Choconomics: A History

Chocolate.  It’s known as a sweet, delectable treat in many areas around the world and holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Easter are considered incomplete without it. According to Forbes and Statista, the United States consumes 9.5 pounds of chocolate per person per year.  This number even pales in comparison to several European countries like Switzerland and Germany with citizens devouring more than 17 pounds of chocolate per person per year (McCarthy, 2015).  It has also been noted by French doctor Hervé Robert (among others) “that the caffeine, theobromine, serotonin, and phenylethylamine that chocolate contains make it a tonic, and an antidepressive and antistress agent” (Coe & Coe, 2013).  However, despite its positive popularity with Western society at large, chocolate exhibits a history as muddy as its color.  For example, compare these Cadbury commercials

with UNICEF’s campaign against child labor in the cacao industry:

Chocolate companies and pop culture do not advertise the history of slavery, the exploitation of poverty, and the use of child labor that is part of this edible’s history and present-day production practices, nor do they highlight the challenges of overcoming poor supply chain management. With such hidden truths, it is worth taking a closer look at chocolate’s abstruse dark side.

While chocolate innocently obtained its start most likely with the Olmecs (1500-400 BC) in Mesoamerica, its decline in ethical production began during Europe’s Baroque Age (1600-1760) of “palaces and mansions of the wealthy and powerful” (Coe & Coe, 2013) and took off in earnest during the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840). For several decades, chocolate remained a commodity for the elite, but with new technological innovations that cut down the time and labor of producing chocolate, chocolate transformed from a costly drink to a cheap food that more and more people could afford.  To keep up with this demand, more cacao and sugar needed to be produced.  Unfortunately, the harvesting of cacao and sugar cane are true manual activities: “The [cacao laborer] goes out daily… with a machete and a sharp blade fixed on a long pole.  The trick is to sever the stem and retrieve the heavy pod without disturbing the cushionlike area that it grows from, and without damaging any flowers or immature fruits” (Presilla, 2009).  It is difficult to standardize and mechanize such a process.  Therefore, it follows that with an increase in demand for these crops there was also an increase in demand for human labor.

Cacao tree with pods.  Pods grow on the trunk of the tree called Theobroma cacao.
Theobroma cacao - Denver Botanic Gardens - DSC00898
A young cacao pod growing from the cushionlike area with surrounding flowers. Laborers must be careful not to damage these features. 
Settlers first turned to the closest and easiest labor wellsprings they could find. One such option was to take advantage of the native population, but Old World diseases and lack of immunity to these new pathogens killed off the majority of this potential labor source. Instead, many colonists “employed on their farms freshly arrived settlers from the mother countries who were contracted to labor for a fixed period of years. These workers were debt servants, petty criminals, political and religious nonconformists, labor organizers, Irish revolutionaries – political prisoners of different sorts” (Mintz, 1986). But even this source dried up:

“The mortality rate was high for both the voluntary and involuntary [indentures]. Many did not survive long enough to complete their terms. Alternative forms of colonial settlement opened up in the Americas that were more attractive to those wishing to become small farmers… The sugar planters of the Caribbean were happy enough to use indentured labor initially, as they experimented with cropping techniques, manufacturing processes, and styles of labor management, but they came to regard the labor of enslaved black African people as superior… For the sugar planters, enslaved people were more valuable than indentured because their labor was purchased for life rather than for a limited period of years and the children of enslaved women were declared slaves at birth” (Higman, 2011).

What started off as a minor trade in humans became the genocide of millions of Africans through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.  In this overwhelming interactive video, Andrew Kahn (from online magazine Slate) depicts the voyages of slave ships as dots leaving Africa for the Caribbean, Brazil, and North America from 1545 to 1860.  The video visually leaves an impression that the New World was frantically sucking away lives from Africa starting right around the mid-1700s up until 1860, which was when large-scale abolition efforts were underway.

After abolition, the hope was that slavery would disappear and remain an ugly relic of the past.  Unfortunately, as previously witnessed in history, the need and desire for labor is incessant and instances of slavery in the cacao industry persisted.  As Eric Williams wrote, “But the abolition of slavery did not mean the destruction of the sugar plantation.  The emancipation of the Negro and the inadequacy of the white worker put the sugar planter back to where he had been in the seventeenth century.  He still needed labor.”  The journalist Henry W. Nevinson arrived in Angola in December 1904.  Portugal had already abolished slavery in all of its colonies in the 1870s, but Nevinson found horrific evidence of post-abolition slavery in a state-supported system of “contract labor” where “government agents certified that natives could, of their own free will, sign contracts committing themselves to five years of labor at a set wage.” What Nevinson uncovered was essentially slavery by another name, which operated by physically detaining persons to pay off “debt.”  One particular episode he wrote about centered on a Portuguese trader who claimed extraordinary compensation from villagers for the loss of property during the Bailundu War of 1902.  Despite natives’ appeals to officials, they were ordered to pay twenty times the actual damages suffered.  This forced many parents to sell their children into slavery to pay off this imagined debt. While word of these practices reached the Cadbury chocolate company, they did not alter their own practices of purchasing slave-harvested chocolate.  Instead, they hired an agent to investigate African plantation practices four years after first hearing rumors of slave labor in Africa.  In four years, the Cadbury company had “accomplished nothing for the slaves who produced the cocoa beans” (Satre, 2005).

Unfortunately, a century has passed since Nevinson’s discoveries, yet poor labor practices still continue in modern times.  In this video by Fortune magazine, assistant managing editor Brian O’Keefe explains how the big chocolate companies are several degrees removed from the farmers who employ children to harvest cacao beans, essentially claiming plausible deniability of these labor practices. “To produce the volume of chocolate that the world demands, we’re talking about thousands and thousands of farms,” says O’Keefe.  However, there is some good news in the history of choconomics.  As indicated in the Fortune video, consumers are demanding that companies take responsibility, which is causing companies to want to have more ownership of their supply chains.  Furthermore, Kevin Bales (in the video below) explains how his organization – Free the Slaves – is combatting slavery by working with governments to pass sentences on slavers and by liberating slaves from financial vulnerability over a two-year program.

Chocolate has not had an easy road to ethical production and consumption.  In this perspective, it lives up to its other popular moniker of being a “sinful” dessert. As seen in the Industrial Revolution, post abolition, and modern-day practices, much of chocolate’s unsavory ethics is linked to labor needs and the economics of supply and demand.  That being said, the present-day hosts the smallest fraction of individuals who are enslaved and efforts are underway to push slavery off the face of the earth for good.


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. (2007). The True History of Chocolate (3rd ed.). New York: Thames and Hudson.

Higman, B.W. (2011). A Concise History of the Caribbean. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, Niall. (2015). “The World’s Biggest Chocolate Consumers [Infographic].” Forbes. Retrieved March 9, 2018 from

Mintz, Sidney W. (1986). Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.

Presilla, Maricel. (2009). The New Taste of Chocolate. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Satre, Lowell J. (2005). Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

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