The Development of the Atlantic Slave Trade into Modern Day Slavery in Cacao Growing Regions

The Atlantic slave trade was much more complicated than your middle school teachers may have lead you to believe.  Common knowledge rarely acknowledge the complexity of the economics of the slave trade, its far-reaching consequences, and the specific, long-lasting impact it had in cacao growing regions. The slave trade presented challenges to the chocolate industry as it pitted economic necessity against shady moral practices. I argue that over the course of its history, the slave trade created such profound inequalities that even though it was abolished in the mid- to late-1800s, the essence of slavery still exists today.

The Atlantic slave trade had in the New World.  Europeans forced indigenous populations to work which produced a dangerous power dynamic from which the Europeans benefitted for centuries. The Europeans that migrated to the Americas would encroach on indigenous land. By taking ownership of that land, the settlers forced those residing on it already to work for them under extremely undesirable conditions, especially in cacao growing regions where the days were long and unimaginably hot. This developed into “chattel slavery” which means that those enslaved were regarded as property and could be traded as a commodity (Martin lecture). As they burned through the indigenous population, Europeans were pressured to meet a growing demand for labor. They found a new source in Africa.

In order to understand the connection between slavery and cacao, we must first understand under what conditions the slave trade developed in cacao growing regions. Rodney explains in his article that “slavery prevailed on the African continent before the arrival of the Europeans” which implies that African society was susceptible to European manipulation  (Rodney, 431). Europeans looked to Africa simply because they needed more cheap labor and the western coast was the most economically viable. On top of the preexisting societal structure, the addition of the Atlantic slave trade proved disastrous and demonstrates why “it was [that] only after two and a half centuries of slave-trading that the vast majority of the peoples of the Upper Guinea Coast were said to have been living in a state of subjection” (Rodney, 434). The compounded effect of the Atlantic slave trade on the already-problematic African regions left lasting impacts on its people and culture.

Take a look at this video by Anthony Hazard and published by TED-Ed which details the nuances of the slave trade.

This video points out how the culture of Africa was heavily affected by the Atlantic slave trade. Europeans would pit tribes against each other. This created an environment where Africans of different communities would be abducting each other to sell into slavery across the Atlantic in exchange for weapons or safety. The video uses simple animation and voiceover to convey how uniformly destructive the slave trade was to the African economy and culture.

As the abolition movement emerged, the Atlantic slave trade began to change. The abolition movement always existed among slaves and gained momentum after the Haitian Revolution in 1789. This was a pivotal moment because it was the biggest slave revolt to date. At the time, Haiti was an exceptionally valuable asset to France because it exported nearly half of the world’s coffee and sugar (Martin lecture). A significant amount of people depended on the slave trade, either directly or indirectly, through the products it produced. For the enslaved population to overthrow such a dominant colonial power inspired others across the world and spurred the abolition movement forward. Slowly, the Atlantic slave trade began to diminish. Finally, in 1888, Britain was the last place to abolish slavery.

Yet, the abolition process was gradual and hard-fought. You can plainly see in the picture how it was satirized for its very slow implementation.

This image is particularly relevant because it incorporates the dependence on sugar that Europeans had formed. Mintz writes that sugar “had become an essential ingredient in the British national diet” and that “it was consumed daily by almost every living Briton” (Mintz, 187). The fact that he uses words like “national diet” is significant. It implicates everyone in the consumption of sugar. Since sugar is a common ingredient used with cacao, this figure really identifies how everyone is implicated in the slave trade as an extension of consuming sugar and chocolate. This speaks to the reason for the delay in abolishing it: the final product was too tantalizing and the consumers were too far removed. This is also representative of our mentality today.

The Atlantic slave trade left deep-seated damage to the African regions which it affected, the most important of which is the legacy of slavery. There was a compounded effect as the emphasis shifted to cacao growing regions for mass production. Today, “[a]pproximately two-thirds of the cocoa destined for the world market is produced on West African farms” (Manzo, 529). The exploitative power dynamic is still so strong that modern day slavery still exists in the form of coerced labor. Watch this video to catch a glimpse of what life is like for a child working on a cacao farm on the Ivory Coast today.

After slavery was largely abolished in the Americas around 1850, the geographic regions where cacao was being grown changed. The focus transferred to Fiji, Mauritius, and the Ivory Coast, as seen in the video. In this shift, “many small farmers [became] dependent for their livelihood on cocoa, and it is this smallholder production that accounts for most of the large increase in production and export from the Ivory Coast in the 1990s” (Manzo, 529). This is significant because it demonstrates how when colonial powers “abolished” slavery they just created a vacancy for multinational companies to exploit deprived workers who were already suffering from the consequences of the slave trade. The parallels between the old slave trade and modern day child slavery are substantial. The modern day-version still sees the power struggle between powerful landowners who offer an exchange for laborers. This turns Africans against each other. You can see this situation play out in the video where the boy was brought to the cacao farm when his father died. Another parallel is the forced labor in extreme conditions with unsatisfactory clothing. Modern day laborers are being “paid” in the form of room and board but this prevents them from accumulating any considerable amount of money that would allow them to leave, just like colonial powers used to enslave entire families based on who was living on their property.

Even though the slave trade has developed and adapted over the past hundreds of years—even after it has been “abolished”—there is no question that slavery still exists today. Furthermore, it implicates everyone (just as it did back then) because it is the chocolate industry that is exploiting people. It follows that because we all consume chocolate, we all are culpable in its prolonging. This means that it is up to the consumers to stop distancing themselves from the origins of their chocolate and learn about the production of cacao.

Works Cited


Manzo, Kate. “Modern Slavery, Global Capitalism & Deproletarianisation in West Africa.” Review of African Political Economy, vol. 32, no. 106, 2005, pp. 521–534.

Martin, Carla. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” AFRAMER 119X. Harvard University. CGIS South, Cambridge. March 1. 2017. Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Rodney, Walter. “African Slavery and Other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the Atlantic Slave-Trade” Journal of African History, vn, 3 (1966), pp. 431-443

TED-Ed. “The Atlantic slave trade: What too few textbooks told you – Anthony Hazard” December 22, 2014. Web. March 6 2017. <;.

BreakingNews56. “Chocolate Child Slaves-CNN.” Jan 16, 2012. Web. March 6, 2017. <>.

Cruikshank, Isaac. The Gradual Abolition of the Slave Trade: Or Leaving of Sugar by Degrees in 1792. Digital image. Website: <; N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2017. <;.

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