Sugar, Chocolate, and Subjugation in the European Identity

In Sweetness and Power Mintz details how sugar (and its related goods) transformed from a rarity in the 1600s, to a luxury by 1750, to finally a necessity in Western culture by 1850 (Mintz 78). This absorption of goods into the fabric of European life was made possible by African slavery – as the cheap labor force on sugar, cocoa, and other plantations created opportunity for the technical and economic changes that defined 19th and 20th century empires. Mintz argues that as slave labor made sugar cheaper and accessible, “its potency as a symbol of power declined” with its increased profitability (95). In this entry I examine the symbolism of slave labor and argue, like Mintz, that slavery enabled mass consumption of sugar and cocoa by providing the impetus for technological innovation and manufacture. However, I conclude by rejecting the notion that its potency as a power symbol decreased with its rising availability. I conclude with excerpts from Chocolate on Trial that show Europeans at various levels of social and political engagement aware, beyond emancipation and abolition, that the subjugation of African laborers remained a literal and symbolic foundation to their success.

In the 1600s and early 1700s, sugar and chocolate were rarities for the elite and were, therefore, signifiers of wealth. A lavish material culture grew around these goods, as the aristocracy would spend exorbitant sums on special chocolate-serving silverware, chocolate-specializing chefs and on sugar-based décor for events. Sugar decorations were called “subtleties” by the noble classes, who incorporated symbolic sugar crafting and designs into their celebrations (Mintz 93). Such personal wealth and success was tied to the subjugation of the black bodies laboring on these goods. As shown in the photograph of James Drummond, 2nd Duke of Perth below, black servitude became a complement to white authority. The inclusion of a black server in Drummond’s self-portrait suggests that the subjugation of blacks, along with the ornamentation of the goods newly produced by them, became symbolic of status.


Image of James Drummond (ca. 1674 – 17 April 1720), from the National Gallery of Scotland and Wikipedia. In addition, see here for an entire blog devoted to 16c-18c European portraiture that included slaves as signifiers of fashion and wealth. 

Video of the preservation of an early 18th century palatial “chocolate kitchen” from the YouTube channel of Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity

Increased slave labor lowered the price of sugar and cocoa in the 1800s, allowing for technological innovations and mass consumption. Europeans like Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten were now able to experiment with chocolate production. In 1828, Van Houten introduced the Hydraulic Press, a revolutionary machine that swiftly separated cocoa powder from cocoa butter (Presilla 28). His process allowed for the mass manufacture of cheap chocolate and enabled confectionary companies like Cadbury to maximize profits (Satre 15). Mintz argues that at this very time, “the decline in the symbolic importance of sugar… kept almost perfect step with the increase in its economic and dietary importance” and that status symbols like sugar decoration disappeared as sugar became ubiquitous (Mintz 95).


An advertisement for the cheap, mass-produced cocoa from Van Houten’s hydraulic press. Courtesy of Daily Dutch Innovation.

Though sugar’s prevalence lowered its esteem as ornamentation, its goods retained symbolic associations. As the Cadbury company scandal in Chocolate on Trial exposed, Europeans recognized that their successes relied on African subjugation. Sugar and chocolate were no longer matters of personal reputation, and instead matters of international power imbalance. Satre retells how the powerful English Cadbury family firm, through personal inquiry and their Quaker/Anti-Slavery communities, had evidence that slavery persisted past abolition on the Portugese cacao-exporting islands of Sao Tome and Principe and struggled for 8 years to act. Satre examines English journalist Henry Nevinson, whose expose on the islands revealed not only that abuse persisted well into the 20th century, but that Europeans at all levels of social and economic engagement were complicit in it. Satre explains, “The list of those benefiting was long – the government that charged various duties for each slave, the agents who delivered laborers to the islands, the steamship company… the doctor who kept them alive, the captain who got them to their destination, and the port that received them” (Satre 8). Satre looks at passages in which Nevison described European nobles on a ship staring at slaves with “interest and amusement,” at times even expressing “outbursts of laughter” at their difficulties. In one harrowing story, the nobles cheered, “Flog him! Flog him!” after a crew recaptured a slave that had attempted to leap overboard (9). What’s most shocking about the revelations is not the fact that slavery persisted but that Europeans—from English chocolate makers, to Portuguese officials, to individual doctors and traders – directly witnessed and acknowledged the abuse. This fact suggested that the continued subjugation of Africans remained a literal and figurative foundation of European identity. Legal abolition had failed to remove this imagery. It was no longer the kind of prestige that could be molded in a sugar statue or self-portrait, but was communicated on a transnational scale through human interaction, trading decisions, and corporate culture.

Works Cited

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power : The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Random House LLC, 2009.

Satre, Lowell. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics and the Ethics of Business. Athens: Ohio UP, 2005.


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