The Real Story Behind ‘Sanditon’ Season 2 Sugar Boycott
Note: This article contains sandit spoilers until episode 5.
All along sandit Season 2, Georgiana urged guests and permanent residents of Sanditon to stop using sugar produced by West Indian plantations. Last season on sanditGeorgiana confronted Lady Denham for glorifying another product of slavery and colonialism: pineapple. A rematch was inevitable as Lady Denham is still an unrepentant “Lady Karen” and Georgiana has acquired a marked degree of assurance in her position and power as the town’s wealthiest resident. It may surprise fans to learn that Georgiana’s public confrontation with Lady Denham at the garden party in Episode 4 has more basis in history than one might expect.
One aspect of the Regency era that many other period dramas ignore or deliberately obscure is the abolitionist movement. Although the British government banned the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, Prohibition did not free those already enslaved in British colonies and territories. The abolitionist movement shifted to fighting against slave owners and corporations that profited from the raw materials and products produced by slave labor. The shift to using paid laborers for agricultural crops such as sugar was a decades-long effort that combined slave rebellions, political activism by abolitionists, and British consumer boycotts.
Elizabeth Heyrick, a white Quaker abolitionist from Leicester, organized a sugar boycott in the 1820s because she was frustrated with calls for gradual freedom from slavery. Heyrick, like Georgiana, grew up in a wealthy family and recognized that his material possessions hindered his spiritual progress. Heywick’s organizing efforts are clearly Georgiana’s historical inspiration for organizing, though the show credits this to her previous off-screen conversations with Otis. Heyrick’s boycott had predecessors in the 1790s which sought to establish the prohibition of the international slave trade of 1807.
All leaders of the abolitionist movement were men and so they were allowed to petition Parliament directly. Women were normally discouraged, if not banned altogether, from participating in politics, but the anti-slavery movement was seen as a socially acceptable cause for women. Yet these female activists were not treated in the same way as male abolitionists. Most upper-class women in Regency England were also not allowed to be employed outside the home. However, Heywick and other women realized their potential economic impact due to their management of household expenditures on consumer goods and foodstuffs. Sugar in Regency times was used to sweeten foods as well as to preserve summer fruits in jams and jellies. Heyrick and other activists urged people to buy sugar if it was to come from places where workers were paid.
It is important to note that actions such as sugar boycotts cannot be confused with modern definitions of anti-racist work. Like David Olusuga notes in his book on black British history, many British abolitionists argued for black Britons to be returned “to Africa”, even though many were born in the UK or British colonies. Additionally, many white abolitionists still believed that slaves and freedmen were at various levels of inferiority to whites. White men who advocated progressive enfranchisement often argued that newly liberated people could not be trusted with so much freedom all at once.
In sandit Season 2, we haven’t seen any sample bowls with pro-sugar boycott slogans which were popular with the real-life boycott, but we saw flyers handed out during the fair in Episode 2 and characters avoiding sweets. We don’t see character discussions at abolitionist meetings or action plans, but we do see Lady Denham openly mocking the boycott. While some viewers may consider these little historical details unnecessary, they give Georgiana more screen time and more agency, and also show how other characters were reacting to her post before the garden party.
Lady Denham’s tiered green cake is the ultimate insult to the sugar boycott and a symbol of her commitment to strengthen the racist power structure that underlies the era of regency. Like the pineapple scene last season, the garden party is on Lady Denham’s grounds, where politeness and deferential gestures are expected of everyone. It’s the ultimate test for our favorite characters because it’s easy for them to do the right thing when no one is watching or the stakes are low, but it’s quite another to do it when other people are watching and potentially judge.
So how did everyone do it? Charlotte gives Georgiana the necessary pep talk before Georgiana officially refuses the cake. Mrs. Henkins advises Georgiana not to let Lady Denham drag her down. While this is helpful advice, it also ignores how black women need to have a pretty face to deal with micro and macro aggression. Allison follows even though she is concerned about Captain Carter. Arthur, who last season never missed an opportunity to snack, declines the “honor” of cutting out the West Indies sugar cake. Not only does this show his growth as a man who takes a more serious approach to life, but it also shows how close his friendship with Georgiana has become over time. Esther snickers as the guests put down Lady Denham’s ceramic dessert plates. As Esther is not one to make political statements, this is her way of agreeing with Georgiana. What’s surprising is that none of the soldier characters are politely refused the cake. It’s interesting given Britain’s complex history of using the military to put down slave rebellions. Presumably Edward and Clara received the remains since they are already forced to live in Lady Denham’s good graces. Sadly, Episode 4 doesn’t follow up on any of these reactions (or lack thereof) from the characters, or the consequences they face as a result.
sandit is committed to representing the world of the Regency era by acknowledging history, and the sugar boycott story is proof that the production team hired historical consultants advise on Black British history. Curious how effective these changes have been in supporting Georgiana’s storyline? I will address this in an upcoming article, so stay tuned!