The false legal rationalizations of slavery through the times

To be sure, slavery in the Americas as a historical reality is largely acknowledged in current day history textbooks. There does exist whitewashing as to the sheer scale and extent of the atrocities that took place, and that in and of itself is surely something that needs to be reconciled. However, more harmful still is the way by which contemporary working conditions in the developing world­—as it relates to commodity crop production—mirror the historical concept of slavery. That is to say, this new “institutional” slavery that pervades the global landscape today all but mimic the substance of the slavery that we now acknowledge in our textbooks.[1] Sadly, this modern day slavery receives limited exposure in the very same textbooks and media outlets; its existence is often purposefully, or else with a wink and a nudge, kept out of the Western consumer’s immediate line of sight.

One of the hardest things to stomach for a modern student of any part of history is how our predecessors rationalized inhumane atrocities with a slight stroke of the pen, often citing some seemingly obvious-at-the-time philosophical, or even legal, basis. For example, a law student’s first exposure to property law is commonly through the lens of a seminal Supreme Court opinion, in which Chief Justice Marshall established a legal doctrine that allowed the federal government to invalidate Native American titles to land, presumably whenever it was convenient and opportune to do so.[2] More closely related to cacao production, the Spaniards exploited a grant by the Spanish Crown called encomienda, which allowed a colonist in the Americas to extract labor and tribute payments from indigenous inhabitants, in exchange for—ironic as it may be—“protection.”[3] Further on down, the Portuguese employed an “indentured servitude” system where servicais (effectively-enslaved people from Angola) worked on cacao farms in São Tomé and Príncipe, an island nation off of the coast of Central Africa.[4]

493_001Starting in 1876, more than 97,000 “laborers” were shipped from Angola to the island; only about a dozen returned by 1908[5] (Credit:

With slavery in all its forms and legal justifications for them being so intertwined throughout history, it is perhaps unsurprising that an eminent legal institution itself was a direct beneficiary of profits derived from slave labor. Specifically, the Royall family, who owned a sugar plantation worked by enslaved persons on the Caribbean island of Antigua, bequeathed land to Harvard College, of which, through its sale, ultimately led to the establishment of Harvard Law School.[6]

8c0cdc7bcba48c25825f7d3e7fd7fcStudent protest at Harvard Law School has recently led to a recommendation for a changed seal (Credit: Royall Must Fall)

So, in summary, legitimization of slave labor (and other immoral human constructs) through legal structures was commonplace throughout history. However, we would do well to remember that, were we to travel back in time, any and all of the rationalizations cited above would’ve seemed reasonable and cogent to a person (or, more specifically, a man) of that time. A convenient, albeit incorrect, explanation to distance ourselves from any culpability would be to assert that our ancestors were simply very bad, while we are, in the modern day, very good. Unfortunately, the reality is that we presently suffer from the very same temporal myopia as our predecessors did. We are, in fact, just as culpable, in that we accept as legitimate modern institutions comparable in substance to the historical ones referenced above.

In place of encomienda, we have globalization. In place of employing servicais, we tout the macroeconomic efficiencies of free trade. So, in Mali or Togo, not so far from São Tomé and Príncipe, but more than a hundred years removed from when William Cadbury discovered the presence of slave labor there, a mother might sell her child to a trafficker to work on a cacao farm in the Ivory Coast.[7] Other times, the children are simply kidnapped. Under the pretense of “good and honest work,” a preteen child can expect to work upwards of 100 hours a week, and receive a beating should they attempt escape. Many never see their families for the rest of their lives. Because of extended French colonization, the Ivory Coast does not even have a semblance of a modern service economy; 60% of the country’s export revenue is born out of cacao production. The cacao farmers themselves average less than $2 a day.[8] It would be difficult to posit that these farmers exploit the labor of their neighboring countries’ children out of choice.

International-Cocoa-Initiative-partners-with-ILO-to-tackle-child-labour-on-cocoa-farms_medium_vgaChildren separating cacao beans from pods (Credit:

So long as firms—and the firms in the chocolate industry are not singular in their culpability—do not internalize the negative externalities they create across their supply chain, de facto slavery still persists in the 21st century. As a starting point, it would be wise for Western consumers to maintain cognizance with respect to the abhorrent business practices upstream the next time they stare down the barrel of a mass-produced chocolate confection, and realize that substantive change does not come so easy.


[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Case for Reparations, The Atlantic, June 2014,

[2] Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823).

[3] Carla Martin, Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, March 2016, Lecture Slides.

[4] Carla Martin, Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, March 2016, Lecture Slides.

[5] David Northrup, Indentured Labor in the Age of Imperialism, 1834-1922 (1995).

[6] Shield Committee, Recommendation to the President and Fellows of Harvard College

on the Shield Approved for the Law School, Harvard Law Today, March 4, 2016,

[7] Amanda Gregory, Chocolate and Child Slavery: Say No to Human Trafficking this Holiday Season, Huffington Post, December 18, 2014,

[8] Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry, Food Empowerment Project, March 2016,

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

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