistence in tropical colonies rendered such comparisons largely moot. However, abolitionists increasingly mobilized data on the food consumption of English agricultural workers, prisoners, and other subjects in order to prove that the typical rations given to many slaves in the sugar colonies created conditions of malnourishment and population decline. Abolitionists' empirical efforts to quantify slaves' sustenance influenced policies crafted by the Colonial Office to establish a universal scale of food allowances for enslaved laborers on the eve of Emancipation—one of the most advanced dietary reforms concerning a laboring population in the early nineteenth-century British Empire. While the Colonial Office's ration was only partially implemented throughout the slave colonies, the questions that it sparked about what constituted adequate nourishment for plantation labor shaped subsequent debates over the Emancipation Act (1833) and the Apprenticeship System (1834–38).


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 360-392
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.