If I surveyed a room, asking people to describe how they felt when I mentioned the word “chocolate”, most people would express feelings of pleasure. Chocolate is perceived as an indulgent food in our society. It is associated with happiness and wellbeing. It’s the food you devour after a bad breakup. It’s the thing you give your lover when you know you have messed up royally. It can be melted, put in drinks, baked into desserts, and more. Whatever form it comes in, chocolate is a prevalent commodity that has a unique ability to unite our society.
However, chocolate has a dark and violent history. Production of goods associated with chocolate like cocoa and sugar relied heavily on exploitative slave labor from Africa. Eric Williams, historian and former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobagao, explains that the reason for enslaving African people was “economic” and “had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor. [The planter] would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon, nearer too than the more populous countries of India and China. But their turn was to come” (2014). Given this statement, I would like to take a deep dive into this brutal utilization of slave labor – in better understanding this system, I posit that while the demand for enslaved labor may have been economic, the perpetuation of slavery was racial. Further, I argue that the brutal reality of slavery not only devastated the lives of enslaved Africans but also helped to create and maintain a hierarchical society that subjugated the descendants of this enslaved population for centuries to come.
Initially, chocolate’s origins can be traced back to Central America as the Olmecs domesticated cacao (Satre 14). Other Mesoamerican people, like the Mayan and Aztec people, incorporated cacao into their cultures, as the food stuff became ritually significant. With the increase in colonization in the sixteenth century, Europeans were eventually introduced to chocolate, and their consumption became a large determinant in the rise of slavery in the New World. Europeans favored chocolate with sugar and spices to cut the bitterness, and thus, their high demand for chocolate fueled both cacao and sugar production as well as the slave systems that supported these processes (Satre 20). As chocolate consumption expanded from European elite to the masses (as the price of sugar declined), Europeans turned to Africa to fill the demand for enslaved labor in the Americas and the Caribbean. The increased commodification of chocolate let to the transition from encomienda to chattel slavery. While this system of enslaved labor was born out of an economic desire, it is quickly apparent by the way the system was upheld that race was an important factor.
If enslaved people survived the cruel journey across the Atlantic, they were met with the brutal reality of life on a plantation. They were overworked and underfed in poor environments riddled with disease and brutality. Lowell J. Satre discusses the condition of slaves transported from Angola to Portugese cocoa plantations in the late nineteenth century in his book “Chocolate on Trial”. While my focus is on slavery in the New World, I would be remiss if I didn’ include his poignant depiction of slaves living in these cruel conditions. Satre writes, “the majority showed signs of bad fare; some, again were starved to skeleton, and had the ghastly, feverish piercing, half insane look that is peculiar to their condition; most of them had the hard, vacant, indifferent expression of men who know they are going to what they most dread, while they are ignorant of where and in what shape their sad destiny awaits them” (20). Even slaves that had fair masters still suffered from the mental distress and hopelessness that accompanies being ripped from ones homeland and doomed to perpetual slavery. The physical violence and degradation of African enslaved persons (as well as indigenous people) does not align with a pure economic rationale for slavery. This brutality and blatant disregard for the dignity of these individuals appears to be racially rooted.
1858 engraving of enslaved people working in the sugar cane fields of the British West Indes Lordprice Collection/Alamy Stock Photo
This exploitative and cruel treatment worked to dehumanize Africans and perpetuate a sharp and constraining hierarchy between Africans and Europeans. Europeans perpetuated this subjugation of Africans not just through brute force but also in other aspects of life. Many times, depictions of slaves would be kept out of media like art and literature so as not to “taint” the work. When slaves were included, they were confined to the margin of the picture, in a state of subjugation. Power, in its comparative nature, depending on the oppression of others, and so Europeans utilized this system to create and uphold a negative narrative that permeated society’s memory to bolster their claims to authority and access.
[image of James Drummond, 2nd Duke of Perth, from National Gallery of Scotland and Wikipedia; cf. also, Gikandi, x-xii]
In addition, the slave system not only contributed to social inequities between Europeans and enslaved people, but it also created sharp economic inequities. European slave owners built immense wealth off the labor of African slaves, spreading to their families and communities (Mintz 157). Europeans not only accumulated immediate riches and resources, but they also developed generational wealth, further exacerbating the gap between Africans and Europeans for centuries to come. Further, the racism that ensued from this system acted as a barrier to socioeconomic mobility for Africans after emancipation. Dr. William Hardy of Open University even explains, “The long-term economic exploitation of millions of black slaves was to have a profound effect on the New World’s history. Most fundamentally, it produced deep social divides between the rich white and poor black communities, the consequences of which still haunt American societies now, many years after emancipation (2014).”
In finality, European consumption of chocolate spurred the mass expansion of a slave system that was inevitably wielded to bolster white power. The free labor from Africans made sugar and cocoa production extremely lucrative and contributed to the wealth of European nations, exacerbating worldwide economic disparities. While chocolate is a delicious food, it has a nasty history that must be acknowledged.
Hardy, William. “Riches & Misery: The Consequences Of The Atlantic Slave Trade.”OpenLearn, The
Open University, 25 Feb. 2014,
Martin, Carla. “AAAS E-119 Lecture 5: Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University. 2020. Lecture.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking,
Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on trial: Slavery, politics, and the ethics of business. Ohio University