The following essay is fashioned on the classic 1958 Leonard E. Read economic treatise, I, Pencil: My Family Tree, as applied to the early 20th-century cacao trade of England. In his essay, Read details a global trade system from the point of view of a playfully personified pencil, detailing the “millions of hands” who contributed to its “edification” (Read). While its confectionary predecessor reflects several elements of the modern pencil manufacturing process, components of the former system, especially the cornerstone input of forced labor, undermine the credibility of capitalist admirations of the trade and ultimately serve as an expose of the malice of the chocolate production system.
I am a piece of chocolate – the ordinary delicious chocolate familiar to all boys, girls and adults throughout England (Mintz 187).
You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story is interesting. And, next, I am a mystery taken for granted by those who enjoy me, as if I came from the Cadbury plant by accident, with no background. As if I always existed as this square treat, waiting in Birmingham for a chance to meet you (Satre 15).
I, Chocolate, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder, awe, and concern – a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me, become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedoms upon which mankind is so unhappily trampling. I have a profound lesson to teach, precisely because I am so “simple.”
My story begins deep in the forests on the island of Sao Tome (Satre 32). Here, in this pristine panorama off the west coast of Africa (pictured right), the tree of my primary ingredient, theobroma cacao, takes root. A fickle specimen, my cacao tree requires meticulous care, attention, and skill to bear her fruit (Coe and Coe 19). Once tended to correctly, I am born of her warty-edged pod, plucked from her branches, separated from my kin, and left in the sun to transform and become more suitable to your tastes (Coe and Coe 17-30). But my seeds are not the only input so callously cultivated.
Of the hundreds of hands who play a role in my fruition, no story is more tragic than that of the man who toils at my roots. This man, like the seeds he nurtures, has been forced from his home in Angola, separated from his kin, and exposed to the scorching tropical sun – to meet your tastes (Martin 55). He receives no wages, inadequate food and no possibility of freedom (Higgs 141). Instead, he is afforded a lifespan of “3½ to 4 years” and, ultimately, “skeletons and shackles” (Satre 22). Unsurprisingly, the name Sao Tome has become “synonymous with okalunga – hell” (Satre 9).
Leaving hell, I travel to England aboard a trading galley to meet sugar from the Caribbean and others from across the globe. Most of these ingredients harbor similar tragic geneses, but together we will combine our dreadful beginnings to resemble the shape you hold so sweet (Mintz 55).
Most remarkably, we enter the luxurious “model village” Cadbury plant at Bournville. The irony in this juxtaposition is palpable: Bournville, complete with “shops, recreation facilities, garden allotments, a school, and a lecture hall,” could not be further removed from bleak Sao Tome (Satre 15). In this factory utopia, dozens of specialized workers ensure that I am properly ground, pressed, milled, sieved, mixed, kneaded, refined and conched (Martin). And finally, I emerge the bite-sized square of bittersweet joy in your hand.
As you can see, hundreds of hands willingly participate in my great journey across the globe. But my story is not one of free market triumph. Instead, it is a tale of corruption and exploitation. The forced labor underpinning my production negates the very system you ascribed to as you purchased me this afternoon. As Mintz argues, “a human being is not an object, even when treated as one.” We should, therefore, return to that “absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free people” (Read).
I, Chocolate, am a complex combination of miracles.
I merit your wonder, awe, and concern.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.
Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012. Print.
Martin, Carla. “AAAS E-119 Lecture 5: Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. 2016. Lecture.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.
Read, Leonard. “I, Pencil: My Family Tree.” Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc, 1958. Pamphlet.
Satre, Lowell J. “Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business.” Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005. Print.