Slavery and Abolition in Cacao Growing Regions


Cacao is one tough plant. The tree itself is very fragile and requires intensive care and gentle treatment in order to maintain its health and allow it to prosper. This of course means that a machine cannot come and chop off the cacao pods. Instead, they have to be individually cut off by someone who is experienced and precise as to not damage the tree. As you can see, growing cacao is very laborious. However, the idea that only the wealthy should consume this delicacy also played a role in class and diversity.  As Mintz analyzed, “Seventeenth- century England, was deeply divided by considerations of birth, wealth, breeding, gender, occupation, and so on.” (‘Sweetness and Power’, Mintz pg. 154). With this in mind, it’s easy to see how producers then looked for a cheaper source of labor, which in turn led to child labor and slavery within the cacao market.


Slavery emerged in the Atlantic world in the 16th century. It was known as chattel slavery where people were treated as property and bought and sold as a commodity. Slaves were skilled laborers, as one had to be in order to work with a cacao tree correctly. At this same time, the New World was becoming a prominent factor in many different industries which also needed cheap labor such as sugar, cotton, and tobacco. In turn, the triangle trade began allowing for ten to fifteen million slaves to be transported over the Atlantic until the 20th century. For every one hundred slaves, forty died in Africa and the majority were transported to the Caribbean and Brazil. Slaves themselves became a “false commodity” as stated by Mintz, because of their direct influence on the crops and also because, “…a human being is not an object, even when treated as one.” (Mintz pg. 42). However, their use within the cacao market only began to escalate because of the direct increase in consumption of chocolate throughout the world. The black population in the English West Indies increased dramatically from forty two percent in 1660 to eighty one percent in 1700. Usually, the life expectancy for slaves on sugar farms was approximately seven to eight years after their arrival. However, in the American colonies their life expectancy was thirty five years because they wanted procreation. Slaves lived very miserable lives, working nearly eighteen hours a day and receiving very little nutrition. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that slavery became increasingly scrutinized.
After years of enslavement, those that were owned or freed from slavery began to fight for their right to freedom. Abolition became increasingly popular in the early 1800s, not that their hadn’t been revolts before but now more people around the world started realizing the atrocity that went hand in hand with slavery. Short life spans that lived in decrepit shelters and worked half to death finally were being acknowledged and seen as a problem ready to be fixed. The first was the Haitian Revolution from 1791 to 1804 that directly resulted in the close of the slave trade in 1807. However, Haiti was owned by France at the time and Napoleon had to abolish slavery within Haiti and also sold his Louisiana Purchase in the United States.  This belief of ending slavery wasn’t only a direct result of people seeing it as a problem, there was also a decline in the demand for many of the crops being produced.  However, this did not mean that the institution of slavery was over but it was one step closer. ‘In France, slavery was officially banned in 1817, but Nantes clandestinely traded in slaves for the next 20 years’ (The True History of Chocolate by Thames and Hudson pg. 194). In the coming decades, the push for complete abolition continued and eventually caught enough wind to have slavery abolished in the late 1800s around the world. Cacao is a very desired commodity even today however, it should never be sold at the extent of enslaving human beings. Many people endured years of hardship, most didn’t get to see abolition, but its success is heard throughout.

“Human Rights and Child Labour.” Make Chocolate Fair, 2013. Web.
“Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry.” Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry. Food Empowerment Project, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Coe, D Sophie and Michael D Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition. Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.


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