Forced Labor and Chocolate in a Historical Perspective

Labor’s complex history and relationship to the modern global economy raises many questions about production, consumption, and modern markets of several popular goods. As labor’s history is far from a single story, it is closely interconnected with the market of a very popular product: chocolate. Chocolate’s history is inseparable from forced labor–the modern cacao and sugarcane industry were essentially built via chattel slavery, and wage slavery is the modern manifestation of that very system today. The connection between chocolate and forced labor may seem far-fetched at first glance, but after analyzing the unique history of cacao, sugar, and labor, this direct correlation will be made clear.

Cacao, the essential ingredient for chocolate, has its origins in Mesoamerica with indigenous populations, specifically the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec (Coe and Coe 35). This sacred plant, cultivated and used prominently consumed by the Maya and Aztec, was most commonly consumed in the form of a beverage for its medicinal and energy-inducing qualities. It was more favorable than alcoholic beverages due to the shame of drunkenness (76). However, cacao also served another purpose: money. Cacao beans were grown and used themselves as a form of trade and tribute for the Aztec (79). For these monetary reasons, the great Aztec leader Motecuhzoma stocked up cacao beans in great quantities in the capital city Tenochtitlan (82). He did this both by forcing farmers to cultivate cacao for the kingdom, while also demanding tribute of neighboring nations that were conquered by the Aztec. By stockpiling almost one billion beans, Motecuhzoma relied on the work and toil of the people of the region. This is a clear indication of an early example of cacao’s role in global forced labor.

Figure 1: Early Mesoamerican laborers cultivating cacao

When the Spanish first encountered Mesoamerica, they immediately observed the sacred beliefs towards cacao–soon they would learn that this was a result of its ritualistic importance and monetary worth (108). As a result of the invasion of Mesoamerica, many of the Spanish began to ingest cacao and appreciate its monetary worth in the region. However, as a result, the Spanish began to force the indigenous people of Mesoamerica coercive labor to cultivate cacao, along with other goods (112). Around this time, the Spanish and other colonial forces began the mass genocide of many indigenous populations throughout the Americas both via violence and disease, after they had enslaved them via their system of encomienda (Martin 3/5). The Pope also declared that indigenous populations were not to be enslaved, and because of this, the colonists turned toward the mass enslavement of Africans as a source of cheap and reliable labor (Mintz 36, 38).

During this time, cacao was transported to Europe, consumed by the elite and royalty, and eventually made its way back to colonial North America (Coe and Coe 129, 172). Throughout this journey of chocolate, a critical ingredient was added that would change chocolate and the global economy: cane sugar. Chocolate’s rise in popularity and addition of sweetness among the Spanish, and subsequently the rest of the Western World, led to the modern chocolate that we know as being sweet, milky, and beloved by many. However, this also led to the exponential increase in the cultivation of cane sugar, and the creation of cane sugar plantations in the Caribbean (Mintz 36).

Due to the rising demand of chocolate, made by both cacao and cane sugar, the mass importation of Africans rapidly accelerated via the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Africans were piled into ships and forced to the Americas via the Middle Passage–a journey in which nearly forty slaves would die for every hundred that made it alive (Martin 3/5). Of the Africans that were shipped to the Americas, the ones that worked on sugar and cacao farms suffered the most brutal conditions. Slaves working on sugarcane plantations faced inhumane conditions in brutal weather and disease-prone areas, thus resulting in a life expectancy of a mere seven to eight years. This system of slavery was only made possible via the continuing mass importation of Africans to these plantations (Martin 3/5). However, the system of chattel slavery would not continue forever.

Figure 2: An early description of a slave ship that carried slaves across the Middle Passage

Rising abolitionism, modernization, and globalization throughout the 19th century eventually led to the abolition of slavery, first in the British Empire, then throughout America, and finally in Brazil (Martin 3/5). The changing global economy allowed the mass production of both cacao and cane sugar to continue without chattel slavery, though. Industrialization allowed chocolate companies such as Hershey to open and operate at a significantly low cost (D’Antonio 108). Not only did industrialization allow increased efficiency and productivity for Hershey, but the company was also able to profit off of lackluster labor laws and cheap labor from where the cacao and sugar production took place (113). Additionally, Hershey even built “Hershey Towns,” or company towns centered solely around the production of chocolate. Although Hershey emphasized community, they also profited off of that very community of chocolate producers (115). Other chocolate companies’ business models were similar, such as Mars despite their secrecy throughout the years. But these companies didn’t exist without scandals of forced labor.

The Cadbury Company, a staple of the world’s burgeoning global chocolate industry in the early 20th century, is a prime example of a public scandal involving forced labor in the post-chattel slavery era. The Cadbury Company, founded by Quakers and upon strict ethical standards, were made aware of their possible investment in cacao being farmed and cultivated by slaves in the West African Island Nation Príncipe and São Tomé (Satre 18). The Cadbury Company ordered an investigation to determine whether or not they were purchasing cacao from slave labor, but this investigation was drawn out over a long period of time (73). Cadbury’s complicity in this situation contributed to the further subjugation of hundreds of people on these islands through the production of cacao. Although this is one of the last known modern examples of slavery occurring, many problems of inequity and injustice continue to exist in the global market.

Figure 3: The island nations Príncipe and São Tomé off the West Coast of Africa

In today’s global market, labor is far from fair and equitable. Global capitalism and industrialization have led to the lowering of wages and cheapening of products. Chocolate is a prime example of one of these products. The global consumers of chocolate–the US, Canada, and Europe–do not even produce cacao, and the farmers in Africa, Latin America, and Asia that do make less than a dollar per day, despite a candy bar costing more than that (Martin 1/30). For this reason, chocolate has become an anonymous good: one that consumers don’t know who produced it or where it came from. The chocolate industry is a clear example of global capitalism’s many flaws, and the progression of chocolate and its production throughout time is a microcosm of all other global goods and services for the last 500 years. Various forms of human subjugation have been created throughout time to produce and sell for cheaper and cheaper, and those structures have upheld the capitalist system of oppression throughout time. An analysis of chocolate production over time makes that evident, and proves that there is no ethical consumption under modern capitalism.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 1996.

D’Antonio, Michael D. 2006. Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth,

Empire, and Utopian Dreams. Simon and Schuster, New York, NY. pp. 106-126

Martin, Carla. Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor. 5 March 2019. Emerson Hall, Cambridge.

Martin, Carla. Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments,         NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat. 30 January 2019. Deknatel Hall, Cambridge.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Viking, 1985.

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio       Univ. Press, 2006.

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