The 1800s in Europe, were marked by popularity of chocolate and sugar. What began as an elite luxury and symbol of the wealthy, soon became a common good. Sugar became a staple in European society and it was used as a preservative to medicine to even as decoration. While many enjoyed its consumption and many uses, the truth behind cacao plantations and the production of sugar production was less than savory. In this post, I will highlight the cause for the rise of the slave trade and the moral dilemmas that led to abolition.
As chocolate and sugar rose to popularity, so did the need for increased production. Europeans turned to cheap labor in the form of human slaves. The first slaves were brought from Central and West Africa. Some suggest, such as Eric Williams, that the use of African slaves had nothing to do with racism, but that racism was a byproduct of slavery (Slavery & Capitalism, 1940). The cheapest and closest resource at that time period happened to be Africa. While this doesn’t alleviate the conditions and horrors of slavery, it does offer a different viewpoint. Between 1500-1900, 10 to 15 million Africans were transported across the Trans Atlantic passage. For every 100 African, 40 died from the passage. The salves were dispersed among North America, the Caribbean and Latin America. It is also interesting to note that the Africans who were brought to the plantations, were often skilled in growing crops and rice from their native countries.
Where the slaves settled, they sometimes outnumbered the European population, such in Barbados. The plantations life were very harsh, and led to a steep decline in life expectancy. A slave often lived only 7-8 years, when the average life expectancy at the time was 35 years. The economic impact of slave plantation was great and highly profitable. The plantations produced many goods deemed as luxurious at the time, among them were: cacao, sugar, rum and tobacco. 50,000 slaves had the capacity to produce 20,000 tons of sugar (one year supply). As the supply of sugar and chocolate increased, it started to become readily available to all classes of people, not just the elite. Advertisements targeted the working and middle class, to promote sugar as necessity for children; as a medicine and energy booster. As profits soared, it became harder to end the lucrative slave trade.
However, over time it became harder and morally taxing to ignore the less-than-human conditions of the plantations. The first people to oppose slavery, were the slaves themselves. In Haiti—inspired by the French Revolution—100,000 slaves revolted in 1791, led by Toussaint Louverture. As a result, 1,200 coffee ad 200 sugar plantations were destroyed. Haiti became the first independent country in the Caribbean. Just as in Haiti, many uprisings across the plantations took place over time. Sidney Mintz, states that slaves were a false commodity (Sweetness and Power, 1985). At the time, slaves were purchased for their capacity to yield a future generation of enslaved “people commodities”. Mintz argues that slaves were human being and not objects to be sold and profited from.This sentiment was felt by many Europeans, especially when taken into context that sugar was seen as a pure good. The ethics and the production behind such a good, needed to be morally acceptable as well. New ways of thinking led to the demand of freedom and ethical work conditions.
Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.
Williams, Eric. Capitalism And Slavery. The University Of North Carolina Press., 1940. Web.