The darker side of Christmas

The festive season is a time of luxury. Our Christmas lists are packed with new clothes, sugary snacks and cosmetics so we can relax and indulge after a long year of work or studying. This ritual is nostalgic and it’s historical. Each year we repeat our personal Christmas traditions, whatever they might be, but we rarely stop to think where all this luxury comes from.

In the 1700s, while the British were developing a sweet tooth, slaves worked on plantations in the Caribbean to provide us with Christmas favourites like sugar, tobaccoand rum. The ships that brought us these products from the Caribbean would go on from Europe to Africa to buy more slaves and ship them to the plantations to work. Many Brits also owned land in the Caribbean and had their own slaves. When slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, British slave owners made even more money.

Legacies of British Slave Ownership, a University College London (UCL) project, provides an online database of British slave owners. It shows how these slave owners were given large sums of money by the British government for releasing their slaves. On the database, you can look up how much money each person received. In Brighton, some slave owners received more than £4000. Nowadays, that’s the equivalent of £480,000. Four hundred and eighty thousand pounds! We can only imagine the lavish Christmases that must have followed these pay-outs.

Short of 200 years later, things have changed a lot. As a nation we’re more conscious about moral and global issues. Whether it’s climate change or human rights issues in Hong Kong, the internet allows people to be more and more informed and teaches them to advocate for change. That said, we often forget to ask questions about the food we eat. When things are discounted or particularly cheap, we are more likely to pat ourselves on the back for finding a bargain than to ask ourselves why a supermarket can afford to sell it at that price.

We must ask the questions: Why is the price so low? How much did they pay to make this? How much do the ingredients cost? And, often the answer is not the one we want to hear.

Many of the foods we eat today travel long distances to get to us. As the foods’ journey to us becomes more complicated, it also becomes easier to hide less ethical practices. Ingredients like spices rarely make us pause and question whether they’re home grown, or organic, or picked by slaves in some far-off country.

When we buy our box of Christmas biscuits, we are glad to see that they’re made in Britain, meaning that workers were given at least a minimum wage, but we never ask where the sugar came from, or the flour or even the butter. Even tomatoes don’t seem to be safe from unethical labour. Progress is being made. In 2015 the Modern Slavery Act was passed, making it easier for police to crack down on human trafficking and modern slavery in the UK. Every year more unethical methods are exposed, paving the way for better systems to come into place.

Companies benefitting from slave labour get shut down. Even companies who were allegedly treating employees badly, like Amazon, were publicly shamed to the extent of having to make a change. More than ever before, people care. They care enough to make and buy the ethical products that are increasingly available online and in local shops. We protest, and sometimes, we’re heard.

This has been produced in conjunction with The Regency Town House Heritage Centre in Brunswick Square, Hove, which is currently conducting research relating to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. If you would like to be involved please email, quoting ‘BN1’ in the subject line.

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