Blog Post: The Dark Side of Cacao

Chocolate today is a luxury food that we love and crave. Over the years, it has been romanticized and portrayed as a food of the gods, holding spiritual healing power, bringing people together socially, and even increasing wealth when used as currency. However, while it is occasionally mentioned, none of the positive narratives we hear about chocolate would be possible without the hard, gruelling work of slave labor. The narratives of slavery were occurring throughout history at the same time that the romanticised stories about chocolate were being created, however, the two sides of chocolate development are rarely interwoven. I argue that the crucial role slaves played in creating chocolate is well undervalued and underrepresented in the narrative of the development of chocolate.

Figure 1 shows the two simultaneous stories of chocolate, the first image showing the product that consumers see, and the right showing how production was made possible.

Figure 1: A Stark Comparison between the Final Product and the Production of Sugar

The commonly told, romantic narrative of chocolate omits the key part of the historical development of this luxury good. “A True History of Chocolate” by Coe and Coe, discusses the immense importance of chocolate from social, religious, medical, and economic perspectives, outlining aspects such as “the food of the gods”, “the Mesoamerican genesis”, and “the Aztecs as the people of the sun” (Coe and Coe, 2013). Most narratives in this book detail the positive aspects of development, highlighting the immense amounts of passion and spirituality that has gone into creating the good we so readily enjoy today (Coe and Coe, 2013). On the flip side, this book demonstrates how an almost complete history of chocolate can be written from the perspective of benefits only, barely mentioning the cruel conditions cacao workers had to undergo to make this all possible.

To be fair, it was mentioned briefly in “A True History of Chocolate” that hundreds of thousands of Africans were shipped in vessels to work the cacao plantations of the American tropics (p193). However, the living conditions of the workers or wage or economic outcomes of this movement were not discussed, omitting a very important part of cacao production, and suggesting slaves have been undervalued and underrepresented when discussing the true development of chocolate.

Despite this romantic history, the entire time, slave labour was alive and prevalent in many Africa and Mesoamerica. As seen in these pictures from lecture, power dynamics through slavery has always existed in the production of cacao.

Figure 2: Transporting goods. “Porters carrying Coffee in Brazil,” 1826, watercolor by Jean Baptiste Debret

Figure 3: The labor of fifty-thousand enslaved Africans laborers was required to produced 20,000 tons of sugar a year for English consumers.

Throughout this entire time of slavery, the romantic story of chocolate was also being written. Within the time frame of 1420-1520, the Aztecs, People of the Fifth Sun, created their own spiritual meaning about chocolate (Martin, 2019). The two most important drinks for the Aztecs were octli (the native “wine”) and chocolate (Coe and Coe 2013). Chocolate was considered the far more desirable beverage for warriors and the nobility, making it popular as a luxury good, and a good to make people strong (Coe and Coe, 2019). So much has been written and studied about chocolate as a luxury good from this perspective, that is seems almost impossible that at this same time from 1500-1900, Chatel slavery began the exploitation of workers, a practice in which people are treated as commodities and are sold and bought (Martin, 2019). Between 10 and 15 million enslaved Africans survived forced transport across the Atlantic  (Martin, 2019). For every 100 enslaved Africans who reached the New World, another 40 died in Africa or during the Middle Passage (Martin, 2019). Slavery in this sense has been brushed over, and the slaves have not been given the recognition they deserve to make the more romantic stories of chocolate possible.

Slavery was a social relationship fraught with problems, yet there was no easy fixed, particularly as it became an engrained social norm. To reverse the system, abolitionists would have would have a far bigger job than simply saying that slavery was wrong; they would be required to completely rethink empires and coerced labour, by having compelling and practical alternatives (Martin, 2019). Therefore, as there was no simple fix to this complex and rapidly evolving problem, slavery persisted. It was not a brief phenomenon either, as seen by this quote in lecture. 

Labor rights issues in cocoa production are nothing new. They are tradition. – Martin, 2019

This further consolidates the argument that slaves have been undervalued and underrepresented in the narrative of the development of chocolate. A potential explanation for this is that slaves and consumers rarely ever communicate face to face, creating a visual barrier between the two, and perhaps this has what has led to the continued practice of slavery. Another explanation is offered my Mintz in his book, “Sweetness and Power”.

“Sweetness and Power” by Mintz details the complex interwoven origins of chocolate as an extravagant good for the aristocracy and as a “slave crop” (Mintz, 1986). Mintz suggests that the hottest debates came in the 1840’s, when slavery and protectionism collided with needs to compete in a widening market. For the first time, free-trade advocates and government’s motives saw eye to eye as interests aligned. It could be concluded from this that economic interests is the factor that ties together the two very different narratives of the development of chocolate. If consumers were willing to pay more, perhaps the government could better regulate wage laws. However, slavery did exist, and continues to be an understated factor of cacao production. 

Even today, there is an enormous disconnect between how chocolate is presented to consumers, and how it is produced. Most ads appeal to the sense of guilty pleasure, passion, and play on the rich flavour and textures of chocolate, as seen in Figure 4 below.

Figure 4: Three different chocolate ads that appeal to consumers

Contrasted with the methods of production, the current advertisements present a completely different image than what the means of production would show. In some ways this supports Mintz’ hypothesis the economics is the driving factor of this disparity. The marketing teams for large chocolate companies are driven by economic benefits, as is the desire to underpay slave labor.As seen in Figure 5 below, the narrative is being told more commonly than before, and more people are becoming aware of slave labour and choosing Fair Trade options, which benefit workers today. However, despite this, the work of millions of slaves throughout history has been understated in the crucial role that they have played in the development of the good that we enjoy today.

Figure 5: Advertisement Highlighting the Terrible Conditions of Slave Labor

While the two narratives of slavery were occurring throughout history simultaneously, it seems safe to safe the influence of slave labor has been undervalued and underrepresented in the portrayal of the development of chocolate.


Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2007[1996]. The True History of Chocolate.

Martin, Carla. 2019. Harvard University Lectures from Course: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.

Mintz, Sydney W. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power.          

Image Links

  1. Chocolate Store:
  2. Cadbury ad:
  3. Hershey’s Ad:
  4. Cadbury Ad 2:

* All other images were retrieved from lecture slides from class.

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