Slave to Pleasure: How the Demand for Labor to Produce Cacao and Sugar Drove the Slave Trade

The slave trade was a brutally dehumanizing affair that ultimately resulted in the forced displacement of more than 12 million African men, women, and children. Driven by the demand for cheap labor, greedy traders – primarily from the United Kingdom, Portugal, and the Netherlands – stole people from their native lands across the continent of Africa and shipped them to the new world as involuntary labor for the colonies (The Transatlantic Slave Trade). These enslaved individuals were then forced to produce many of the cash crops (see image below) that powered the emerging industrial economies of Europe and contributed to the creation and consolidation of immense wealth for those individuals who were in positions from which they could take advantage of the free labor, namely those in the planter class and professionals who provided the initial cash in the form of collectives. Given these conditions, it is important to recognize that the slave trade was a manifestation of the extant power dynamics between Africans and Europeans. Africans, as a result of the distinct fragmentation and systems of rule in their tribes in comparison to the Europeans, were unable to design effective systems in which they would be able to resist the infiltration of the Europeans, and this, ultimately, left their people vulnerable to enslavement as a result of local war, kidnapping, ransoming, and other horrific, deceitful acts committed by the Europeans. Identifying political tensions, religious differences, economic crises, etc. as weaknesses, the Europeans chose to exploit them for their own benefit and seized the opportunity they saw to obtain free labor to produce those crops that were becoming essential to the European economy (The Transatlantic Slave Trade). The growing popularity of cash crops (sugar, cotton, cocoa, etc.) and expanding European consumption powered the enslavement of Africans and maintained the system of slavery that would quickly emerge in the colonies as a direct result of demand outpacing the capacity of free production; the plantation owners’ constant needs for labor would outweigh any moral obligation to fellow man.

An image of the cash crops most dependent on slave labor: sugar, rum, rice, cotton, tobacco, coffee, and cocoa.

The Europeans’ engagement in the commodification of human beings exhibited a callous disregard for human life. Lowell Satre’s Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business specifically analyzes the evolution of slavery in the Portuguese colonies as it related to the production of chocolate. In the opening chapter, Satre details the journey of one English journalist, Henry Nevinson, into Angola’s interior, commonly referred to as the “Hungry Country.” Nevinson’s trip uncovered the sordid details of the new version of slavery occurring in the early 1900s despite the fact that Portugal had abolished slavery in all of its colonies in the 1870s (Satre 2). This new system was occurring under the guise of “contract labor.” Under this system, “the curator general of Angola was responsible for ensuring that the contract binding a worker for five years was legal and that its provisions….were appropriate” (Satre 7).  This “contract” was renewable after five years and magistrates were required to enforce the conditions; however, this protection was only provided in the legal sense, and the serviçal (contract laborer), in reality, was not free (Satre 7). Despite the fact that Portugal had abolished slavery in the 1870s, they had done nothing to replace the “free” labor that the plantation owners had grown accustomed to, and as a result, the owners’ desperate need for workers led to the emergence of a contract labor system that was, in reality, not contractual labor. Within the Portuguese empire, as well as in other systems that were transitioning from slave labor, this system of indentured servitude without the promised repatriation and wages (workers were often forced to spend their money at plantation stores on food and clothing and other necessities), was a disguise for slavery. 

An image of Henry W. Nevinson, the man who published the first reports of the redesigned slavery occurring in the Portuguese empire.

The abolition of slavery, particularly in the crop producing colonies, was not easy, especially given the many varied interests. In the case of the chocolate companies, the first conflict arose because of reports that laborers were not free, and this posed a serious problem for many company owners, particularly the Quaker chocolate producers like Cadbury, Rowntree, and Fry. Morally, these companies all objected to the use of involuntary/slave labor and the discovery that their chocolate was produced in such a manner caused them a great deal of strife. On the one hand, if they chose to boycott the plantations, they would lose their bargaining power; on the other hand, by maintaining their business with these plantations, they were complicit in the maintenance of a new system of slavery. This tension led to their inability to take strong, assertive action to remedy the situation and put the appropriate amount of pressure on the Portuguese government. (Satre). These tensions faced by the chocolate producers illuminate just how interlinked different systems of power were with slavery. From owners of the means of production to government to people who provided the news to the citizenry, everyone was tied to the profits of slavery. The company owners who benefitted from the cheap price of cacao produced on San Tome and Principe had a lot to lose if they wanted to guarantee that labor was voluntary; it would have driven the cost of their product up and affected their gross profit. 

Another obstacle to the abolition of slavery was the relationship between various governments. As English subjects, the chocolate companies looked to the British Foreign Office to put pressure on the Portuguese, but the British were limited in just how much pressure they could apply – the Portuguese were involved with the labor they were “employing” in South Africa and would view any action they took as hypocritical. Moreover, the general ineffectiveness of the Portuguese officials prevented any real action from being taken. Nevinson wrote that, “Portuguese authority was ineffective. Portugal’s civil and military officials, and its traders as well, operated outside the law, and whatever authority officials exercised was either misused or abused” (Satre 6-7). The planters also had a huge stake in the abolition movement. If slavery was truly abolished, they would see all of their profits quickly disappear. Cash crops were already a very risky business (fluctuating prices cause a lot of people to go bankrupt), but the end of slavery would signify the total destruction of their way of life. In addition, many of them truly believed that they were not doing anything wrong. A few planters asserted that they “have a right to transfer labour from colony to colony at will without foreign interference – this is not emigration while under one government and therefore no repatriation is needful”  (Satre 96). These planters also had the support of government officials. In Catherine Higgs’ Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa, she quotes Jerónimo Paiva de Carvalho, a Portuguese government official on the island of Principe, who states, “Laborers…enjoyed working conditions superior to those of crews who served on British ships and they were also treated better than most rural workers in Europe….On the Porto Real and Esperança roças on Príncipe… great attention was paid to worker’s housing, clothing, labor assignments, salaries, and healthcare…. ‘If this is slavery, then we are completely in the dark about the problem of manual labor in the colonies’” (Higgs 139)

A map of colonized Africa, circa 1898, displaying the various possessions, protectorates, spheres of influence, and occupation of each country.

Overall, the issue of slavery was not an easy one to answer.  The interconnectedness of various systems created a cycle that reinforced itself – as more goods were produced in the system and generated more wealth, the demand only increased, which further increased the demand for labor.

Works Cited

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

Mintz, Sidney W. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power. Pp. 151-214

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

“The Transatlantic Slave Trade.” AAME,

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