Chocolate and the Slave Tade

Today there is no mistaking the interconnected state of the world. Trade is international, products are manufactured across border lines, and people can partake in ecommerce with others halfway across the world using the internet. While globalized economics is engrained within today’s society, it has been a reality of the world for centuries. One of the biggest international trade networks in history was the Transatlantic Slave Trade. This network involved the exchange of goods (most notably enslaved humans) between Western Europe, Africa, and the New World and some individuals, families, and countries very wealthy. Despite the moral implications of enslaving and trading human beings, the Slave Trade persisted for centuries due to the lucrative economic benefits to those exploiting humans for free labor. Slavery as an economic system prioritized the monetary benefits of industry participants over the liberty of the laborers. Because of the growing popularity of chocolate in Europe and American in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the opportunity for profit and satiation of a market outweighed the moral imperative to end slavery in cacao-growing regions, even after it was officially outlawed.

Below: Triangular Trade Routes

The version of slavery which employed Africans as laborers began in the fifteenth century by the Portuguese[1] and emerged as a solution to an economic problem. In simplest terms, Europeans were looking to maximize their profitability and in order to do that they needed a system which reduced the cost of labor as much as possible and prevented laborers from utilizing resources for their own benefit[2]. African slavery was not the only solution to this problem, Europeans tried to enslave natives in the New World however they were not a suitable population: their immune systems could not ward off European diseases and they died at rapid rates, and those who remained alive knew the land better than their captors and could escape. Europeans indentured servants were also brought in, but their numbers were insufficient, and they expected to be emancipated following the conclusion of their term of labor. Using African slaves provided massive numbers of laborers whose prior contact with Europeans allowed them to ward of disease, were unfamiliar to the land on which they toiled, and would be enslaved not only for life but for generations.

Slave labor produced goods which reached many corners of the globe and made the slave trade extremely lucrative. The Atlantic Slave Trade reached its peak in the 1780s, after which European countries began abolishing the trade of human capital and later the practice of slavery in the 19th century. While slavery was officially outlawed by European countries, the practice continued, especially in cacao growing regions. Monetary gain was the reason the system of slavery was implemented, and it was the reason it persisted despite being officially outlawed. Portugal––the pioneer of purchasing slaves from African–cultivated cacao on the island of Sao Tome off the coast of Africa. To obtain the labor for this production, Portugal had a significant presence in Angola where Africans were captured and marched across the country to the coast[3]. Though Portugal outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1858, this practice continued into the 20th century. An entire system of secrecy and injustice formed in the African colony to protect the slave trade there because the value of the labor was so high.

Below: Sao Tome

The reason Portuguese in Angola went to extreme lengths to cover up and maintain their slave trade in Angola even while it was being investigated was because of the profitability of the cocoa produced in Sao Tome. It was said that the taste of cocoa from Sao Tome was so irresistible that people could not abstain from buying it even with the knowledge of the means used to produce it[4]. Not only was the cocoa especially tasty, the market for it had grown significantly. In 1828, CJ Van Houten created a hydraulic press which drastically cost of chocolate production and in turn the price of chocolate[5]. What was once a luxury for the elite was now a commodity available to the masses, creating more of an incentive for companies to operate outside of Portuguese law and utilize slave labor.

Below: Van Houten’s Hydraulic Press

Slavery was instituted as a system for its economic benefits while its moral shortcomings were justified in all variety of ways. Eventually, the moral implications were too strong to be overlooked and abolitionist movements were successful in getting the practice outlawed… at least nominally. While slavery was officially banned, slave labor continued to be used, especially in cocoa-producing regions which were responding to a growing market. The demand called for supply, and the need to supply justified means of production and complicated the true abolition of slavery in these regions.


[1] “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade · African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations · Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.” Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/africanpassageslowcountryadapt/introductionatlanticworld/trans_atlantic_slave_trade.

[2] Coclanis, Peter. “Economics of Slavery.” Shibboleth Authentication Request, www-oxfordhandbooks-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199227990.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199227990-e-23?print=pdf.

[3] Satre, Lowell. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. pp. 1-32, 73-99

[4] Higgs, Catherine. 2012. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. pp. 133

[5] Satre, Lowell. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. pp. 14

Works Cited

Coclanis, Peter. “Economics of Slavery.” Shibboleth Authentication Request, www-oxfordhandbooks-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199227990.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199227990-e-23?print=pdf.

Higgs, Catherine. 2012. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. pp. 133-165

Satre, Lowell. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. pp. 1-32, 73-99

“The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade · African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations · Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.” Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/africanpassageslowcountryadapt/introductionatlanticworld/trans_atlantic_slave_trade.

Multimedia sources:

https://www.nuttyhistory.com/scramble-for-africa.html

https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/africa/stp-geography.htm

https://edp.org/Germany/Koeln.html

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