Greed as Economic Justification of Slaves in the 15th to 19th Century

Although cacao was originally met with animosity, the combination of sugar and cacao, which can be representative of “modern” chocolate, became extremely popular in Europe creating high demand for the two luxurious commodities.  Slavery became the method of choice due to the low labor cost to meet such demand.  Eventually, the wealth of Europe, the Americas, and Africa primarily came from raw goods (courtesy of slave labor), and the distribution of slaves throughout the world.  The economics of slave trade became so high that its loss would have negatively impacted the wealth of nations.  As such, the economics of slave trade became one of the many obstacles to abolition in cacao growing regions.

Between the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, slavery played a vital role in the globalization between countries.  In particular, the transatlantic slave trade, which traded slaves from Africa to the Americas, sugar from the Americas to Europe, and manufactured goods and munitions from Europe to Africa, best highlights the economic importance of slaves at the time.

Figure 1: The ship plan of La Marie Seraphique. Illustrates how slaves may have been transported during the transatlantic slave trade. (Courtesy of Spiegal Online Nantes Dark History:

In “Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade” by David Eltis, Eltis illustrates the profitability of slaves going to Cuba.  In 1826-35 the profit was approximately 55.3 dollars and this increased to 305.8 dollars profit by 1856-65 (Eltis, 280).  Note that the profit may have gone up because distribution of slaves from Africa began to slow down around this time.  This profit is calculated by measuring what they call the African cost, factor cost, shipping cost, and distribution cost.  African and factor costs are primarily operational costs of going to Africa to obtain and prepare slaves for transport and shipping, while distribution costs are the cost to transport, distribute, and pay for the labor of delivering the slaves then subtracting the cost of what they will potentially earn over the slave’s short life span (Eltis, 269-270).  This rise in profit is illustrative of the value that slaves were adding to the global market and how invaluable they were to a country.

Figure 2: Slaves in southern United States amounted up to 23-31% of the slave master’s income (Courtesy of Economic History Association:

As more and more slaves reached the Americas in the mid-1600, the mass production of sugar and cacao was made possible.  As such, access to sugar was no longer exclusively available to the upper class and even middle and lower class people were able to experience its joys.  Sugar experienced a “transformation… into a daily necessity” (Mintz, 161).  People were beginning to expect sugar in their lives and this transformation solidified the demand for sugar over the next several centuries.  Likewise, cacao enjoyed the sugar boom because it became increasingly popular in Europe to take sugar and cacao together to create the “modern” chocolate.  As a result, both commodities were equally in demand and slave production was increased to match.  Furthermore, this large demand of labor could not have been replaced because growing and refining sugar and cacao is a delicate and tedious process.

Figure 3: A modern process of refining sugar utilizing machines. Slaves in the 1800’s would have to mimic this process manually. (Courtesy of Tate and Lyle Sugars:

If the time period had not been limited with their technology, mechanization of refining sugar and cacao may have potentially decreased an obstacle of abolition for slaves as that would have arguably provided a cheap alternative to slave labor.  Unfortunately, there were no economically viable alternatives that was as cheap as slave labor and slaves were too invaluable to the wealth of nations for the abolition movement to go smoothly.

This is not to say that the economics of slavery is the sole challenge to abolition but slavery evolved to become an industry that was too large to remove instantaneously.  Without the use of slaves, production of sugar (by extension bourbon), cacao, and other goods would cease almost immediately.  Society had already established a standard of living and expectation of certain goods.  The sudden removal of an expected element to economy is usually met with fierce resistance.  Even after slavery was formally abolished, exploitation of labor and slavery continues even today.  The economics of the slave trade was too lucrative and imperative to the country’s wealth, so demand for production was ceaseless.  Since no alternative methods to slave labor existed, slaves became higher in demand, more profitable, and exploited for centuries.

Works Cited

Eltis, D. (1987). Economic growth and the ending of the transatlantic slave trade (pp. 269-280). New York: Oxford University Press.

Mintz, S. (1985). Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history (p. 161). New York: Penguin.


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