The Rich Yet Dark History of Chocolate: The Socioeconomic Implications of Slavery in the Cacao Growing Industry

Child Labor in Côte d’Ivoire: the dark side of chocolate

When the majority of us think about chocolate, our mind races to the sweet taste as we bite into a brownie just out of the oven, or the delicate melting of a Hershey’s kiss on our tongues, or maybe even the memories and feelings the aroma of chocolate invoke in us from special moments past. Chocolate is a seemingly universal sign of love and loss, a way in which we can transcend cultural barriers and be united under a common fondness of the sweet, buttery delicacy we know as chocolate.

However, while chocolate has a rich history dating back to the Olmecs (1500 BCE- 400 BCE), possible ancestors of the Mayans, the lineage of the first cacao beverage to the chocolate we consume today is more bitter than sweet. The story is characterized by the forced labor, slavery, and death of millions of indigenous peoples. In order to fully comprehend the role of slavery in the chocolate industry and the ways in which it has created both social and economic consequences, it is necessary to outline the basics of the plant itself as well as go back to the beginning of the cultivation of cacao to see how it came to be the global phenomenon it is today. 

Cacao beans, and, consequently, chocolate, grow on the tree called theobroma cacao. Grown best in very humid and high-temperature conditions, the geographic centers of diversity for this plant are what is modern Central and South America (Martin, Lecture 1). Large pods grow on the trunks of the tree and contain beans which are then processed to produce cacao “nibs” which are then made into chocolate. First, the seeds are fermented, then dried, after roasted, and finally winnowed. At this point, there is now a cacao liquor (Coe, 1996).

Cacao represented in the Mayan Madrid Codex

Cacao existed centuries before Europeans laid their hands, or taste buds, on it. The Mayans (1500 BCE) considered cacao to be very multifaceted, with evidence that they used it in medicinal, religious, and social contexts. The image above shows how this “food of the gods” was represented in Mayan culture (Madrid Codex), by highlighting the prominence of the good in social life as well as displaying the hieroglyphic for the word kakaw, the source of the Spanish “cacao.” The Aztecs (1200 CE) also played an important role with cacao, one of the biggest being the shift we see in how “the presence of cacao beans—mentioned by the chronicler Diaz del Castillo (1495-1583)—in the stalls of the great market of Tlatelolco, the central market of the city of Mexico Tenochtitlan, seems to indicate a more generalized usage among the population, at least on special occasions” (Orellana et. al. 2011).

The “discovery” of chocolate by Europeans in Mesoamerica created the biggest shifts in terms of intensification of production and the commodification of the object. There was a need for cheap and plentiful labor in order to cultivate and produce chocolate for consumption and profit, thus we see a transition from the prior system of encomienda (first image below), a corrupt labor system under the Spanish Crown in American colonies which “led to extreme demographic collapse and usurpation of indigenous land in Central and South America” (Martin, Lecture 5), to that of African slave labor (second image below). “These slaves were often traded for cacao beans that Portuguese slave ships could then transport to New Spain or re-sell (for a profit) on the black market of Dutch- or British-ruled Caribbean islands” (Orellana et. al. 2011).

From 1500 to 1900, 10-15 million enslaved African people were transported across the Atlantic, to the Caribbean predominately, into chattel slavery, a system in which people are treated as the personal property of the owner and bought and sold as a commodity. But those are just the ones who survived. For every 100 who reached the colonies, 40 others died in the brutal transport known as the “Middle Passage.” This practice of taking Africans from their land for free labor resulted in the demise of the population of Africa in half by the year 1800 (Martin, Lecture 5).  

Cacao and sugar are two very interconnected goods, intertwined through shared deep and disturbing histories. This allows us to draw on the workings of other experts, such as Sydney Mintz in his book “Sweetness and Power” to understand cacao and the sociopolitical economic factors in play better. For example, he writes, “England fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves, and went furthest and fastest in creating a plantation system. The most important product of the system was sugar” (Mintz, 1985).

It is important that we are conscientious of the fact that, every time we bite into the sweet chocolate we so know and love, it is traced with the dark history of pain, greed, and destruction of human lives. Equally important, if not even more urgent, is that we acknowledge the child labor and forced labor still present today in many cacao growing regions of the world and that we don’t become complacent within this capitalistic system which prioritizes profits over human life. 

The video embedded below is a segment from an investigation by 16×9 entitled “Child Labor: The Dark Side of Chocolate.” The clip illustrates the crushing poverty and endemic use of child labor in Ghana while highlighting the importance of fair trade and holding corporations accountable for finding ethical sources of cacao beans for their chocolate products. 

This video goes to show, we must unwrap the pretty gold foil that covers the bitter, dark reality of chocolate and work to mitigate the historical injustices present in the industry as well as be mindful of the ways in which we, as consumers, can act today to improve the conditions in the future. Whether this is buying only fair trade chocolate or advocating for chocolate mega-companies to do better, we have the power to change the narrative, or maybe recipe, in this case, to a sweeter one. 

Maybe it’s time we view chocolate not as a guilty pleasure because it breaks your latest diet or because its taste is so sweet it seems sinful. But instead, because, with every bite we take, we are helping support an industry not only created through the exploitation of indigenous and African people, but that is still sustained even today, in 2020, by this type of unjust labor system.

If we ever want to be able to enjoy a chocolate chip cookie without a pang of guilt for the crimes against humanity committed, we must work to create a more equitable chocolate industry. We can eat dark chocolate, but not without acknowledging the dark history of the socioeconomic reverberations of slavery which still continue in many forms today. 

Works Cited

Children Sold to Plantation Owners Form Part of Worldwide Supply Chains in the Making of Chocolate. SomeOfUs.org.

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food” Lecture, Cambridge, MA, 2020.

Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe, “The True History of Chocolate” (London: Thames and Hudson, 1996)

Madrid Codex: “Chaak  [The Mayan rain deity] and Lady Earth are given their cacao.”

Margarita de Orellana et. al., “Chocolate: Cultivation and Culture in pre-Hispanic Mexico,” in Artes de México 103 (2011): 65-80.

Martin, Carla. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal” Lecture, Cambridge, MA, 2020.

Spanish conquistadors torturing Native Americans. Print Collector/Getty Images

West Africans transported to the coast to be sold into slavery. Wikimedia Commons.

Mintz, Sidney W. “Sweetness and Power” 1985
[16x9onglobal]. (2012, August 13). Child Labour: The Dark Side of Chocolate. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXWFXeIZY9g

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