Note: This article contains Sanditon spoilers up to Episode 5.

Throughout Sanditon Season 2, Georgiana has been urging the guests and permanent residents of Sanditon to stop using sugar produced by West Indian plantations. Last season on Sanditon, Georgiana confronted Lady Denham for glorifying another product of slavery and colonialism: the pineapple. A rematch was inevitable as Lady Denham is still an unrepentant "Lady Karen" and Georgiana has gained a marked degree of self-assuredness in her position and power as the town’s richest resident. It may surprise fans to learn that Georgiana’s public confrontation of Lady Denham at the garden party in Episode 4 has more basis in history than one might expect.

An aspect of the Regency Era many other period dramas purposefully ignore or gloss over is the abolitionist movement. Although the British government banned the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, the ban did not free already enslaved people in British colonies and territories. The abolitionist movement shifted towards fighting slaveholders and companies who profited off of slave labor-produced raw materials and products. The shift towards using paid laborers for agricultural crops such as sugar was a decades-long effort that combined rebellions of the enslaved, political activism from abolitionists, and British consumer boycotts.

Elizabeth Heyrick, a white Quaker abolitionist from Leicester, organized a sugar boycott in the 1820’s because she was frustrated with calls for gradual manumission of slavery. Heyrick, like Georgiana, grew up in a well-off family, and recognized that her material possessions were holding back her spiritual progress. Heywick’s organizing efforts are clearly the historical inspiration for Georgiana’s organizing even though the show credits that to her previous off-screen conversations with Otis. Heyrick’s boycott had predecessors in the 1790’s that were aimed at establishing the 1807 international slave trade ban.

All of the leaders of the abolitionist movement were male, and thus they were allowed to directly petition Parliament. Women were normally discouraged, if not banned outright from participating in politics, but the antislavery movement was seen as a socially acceptable cause for women to participate in. Yet these women activists were not treated equally compared to male abolitionists. Most upper-class women in Regency England were also not allowed to be employed outside of the home. However, Heywick and other women realized their potential economic impact due to their management of household expenditures on consumer goods and food supplies. Sugar during the Regency Era was used to sweeten foods as well as preserve summer fruits in jams and jellies. Heyrick and other campaigners urged people that if they had to buy sugar it should be sourced from places where laborers were paid.

It is important to note that actions such as the sugar boycotts cannot be conflated with modern definitions of antiracism work. As David Olusuga notes in his book on Black British history, many UK abolitionists were advocating for Black British people to be sent “back to Africa” even though many were born in the UK or in UK colonies. In addition, many white abolitionists still believed the enslaved and freedpeople were at varying levels of inferiority to whites. The white men who advocated for gradual manumission often claimed newly freedpeople could not be trusted with so much freedom all at once.

In Sanditon Season 2, we did not see examples of bowls with pro-sugar boycott slogans that were popular with the real life boycott, but we did see pamphlets distributed during the fair in Episode 2 and characters avoiding sweets. We don’t see discussions between characters at abolitionist meetings or plans for action, but we do see Lady Denham openly scoffing at the boycott. While some viewers may see these smaller historical details as unnecessary, they give Georgiana more screen time and more agency, and also show how other characters were reacting to her message before the garden party.

Lady Denham’s green multi tier cake is the ultimate insult to the sugar boycott and it is also a symbol of her commitment to enforcing the racist power structure which underpins the Regency Era. Like the pineapple scene last season, the garden party is on Lady Denham’s turf, where politeness and deferential gestures are required of everyone. This is the ultimate test for our favorite characters as it’s easy for them to do the right thing when no one is looking or the stakes are low, but it’s quite another thing to do so when other people are watching and potentially judging.

So how did everyone do? Charlotte gives Georgiana the needed pep talk before Georgiana formally declines the cake. Mrs. Henkins advises Georgiana not to allow Lady Denham to drag her down. While this is helpful advice, it also ignores how Black women must put on a nice face in order to handle micro and macro aggressions. Allison follows along even though she’s preoccupied with Captain Carter. Arthur, who last season never passed up an opportunity to snack, declines the “honor” of cutting up the cake made with sugar from the West Indies. Not only does this show his growth as a man who is taking 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. Since Esther isn’t one for making political statements, this is her way of agreeing with Georgiana. What is surprising is that none of the soldier characters are seen politely declining the cake. This is interesting given Britain’s complex history of using the military to put down slave rebellions. We can assume Edward and Clara were given the leftovers since they are already forced to live on Lady Denham’s good graces. Unfortunately, Episode 4 does not follow up on any of these reactions (or lack thereof) from the characters, or any consequences they face as a result.

Sanditon has made a commitment to represent the world of the Regency Era by acknowledging history, and the sugar boycott storyline is evidence that the production team hired historical consultants to advise on Black British history. Curious about how effective these changes were in supporting Georgiana’s storyline? I’ll be tackling that question in a future article, so stay tuned!