Ethical Consumers in West Africa

Bronwen Everill 

The expansion of ethical consumption in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries may seem like a new phenomenon, linked as it is to internet campaigns, globalized supply chains, hashtags,consumerism, and innovative marketing.  But many of the processes that created the ethical consumption movements we are experiencing now were also in place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  That period – known as the Age of Revolutions – was also a time of changing technology, globalized supply chains, rapidly changing fashions, consumerism, and innovative marketing. 

So what do the economic and political responses to those processes in the eighteenth and nineteenth century tell us about ethical consumption in our own time?

The focus of the earlier period was explicitly on the slave trade,something that many groups evoke now in promoting ethical consumption.  The anti-slave trade movement became an important British and American touchpoint for all later campaigns for justice, human rights, and equality, so it makes sense that Quaker boycotts of slave-produced sugar would point to a long history of western humanitarian action in the face of crisis.

But the anti-slave trade impetus for ethical consumption was not limited to the Anglo-Atlantic.  From the mid-eighteenth century, the slave trade from the previously marginal regions of Senegambia, the Windward Coast, and Sierra Leone, grew explosively. With theunleashing of private African and European merchants in the trade, the African societies in these regions grappled with growing consumer culture and increased purchasing power, changing debt relationships, the growth of new urban service economies to facilitate the trade, and adaptations of certain types of household production for the market.  Macintosh HD:Users:bronweneverill:Desktop:Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 10.44.22.png

Macintosh HD:Users:bronweneverill:Desktop:Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 10.44.22.png

(Source: Transatlantic Slave Voyages Database,

These trends reflected those taking place elsewhere in the Atlantic World in this period, and their wider destabilizing impact.  When, in 1785, slaves growing rice for the Atlantic trade rebelled, burned the crop, and ran away to establish an outpost in Yangekori, north of Sierra Leone, their revolt inspired a movement for religious and political cleansing in the region.  Fatta, an Islamic itinerant leader, beheaded leaders for heresy, required his followers to dress in locally-produced yellow and orange cloth (rather than cloth imported through the slave trade), and created an alliance with the former-slave community at Yangekori.  When the revolution was eventually crushed in 1793, Sierra Leone’s governor at the time, Zachary Macaulay, noted that ‘the present combination of African chiefs to crush these people and the gallant struggle it is likely they will make for their liberty will form a parallel to the history of Europe at this moment.’1

So while British and American Quaker and evangelical campaigners were turning to boycotts and non-importation movements to fight the slave trade, and the enslaved in Haiti seized their moment of revolution, Muslim revolutionaries and slaves took a similar approach in West Africa.  But these could be considered reactionary or anti-modern approaches to the problem of the slave trade.  What about those who wanted to continue consuming, but do so in a way that turned their consumption into a political tool? 

Although it’s difficult to find many examples, given the limited records available, Sierra Leone presents a good place to measure active African ethical consumption because the settlement was founded explicitly to counteract the slave trade by providing a commercial alternative.  Although its residents and traders had to compete with (and even sometimes rely on) slave traders in the region, they would not accept slaves as payment for goods. Despite this, as governor, Zachary Macaulay reported in irritation that the guns and cloths that bore the colony’s ‘label’ (SLC) were valued by local Temne and Susu merchants at twice the price of the slave traders’ goods.  Tracing the supply chain shows that these guns and cloths were of equal (or sometimes inferior) quality to the slave traders’ goods, suggesting that the African merchants were paying for the label – just like the people ‘conspicuously consuming’ the Fair Trade label today.

Picture 2

What do these examples mean for the history of ethical consumption, and for the movements trying to make a difference in contemporary Africa?  The politics of globalized commerce is hugely affected by the perception of the impact of consumption.  When faced with converging global taste and (perceptions of) overconsumption, gross luxury, and problems of indebtedness that tend to accompany these things, people all over the world can respond in both economic and political ways:arguing for simplicity, for moral and political revolution that rejects globalization, for favouring the local over the global, or for more conscientious relationships within the global marketplace.  In other words, ethical consumption has deep roots in Africa.


1. Huntington Library, MSS MY 418 Macaulay’s Journal, 12 December 1793.

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