Slavery, Chocolate, and the development of the Culture of Taste

Connecting the establishment of chattel slavery in the Americas to the development of the culture of taste begins with the historical analysis of both commodity crops and chattel slavery as fundamental to the development of capitalism. Crops such as cacao, sugar, rum, tobacco, and coffee, were introduced to and commodified by Europeans in the span of over 400 years. As the economic value of these crops rose within European society, so did the demand for them. Chattel slavery was a direct response to this demand. From 1500-1900 approximately 15 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean and enslaved in the Americas. Enslaved Africans were treated as the “chattel” or personal property of an owner and were therefore bought and sold as commodities. Owners forced enslaved Africans to work on highly surveilled plantations, producing commodity crops. Sugar produced a greater influx of slaves than the other crops and the labor of fifty-thousand enslaved Africans was required to produce 20,000 tons of sugar a year for English consumers. Chattel slavery became fundamental to economic gain for Europeans because of the demand for commodity crops.

Portrait of Margaretha van Raephorst, c. 1668

Over time slavery became a key element of white self-fashioning identity and therefore slavery became entangled with the culture of taste. In Slavery and the Culture of Taste, Simon Gikandi defines the culture of taste as “the world of politeness, manners, and aesthetics” (Gikandi 2011, x). Slavery, especially the cruelties of slavery, was seen as a taint to good taste and therefore left out of the narrative high culture. Gikandi explains this as having to do with the Western world’s culture of modernity with defined itself by human values that were contrary to the establishment of slavery (Gikandi 2011, 4). Despite the rejection of slavery from the narrative of high culture, ownership of slaves remained a symbol of status and wealth. One of the most popular mediums for flaunting good “taste” was displaying enslaved black people in portraits. Medieval and Renaissance Era art featured black servants and slaves as “accessories” to the high culture white bourgeois. Additionally, in these depictions of black people, their facial features were exaggerated and are presently deemed as racist caricatures. The caricatured aspect of these portraits also demonstrates how the rise of racism derived from slavery and is also very much entangled with the culture of taste. 

Portrait of Princess Charlotte, c. 1761

So, how does all of this connect to chocolate? In addition to slavery being a direct response to the growing popularity of commodity crops, enslaved black people were often depicted on advertisements for food regarded as high culture such as chocolate. As enslaved black people featured in portraits became a symbol of wealth became popularized, chocolate manufacturers capitalized and began advertising using racist caricatures to establish their product as tasteful. In this vein, the word “taste” in the culture of taste holds a dual meaning. 

As an early form of advertising, trade emerged in the late 1860s. These trade cards were produced at a relatively low cost and were slipped into shopping bags and used for product packaging. In Racial Indigestion, Kyla Wazana Tompkins explains the importance of these trade cards, 

“The effective excess and semiotic overload of these images encode the use of disgust to facilitate and accompany the white bourgeois consumer’s disavow and enjoyment of commodity pleasure. Here I am understanding disgust as the form of pleasure-in-excess that often accompanies comedy.  Disgust here is married not only to the disavowal of big affect—joy, pain, desire, pleasure—away from the white, Protestant, middle-class body and onto black, Asian, and ethnic white bodies; it is also, seemingly inversely, married to envy and desire. Disgust is thus born of the everyday public encounter with bodies that seem to enjoy what whiteness is meant to disavow” (Tompkins 2012, 150).

In both using black bodies as a means to demonstrate good taste, and by using racist misrepresentations of black bodies, the white public sphere dehumanizes enslaved black people in order to justify slavery and the exclusion of slavery from the narrative of high culture. 

Trade Card. Cover of Racial Indigestion by Simon Gikandi

Depictions of enslaved black people in art and advertising regarded as high culture and tasteful exemplify how the display of black bodies became a symbol of status and taste for the white bourgeois. The development of the culture of taste is inextricable from the establishment of chattel slavery and “tasteful” foods. The enslavement of Africans and the economic system employed from this exploitation led to the culture of taste that depended on overlooking the antithetical nature of slavery to the Western World’s culture of modernity for economic gain and good taste.  

Works Cited 

Gikandi, Simon. Slavery and the Culture of Taste. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Martin, Carla. “AFAMER 119X Lecture 04.” Lecture, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA,

February 19, 2020.

Martin, Carla. “AFAMER 119X Lecture 05.” Lecture, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, February 26, 2020. 

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, N.Y.: Viking, 1985.

Tompkins, Kyla Wazana. Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century. America and the Long 19th Century. New York: New York University Press, 2012.

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