Tag Archives: African slave labor

The Real Impurities of Chocolate, Past and Present

For the regular consumer, chocolate does not mean much beyond the divine sensation it’s given to the human tongue for generations. Short of the socio-political significance it held in the ancient Maya and Aztec civilizations, chocolate was merely a tasty foreign cuisine to the European elite of the modern period, and a classically popular dessert now in the age of industrial commerce. However, as chocolate grew from a beloved local staple to a worldwide commodity—backed by household names such as Hershey and Nestle—it became more relevant to discussions of society and politics than ever, tucked under the veil of pleasantly inconspicuous packaging, like so:

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World War II advertisement for Whitman’s Chocolates

The joyous American WWII ad embedded here captures the hidden nature of modern chocolate politics (“‘Chocolate is a Fighting Food!’ – Chocolate bars in the Second World War”). As a commodity broadly supplied by poorer nations but consumed by wealthy ones, chocolate has served as a reflection of global inequality and exploitation since its popularization in the 18th century. Although media conception works to mask this truth, the means of chocolate supply remains harsh and problematic, owing to its history as a source of inexcusably exploitative labor.

Cocoa agriculture shares a long-standing history with slavery. Traces of forced, unpaid labor in collecting and preparing raw cocoa stretch back far, and contemporary observers detail appalling conditions. Although it  mostly occurred elsewhere, the slavery associated with cocoa farming has involved horrors similar to the traditional American canon. In his book Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business, Youngstown State University Professor of History Lowell Satre writes:

“Human bones littered the sides of the trail, so many that it ‘would take an army of sextons to bury all the poor bones which consecrate that path.’ The bones in the dust were those of slaves who could no longer march, who were too weak to walk. Some captives were simply left to die; many others were killed by a blow to the head…the slavers, whoever they were, had little need to worry about runaways surviving to tell their brutal tale—there was no place for the slaves to run to in the Hungry Country.”

Describing the reports of an English journalist observing 19th century Portuguese West Africa, Satre’s excerpt seems to depict a “brutal tale” indeed (Satre 2005 p. 1). Those workers in African colonies that harvested and prepared cocoa were nothing more than human media through which to meet foreign demand, meant to be cast away and/or brutalized whenever they tried to take on a different role. The violence of such practice was clear, and it combined with a racial component that strikes a note reminiscent of American slavery. Such imagery appears not only in the history of African colonialism, but also in that of other nations with widespread cocoa farming, likely with the accompanying realities. The West Indies were no exception:

A vintage photo of a group of people posing for the camera

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Depiction of cocoa plantation in Trinidad, 1897

The image above was taken in 1890s Trinidad, but the practice of white overseers exploiting darker-skinned laborers continued for decades after, despite worldwide movements to abolish slavery (“Rowntree & its Cocoa Plantations”). When parts of the world began to agree on the depravity of slavery, like practices such as indentured servitude or contract labor came in its place. This meant that, on paper, cocoa farmers were not enslaved, but in reality, they still faced similar issues of little-to-no pay, quiet physical abuse, and “voluntary” lifelong labor commitments, as Satre describes later in his piece (Satre 2005 p. 92). Scrutiny by journalists, researchers, and the like drove these practices further into the underground throughout the 20th century, but it failed to eradicate them completely. And how could it? There seems no better way to optimize business than to extract raw material for almost no cost, process and sell its derivatives at a competitive price, and present to consumers as though nothing questionable is going on. Cocoa farming slavery took on a new form, but in some places, it retained its explicit nature. In others, it was found to exploit those with the lowest capability of resistance—namely, children:

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Infographic on child slave labor in West Africa, designed by Katie Patrick

This facet of cocoa politics persisted through to the 21st century, a time where people across the globe feel that humanity had moved past such barbaric systems of labor (“2 Million Child Slaves on Cocoa Plantations in West Africa”). In Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa, author Catherine Higgs writes:

“In 2000 and 2001, newspaper editorials and a television documentary alleged that Cadbury and the French firm Nestle were knowingly buying cocoa harvested by child laborers enslaved on Cote d’Ivoire’s cocoa plantations…In 2002 the London-based Anti-Slavery International estimated that approximately 284,000 children worked in the cocoa fields of West Africa…Less clear was whether the employers considered those young workers slaves…Identifying the specific factors (including hunger and poverty at home) that force children to labor on Cote d’Ivoire’s plantations has proved as difficult as it was…in 1905…Today, despite anecdotal evidence collected by a new generation of crusading journalists, African workers remain largely anonymous—and the meaning of slavery and freedom in an African context sometimes unfathomable—to the predominantly Western consumers of chocolate.”

Therein lies both the long-standing narrative of chocolate labor and its clear relevance to consumers today (Higgs 2012 p. 164). Despite being so far removed from the conception of chocolate eaters today, exploitation and inequality still reside at the heart of chocolate commerce and have done so beyond this past century. As much as current media may glamorize chocolate products, as exemplified by the modern ad below,

21st century ad for Panda Dark Chocolate

chocolate is hardly a fix for the world’s issues, and more accurately seen as another form of its problems (“This Panda Dark Chocolate Ad Proves Chocolate Can Fix It All”). As the late British economist Michael Barratt Brown explains in his article “‘Fair Trade’ with Africa” in the Review of African Political Economy, the exploitation that characterizes cocoa agriculture is a systemic issue (Brown 2007 pp. 268-269). Because Western nations have the advantage in industrial processing and manufacture, and cocoa prices were made to remain low starting in the 1970s, countries such as Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire are relegated to being long-term exporters of cheap raw material, rather than highly lucrative product manufacturers. To remedy these issues in chocolate supply denotes a tall task, but it begins with the spread of awareness. Empirical research by the likes of Brown, Higgs, Satre, and others shows the importance and relevance of chocolate beyond its food consumption, what with their broad implications about human nature and commerce. With proper study, analysis, and action, perhaps the world of chocolate consumers can one day bring a similar sweetness to the reality of chocolate politics. Equally dark as the complexion of cocoa product is that of its profit-seeking process, but if we continue to see beyond the packaging, we just might learn how to rid the content of all its hidden impurities.

Picture Sources

WWII ad: https://americanhistory.si.edu/sites/default/files/styles/blog_image/public/Image%206_LIFE%20Magazine%2010-9-1944.jpg?itok=YR11Dq8B

Trinidad plantation: https://www.york.ac.uk/media/borthwick/images/projects/equalityinthearchives/doc2_rowntree_cocoa_sorting_1897_full.jpg

Child labor infographic: https://thumbnails-visually.netdna-ssl.com/2-million-child-slaves-on-cocoa-plantations_51f41f941a684_w1500.jpg

Modern-day ad: https://cdn.trendhunterstatic.com/phpthumbnails/248/248954/248954_1_800.jpeg

Works Cited

Brown, Michael Barratt. “’Fair Trade’ with Africa.” Review of African Political Economy, vol. 34, no. 112, 2007, pp. 267–277. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20406397. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Ohio University Press, 2012.

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio Univ. Press, 2005.

Chocolate Consumption and Production: How Mesoamerican Cacao Culture has Faded

The significance of chocolate holds a profound and broad importance in our modern day American society. Chocolate has been incorporated in our everyday life as an indulgence.The commonly found sweet treat melts in one’s mouth, and in American culture, is used to melt one’s heart! However, chocolate is not bound by its asset of sweetness, as that asset was incorporated into chocolate fairly recently; chocolate can be bitter and brittle, and can even be featured as a drink! There are many types of chocolate varying by texture and taste, and the good has evolved over the ages, and so has its pairwise culture as it has moved from society to society, but all types stem from cacao. The original chocolate/cacao and its production can be traced all the way back to Pre-Columbian civilizations where it was valued highly and reserved for nobility and important people. In that time, Cacao was much more than a sweet, refreshing treat: it was a vital and versatile part in Pre-Columbian traditions including religion, status, and health. These traditions are portrayed in several interesting artifacts allowing us to better understand cacao’s significance in the Aztec, Mayan, Olmec and other Mesoamerican societies. Analysis of these artifacts allows us to discern that the culture of cacao has been distorted and watered down over the ages, and this can be seen in a comparison of modern day chocolate related activities to its ancient roots.

Modern day practices with chocolate primarily involve mass production and consumption of chocolate. Because of the bustling chocolate industry, people from all over the world are able to experience and indulge in a version of cacao, thus somewhat honoring the importance of cacao through enjoying its consumption. However, historical companies like Cadbury and others have significantly watered down the original culture of the product in order to capture a larger target market. The process of making chocolate used to be a niche and special thing and rarely resulted in the type of sugar-infused chocolate bars that we love today. There were various unique recipes and methods of production for the cacao beans. In cacao’s historical roots, every part of production was done by hand. Cacao beans were obtained from open cacao pods and were fermented, then dried, then roasted and winnowed, and then finally ground into the “chocolate liquor” paste.

Once this product was created, there were various ways to proceed in the making of the final product. Popular preparations of the time included fresh cacao pulp batidos, cacao and chile balls, and cacao and corn based beverages.

The production of the final cacao product in Mesoamerican tradition is very laborious but feels raw and real. Here, a woman follows traditional practices in making the highly regarded cacao-corn beverage

However, as the world became more interconnected over time, cacao production was adopted and altered primarily by Europeans in the mid to late 1600’s. “Europe is the biggest processor of cacao as well as the largest per-capita consumer of cacao” (Martin & Sampeck 2016, 37). Thus, Europeans altered cacao recipes to better suit their taste and culture. “The industrial chocolate that they produced was higher in sugar and less complex in taste compared to the variety of local chocolate makers” (Martin & Sampeck 2016, 37). So as the primary production center of cacao shifted from Mesoamerica to Europe, variety and quality of the product mattered less to the masses, and cacao’s original tastes were neglected. The driving force for this change in chocolate production was the introduction of chocolate to the world, and the resulting different chocolate consumption.

Cacao consumption was extremely significant in Mesoamerican culture. There weren’t many who were able to consume it every day, especially because of its cultural importance, not just because of its scarcity. “People in Central America and Mexico linked cacao and vital cosmological forces. These associations made cacao the proper offering in rituals related to fertility, health and travel as well as consecrating social unions such as marriage” (Sampeck & Schwartzkopf 2017, 74). Cacao was held in high regard in its original culture and we can confirm this through the analysis of Mesoamerican artifacts. Inscriptions on “monogrammed vases”, such as the one presented, reflect how the Mesoamericans “invested meaning in cacao” through their consumption and production (Martin & Sampeck 39). Analyzing a variety of inscriptions allows us to further understand the presence of cacao and chocolate in one’s life, and we can discern that cacao was pivotal during major social events such as religious practices, marriage rituals and funerals. In marriage ceremonies, cacao beverages were shared between the groom and the bride’s father during a pre-martial discussion. Cacao was dried and dyed red during funeral procession and was believed to ease the soul into the afterlife.

“Princeton Vase”, a Maya cacao-drinking cup depicting a rite of passage during a marriage ceremony – the presentation of a cacao beverage

These cacao beverages were prepared in a very sacred practice in ancient Mesoamerica. The primary ingredients were corn and cacao. In the making and drinking of the beverage, it was crucial that it had a frothy foam on top as it was believed that it “satisfies the soul.”

Depiction of the preparation of the frothy cacao-corn beverage – a tall pour to create bubbles
“Codex Nuttal”, Mixtec funeral scene with funeral procession

On the contrary, once the primary consumption and production of cacao shifted away from Mesoamerica, chocolate lost a little part of its identity. All of the tangible practices of production and consumption of cacao were stolen – the Europeans even crafted their own chocolate consumption drinking vessels – and barely any of the cultural practices that made cacao so special in its original culture were adopted. Instead, Europeans looked to make cacao production the most efficient. They imposed on Africa and coerced African labor for cacao production. And those historical shifts have had lasting impacts today. The ones on the frontline – the farmers – who wether the hot sun and the excruciating physical labor to harvest cacao beans have almost no power in the supply chain of chocolate. According to the “Cocoa Barometer 2018” smallholder cocoa farmers in Cote d’lvoire, already struggling with poverty, have seen their income from cocoa decline by as much as 30-40% from one year to the next”(Fountain & Huetz-Adams 2018, 10), and this is just on example of the perpetuated injustice that grips the chocolate industry. Although Europeans found a way to globalize chocolate for the taste buds of all, the sacrifice of culture and humanity is too monumental.

In conclusion, traditional ways of producing and consuming cacao have been neglected in exchange for the health of an industry that was built upon the tired backs of Africans and South Americans. The significance of cacao in the Pre-Columbian era can be examined in artifacts and documents dating back to the 15th century, and we can learn a lot from them about this faded culture. We can see through these artifacts that their beliefs and culture revolved around these special Theobroma trees, and it is quite fascinating to see how the ancients interacted with cacao.

Works Cited:

“Toledo Ecotourism Association – making a chocolate drink.” Youtube. May 10, 2008. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vC4dq69rqE&feature=youtu.be

Fountain, Antonie, and Friedel Huetz-Adams. “Cocoa Barometer 2018.” VOICE Network. Accessed March 25, 2020. https://www.voicenetwork.eu/cocoa-barometer/.

Martin, Carla D, and Kathryn E Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, 16 June 2015, socio.hu/uploads/files/2015en_food/chocolate.pdf.

“The Princeton Vase (y1975-17).” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University, artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/32221.

Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. Substance and Seduction. Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. University of Texas Press, 2017.

Gaddis, Donald. “The Codex Nuttall: Funeral Scene.” Pinterest, http://www.pinterest.com/pin/13581236346174560/. IMG.

Who's to Blame: Cadbury's Involvement in Slave Labor

The Cadbury chocolate company is one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the world today.  Kraft/Cadbury and Mars each comprised 15% of the chocolate market in 2011, (approximately) tying for having the greatest share of the market (Statista Research Department). From its inception to now, Cadbury has presented itself as adherent to strong ethical values, having been founded as a Quaker-owned firm (Satre 14).

An advert posted by Cadbury’s YouTube channel in 2018 (Cadbury). The company appeals here to values of compassion and filial piety to market its chocolate.

But it would be gullible to believe that Cadbury has always been a perfect pillar of morality. Beneath Cadbury’s highly curated public image is a complex history of involvement in African slave labor. Although the blame for the perpetuation of this slave labor can be attributed in part to Cadbury’s business decisions, Cadbury is not alone in accountability, nor are the other chocolate companies of the era; a complex system of international relations and the situational consequences of renouncing slave labor place fault on the British and Portuguese governments and the underlying market dynamics of the time as well.    

Cadbury’s Actions

Servicais in Principe carrying cocoa to ferment (Bosspostcard).

Slave labor was commonplace in early 20th century Africa under the guise of servicais, “contract labor.” The English journalist Henry Nevinson was sent by a magazine company to investigate slavery in Portuguese West Africa in 1904, and in Angola he found child slaves and slave caravans, deceptively relabeled as “contract laborers” (Satre 2).

But even before this, William Cadbury of the Cadbury company was told in Trinidad in 1901 that slave labor was used in São Tomé (from which Cadbury had purchased over 45% of their cocoa beans in 1900), prompting the company to direct William to investigate further (Satre 18). However, William chose not to publish a bill of sale that “specifically identified human beings as property,” because he deemed its wording “not sufficiently clear to be taken as a statement of fact,” (Satre 19). Indeed, William saw much clear evidence of slave labor in the São Tomé plantations throughout his visit, yet chose to obscure the details, as he did not equate this slave labor to other forms of slavery in Africa, minimizing the nature of the labor abuse. Despite clear knowledge of the labor abuse, the Cadbury company ended up delaying seven years until 1908 to publish a report to the British public, having to hire another agent (Joseph Burtt) to investigate first (Satre 32). Only in 1909 did Cadbury formally stop buying cocoa from São Tomé’s slave plantations (Higgs 148).

A statement by William Cadbury sums up the company’s two-faced stance on slavery: “I should be sorry needlessly to injure a cultivation that as far as I can judge provides labour of the very best kind to be found in the topics: at the same time we should all like to clear our hands of any responsibility for slave traffic in any form,” (Satre 13).

Role of the British and Portuguese Governments

Cadbury is not alone in blame, however. Nevinson had written that the Portuguese government purposefully used the legal excuse of “contract labor” to smooth over the injustice so that they may profit economically, charging various duties for each slave, delivery, shipment, and so on (Satre 8). And the British were no better: Britain’s own government was just as complicit as the Portuguese in supporting African slave labor. While William Cadbury investigated the disguised slave labor in Africa, the British government was attempting to recruit the very same Portuguese-African slave labor to work in their South African mines. With these incentives, Britain was inclined to avoid antagonizing the Portuguese. This would lead Gosselin, the British minister to Lisbon, to recommend William to give the Portuguese a year before taking any action (Satre 24). Later, in 1907, when Burtt returned to Britain with a report detailing the slave labor in Africa, the British Foreign Office sought to minimize the report by not only attempting to negotiate a deal for suppressing the publication of the report, but also suggesting the publication of a modified version (Satre 74).

The inaction of the Cadbury firm doesn’t fall entirely on their own shoulders; the British government, acting on their motives to appease the Portuguese and mutually benefit from slave labor, became a voice that served to muddy the waters.

Game-Theoretic Complications in the Market Dynamics

Left: the classical Prisoner’s Dilemma, if T>R>P>S. Right: possible decision outcomes for deciding whether to boycott (C) or not (D) (Author of this blog post).

Boycotting the cocoa produced through slave labor seemed a natural solution, but initiating the boycott proved a difficult choice for any chocolate firm of the time. But why, if all companies boycotting could lead to everyone benefiting from establishing a stronger moral ground?

We can see why by examining what the decision may have looked like to Cadbury and other chocolate firms. From the perspective of a chocolate firm: if some other firms chose to boycott, one firm stood to gain huge profits by continuing to buy slave cocoa, as they could undercut prices and gain a greater share of the market (granted, they would lose moral standing, but this would only occur if a large enough proportion of other firms boycotted). This financially benefit would be greater than the small benefit of being morally in the right if all firms boycotted together. If no firms boycotted, likely nothing would change. But if a firm boycotted while any other firms did not, then that firm would lose sales to the firms that continued to buy slave cocoa, endangering the firm’s survivability and potentially rendering its own employees jobless.

These conditions fit the criteria of a Prisoner’s Dilemma (though to be precise, since there are multiple players, this is an NPD, n-person prisoner’s dilemma), for which the optimal strategy (in a single game) is to defect (D), as regardless of what the other player does, the better choice is to defect.

To the credit of cooperation (C), it is true that in repeated games of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, strategies that employ cooperation can begin to outperform always defecting (Nowak 91). However, the situation at hand isn’t exactly a repeated game. For context, Britain at the time was a big proponent of free trade capitalism, having one of the most permissive commercial laws in Europe (Booth 590). So there would certainly be no help from the government in bailing out a chocolate company if it opted for the boycott and consequently went out of business (and why would they? We just saw the British government’s own role in supporting slave labor). Going out of business certainly puts an end to the game for that company.

In this frame, Cadbury’s period of inaction can be seen as somewhat defensible. In fact, even after Cadbury, Fry, and Rowntree jointly agreed to boycott in 1909, American chocolate manufacturers began to purchase the Portuguese slave-labor cocoa (Higgs 150). The market conditions of the time simply conflated doing moral good with shooting oneself in the foot.

In summary, Cadbury’s moral facade belies a history of entanglement in early 20th century slave labor, though the blame lies not only on Cadbury and the other chocolate firms of the time alone, but also on the British and Portuguese governments and the market consequences of taking action at the time.

Works Cited

Author of this blog post. “A Payoff Matrix for Cadbury’s Decision to Boycott Slave Cocoa in early 1900s”. 24 Mar 2020.

Booth, A. (2012). Personal Capitalism and Corporate Governance: British Manufacturing in the First Half of the Twentieth Century. Twentieth Century British History, 23(4), 590-592.

Bosspostcard. “São Tomé e Princípe – Serviçais Caboverdianos Carregando Cacau Na Roça Nova Cuba – Ethnique – Ethnic – Costumes – Mœurs “: For Sale on Delcampe.’” Delcampe, 17 Mar. 2015, 11:40, http://www.delcampe.net/en_GB/collectables/postcards/sao-tome-and-principe/sao-tome-e-principe-servicais-caboverdianos-carregando-cacau-na-roca-nova-cuba-ethnique-ethnic-costumes-moeurs-305514274.html.

Cadbury. “Cadbury – Mum’s Birthday TV Advert – 2018 (60 secs).” YouTube, 12 Jan 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0eEqeizNCA.

Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Ohio University Press, 2013.

Nowak, M. A. Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio Univ. Press, 2006.

Statista Research Department. “Global Market Share of the Leading 5 Chocolate Producers in 2011.” Statista, Statista Research Department, 15 May 2012, http://www.statista.com/statistics/238294/market-share-of-the-leading-5-chocolate-producers-worldwide/.

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

The Economic Emergence of the Slave Trade and Abolition Resistance of Slavery in Cacao Growing Regions

Centuries after the 350 year long transatlantic slave trade, it is hard to imagine that such a horrific worldwide trade could emerge from one sole underlying purpose: money. As the slave trade continued over time, everything became a price tag from crops to the people, justified on malicious racial grounds fabricated by the elite. I argue that the slave trade emerged as a result of economics that enabled the expansion of the chocolate industry, which resulted in challenges to abolishing slavery in cacao growing regions. Furthermore, I argue that cacao-based slavery is still not abolished to this day. 

Economics of the Slave Trade

Europe had weapons, the Americas had crops, and what did Africa have? People. Europe wanted crops from the Americas, the Americas did not have enough people to support this, and Africa wanted the weapons (and some textiles) from Europe (UNESCO). Thus, a trade emerged. The economics of the trade started with the origin of “African Kingdoms” who”prospered from the slave trade,” but after only a few years, “meeting the European’s massive demand created intense competition” between kingdoms (Hazard). A deep-rooted moral complex soon surfaced: “capturing slaves became a motivation for war rather than it’s result” (Hazard). Kingdoms now needed more weapons from Europe to defend themselves during slave raids.  

The economic prosperity continued in the New World where the slaves were sold. As seen in the images from Flickr below, which detail how humans were priced, slaves were viewed as a price tag and treated as a mere commodity. The entire slave voyage was seen simply as a “financial venture for owners and investors,” which “proved to be greatly profitable” (UNESCO). A slave could be sold multiple times in a lifetime multiplying their economic effect. Trade workers’ ultimate job was to sell the slaves at the highest price possible, meaning they often “disguise[d] the physical bruises and wounds… in order to hide their ailments” further contributing to the unethical economic driven tragedies of the trade (UNESCO). The slave trade altered societies and economies across the continent.

The greater economic impact came not from the increase in economic prosperity of the trade at the time, but rather the long lasting impact the trade placed upon Africa, still permeating society today. As Anthony Hazard explains in his TedEd video, “not only did the continent lose tens of millions of its able-bodied population, but because most of the slaves taken were men, the long term demographic effect was even greater” (Hazard). He continues explaining by the time the Americas and Europe finally outlawed the trade, “the African kingdoms whose economies it had come to dominate collapsed” (Hazard). Because of the slave trade, the future of Africa was devastatingly rewritten forever.

Why does chocolate play such an important role in the slave trade? Chocolate comes from Cacao beans, which date back to Mesoamerican societies, as early as the Olmec Empire (Dr. Martin, Lecture). Cultivating cacao is a labor intensive process that requires a humid tropical climate. For this reason, Europeans could not and did not want to grow cacao. Thus, when the Europeans discovered chocolate from South America—as early as 1591—and demand for cacao continually increased, colonialists forced local indigenous people to supply the cacao that would be transported to Europe (C-Spot). Eventually, this practice proved difficult with not enough people to maintain the expanding cacao fields, and eventually  the slave trade emerged. This simply shows that “one of the stimuli of the… slave trade was Europe’s appetite for not only sugar but chocolate, too” (Duducu). As it was a “brutal, backbreaking job that nobody wanted to do,” it became the “standard job or slaves” (Duducu). The cacao industry now relied, grew, and thrived on the backs of slaves.

Challenges to Abolition in Cacao Growing Regions

Why did challenges to abolition arise specifically in cacao growing regions? Because chocolate had transformed into a good available to everyone, not just for the elite (Dr. Martin, Lecture). By the 18th century, sugar and chocolate was involved in almost every aspect of European life including medicine, religion, socioeconomic class, gender and sexuality, and politics (Dr. Martin, Lecture). It is no coincidence that cacao demand grew even further in the 1820s, as innovations in chocolate production began with Coenraad Johannes van Houten inventing a new process resulting in powdered chocolate that “soon led to the creation of solid chocolate” (Fiegl). This caused a “cascade of further developments” in chocolate production allowing for easier consumption with better taste (Christian). Not only did this cause cacao demand to increase, but it also came at a time when abolition movements were at their peak worldwide encouraging a heightened resistance from slaves as their labor demands increased. Had chocolate not recently transitioned into the realm of daily consumption by Europeans, then there is sufficient evidence to believe that abolition would have taken hold sooner. 

As the market for chocolate expanded, “a number calculated at ‘nearly ten percent of the volume of the whole transatlantic slave trade’ went to work on the cacao plantations in Brazil” (Moss and Badenoch, 30). During this time, Brazil was a colony of Portugal. Although Portugal was one of the forerunners of Europe to abolish slavery within, they did not abolish slavery in Brazil until 1888, nearly 20 years after Portugal abolished slavery in their African Portuguese colonies (Brown Univeristy). This shows just how important chocolate was to Portugal, resisting abolition only in Brazil for an extra two decades with the purpose of maintaining their cacao production. 

Cacao Expansion into Africa

Although slavery was abolished everywhere in the Caribbean chocolate producing colonies by the start of the 18th century, chocolate production in Africa was beginning to boom as a replacement. As formerly mentioned, when the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed, the African economy crumbled and desperately needed a replacement for revenue. The first expansion of cacao from its previously limited production region in the Americas occurred in 1822 (a few years after the end of the slave trade) when it arrived in Africa (Christian). By the end of the century, cacao production would spread across the continent exponentially as seen in the bar graph below. The cacao industry would shift from its homeland in the Americas to Africa at the turn of the century producing over 70% of the world’s cacao today (Winton). 

With 60% of revenue coming from cacao on the Ivory Coast, farmers still earn less than $2 a day (Food Empowerment Project). This forces them to turn to slave and child labor. Most children are aged 12-16 and face dehumanizing workloads and violence inflicted from the farm owners (FEP). African cacao farmers violate almost all of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Laws (FEP). The video below shows how slavery in cacao production truly has not been abolished, only transformed. The current cacao workers are still battling demoralizing working conditions, unpaid labor, minimal food, and no access to education; the only difference between the 17th century and today is that these workers are now children. 

It is impossible to put a numerical dollar value that the slave trade revenued economically due to the incalculably large number of 17 million slaves that were sold and due to the long lasting economic impediment forever placed on the African economy. But it is certain that the slave trade permanently set Africa back economically which inarguably in one of the reasons cacao farmer poverty, and as a byproduct child slave labor, has become so prevalent in present day society, even decades later. Although Africans outside of Africa fought so hard to abolish slavery, it still exists to this day within the continent as a direct result from the exportations of tens of millions those people that would fight to stop it.

Works Cited

“Brazil: Five Centuries of Change.” Brazil Five Centuries of Change, library.brown.edu/create/fivecenturiesofchange/chapters/chapter-3/slavery-and-aboliton/.

Cambridge, St John’s College. “Mr John Broomfield’s ‘Gang of Negroes.’” Flickr, Yahoo!, 30 June 2015, http://www.flickr.com/photos/sjc_cambridge/19294928711/in/photostream/.

“Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry.” Food Empowerment Project, foodispower.org/human-labor-slavery/slavery-chocolate/.

Chocolate Child Slaves- CNN. CNN, 16 Jan. 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHDxy04QPqM&list=TLPQMDgwMzIwMjCEN3nmhnAbkw&index=3.

Christian, Mark. “A CONCISE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE.” Spot, http://www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/.

Duducu, Jem. “The Bloody History of Chocolate.” The History Vault, The History Vault, 16 Nov. 2014, thehistoryvault.co.uk/the-bloody-history-of-chocolate/.

“Economics and Slave Trade.” Slavery and Remembrance, United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), slaveryandremembrance.org/articles/article/?id=A0095.

Fiegl, Amanda. “A Brief History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Mar. 2008, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/.

Hazard, Anthony, director. The Atlantic Slave Trade: What Too Few Textbooks Told You – Anthony Hazard. TED, TED-Ed, 22 Dec. 2014, ed.ted.com/lessons/the-atlantic-slave-trade-what-your-textbook-never-told-you-anthony-hazard.

“A History of Cocoa – 200 Years in Charts.” Winton, 11 July 2017, http://www.winton.com/longer-view/cocoas-bittersweet-bounty.

Moss, Sarah, and Alexander Badenoch. Chocolate a Global History. Reaktion Books, 2009.

“Slavery and Abolition in the 19th Century.” Brazil Five Centuries of Change, Brown Univeristy, library.brown.edu/create/fivecenturiesofchange/chapters/chapter-3/slavery-and-aboliton/.

“Transatlantic Slave Trade: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.” Transatlantic Slave Trade | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/social-and-human-sciences/themes/slave-route/transatlantic-slave-trade/.

The History of Chocolate: A Story of Mass Democracy or Mass Exploitation?

Background

A traditional view of the history of chocolate focuses on the growth in mass consumption of chocolate as a byproduct of democratization and the industrial revolution. With time, consumption of chocolate spread from Aztec elites to the European nobility to the common citizens of the Western world. However, I contend that the history of chocolate is not simply one of expanded access fueled by increased political and economic inclusiveness, but rather one of shifting patterns of exploitation. The expansion of chocolate consumption has tracked the political enfranchisement and growth in economic power of white Westerners, but has simultaneously resulted in the brutal exploitation of poor brown and black people, first in Latin America, and now in Africa.

The Elite Origins of Chocolate

In ancient Aztec society, the consumption of chocolate was confined to the elites, which included members of the royal house, lords and nobility, long-distance merchants and warriors. Consumed after dinner at royal banquets, it was considered an exotic delicacy and a gift from the gods, a precious treasure not to be wasted on commoners (Coe and Coe, pg. 95). It was also used in religious ceremonies, including marriage rites, to symbolize the sacred nature of matrimonial covenants (Coe and Coe, pgs. 97-101). When the Conquistadors brought chocolate back to the Old World from Mesoamerica, it quickly spread through Europe, becoming a delicious treat for European nobles. Through the displays and pageants of Spain’s Habsburg rulers, the drink quickly gained fame, with powerful oligarchs such as Cosimo de’ Medici becoming “chocoholics” (Coe and Coe, pg. 135). Curiously, chocolate came to be seen as more feminine, as it was popularized with ladies of the royal courts in Europe. It retained its association with marriage, as women intermarried among royal families and brought their love of chocolate with them (Coe and Coe, pgs. 136-137).

The image below displays the status of chocolate drink as both an elite status symbol and a beverage uniquely associated with the idealized image of the noble lady and her well-ordered household:

18th century French noblewomen drink chocolate with their afternoon meal

Chocolate Comes to the Masses

Despite chocolate’s elite origins, a different narrative took form around chocolate as production methods were refined and it became more broadly available to the masses. By the late 17th century in England, chocolate became associated with the intellectual movement towards democratic governance during the Enlightenment era. Chocolate houses and coffee houses became centers of democratic thought, prompting Charles II to issue an ultimately futile decree to close them down in 1675 (Coe and Coe, pg. 168). Chocolate was truly democratized in the mid-19th century, as technological innovation during the Industrial Revolution made chocolate far more accessible to ordinary people. In 1828, Coenraad Johannes Van Houten invented the alkalizing process which gave chocolate its familiar dark color and made it milder in flavor. In 1849, Joseph Fry invented the modern chocolate bar, using cocoa butter to transform chocolate into a solid confection (Coe and Coe, pgs. 234 – 241). Simultaneously, sugar, which had come into common usage as both a preservative and an ingredient to supplement the caloric needs of working and middle class citizens in the West, came to be one of the most important components of both chocolate drink and the newly invented bars (Schartzkopf and Sampeck). As the narrative goes, the physical transformation of chocolate represented a revolution in accessibility, carried on a wave of political democratization and the industrialization-fueled growth in mass consumption.

The picture below displays three different styles of modern, mass-produced chocolate bar, complete with sugar for extra flavoring and the familiar dark coloring introduced by Van Houten’s method:

Modern, mass-produced chocolate bars complete with unique design elements

The Thin Veneer of Democracy

Though the history of the spread of chocolate is often portrayed as a triumph of mass democracy, in truth chocolate has been and continues to be a product of extremely unequal, hierarchical systems of racial and class-based oppression, in which poor brown and black people produce chocolate as a luxury good to be enjoyed by better off, mostly white Westerners. The oppressive hierarchies of Western chocolate production trace their origins to the encomienda system of the early 16th century, in which Spanish colonizers virtually enslaved the Native people of their American colonies, forcing them to harvest cash crops such as chocolate beans, often at the expense of their own lives (Yeager). Eventually, the encomienda system came to an end, and chocolate production in the New World gradually became the domain of newly enslaved Africans. As globalization increased, and outright slavery fell out of favor, production shifted from Latin America to Africa, with (technically illegal) slave labor still being used to produce chocolate in places such as Sao Tome as late as the early 20th century (Satre). In the modern era, the exploitation of African labor continues. 74% of chocolate was produced in Africa during the 2016-2017 season, but Africans only consumed a tiny percentage of the chocolate they produced, and received a comparatively small cut of the profits (Leissle, pgs. 4-7, 36-46). In the words of Ghanian farmer Mercy Asabea, when asked about the local scarcity of chocolate, “Ghana made Europe what it is…We have every resource here, yet Ghanians are not progressing at all” (Leissle, pg. 57).

The following chart shows a harrowing picture of the relationship between modern chocolate production and consumption, with the orange dots representing main exporters and the red dots representing export destinations:

Modern chocolate production and consumption patterns (April 2010 to March 2011)

Accusations of highly exploitative labor practices, including forced child labor, continue to this day. This video from the Stolen Lives Project details just a few of the abuses allegedly committed by the modern day chocolate production industry:

Conclusion

Ultimately, it is important for us to develop a realistic perspective on chocolate and its origins. One can both appreciate the expansion of access to this delicious treat, especially in the Western world, yet simultaneously reject purely Western-centered narratives which exclude the experiences of disadvantaged black and brown people in the developing world as they relate to chocolate production and consumption

Works Cited

“Bars of Black Swiss Chocolate.” Wikimedia Commons, 8 Oct. 2015, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dark_chocolate_bar.jpg.

Boucher, Francois. “The Afternoon Meal.” Wikimedia Commons, 10 Aug. 2017, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fran%C3%A7ois_Boucher_002.jpg.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio Univ. Press, 2006.

Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, by Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn E. Sampeck, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 73–99.

Stolen Lives Project. Chocolate Slaves. Vimeo, 2 Aug. 2015, vimeo.com/135172005.

Wade, Kristine. “The Production of Chocolate.” Flickr, 3 Feb. 2017, http://www.flickr.com/photos/147998004@N06/32640931946.

Yeager, Timothy J. “Encomienda or Slavery? The Spanish Crown’s Choice of Labor Organization in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 55, no. 04, 1995, pp. 842–859., doi:10.1017/s0022050700042182.

Economics + Transatlantic Slave Trade = Racism

In today’s world, racism unfortunately still exists, but to acknowledge why racism is still existent, one needs to pinpoint the relationship between African Americans and slavery, and ask, why Africans in particular were enslaved. Eric Williams, historian & former Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago answers this question stating, “The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor.” What he is arguing here is that Africans were not enslaved because they were naturally set to be enslaved, they weren’t enslaved because they were known to be better workers. They were first enslaved because they were the cheapest and easiest population to get at and to quickly and efficiently move to the new world to begin producing these goods (Martin).  Racism was a byproduct of the transatlantic slave trade and not the reason for it because it was primarily driven by economic considerations/justifications as illustrated by the encomienda system which was very much structured like the European feudal structures.

enclomendia picpyrud meowmadisonlong_1385062049

(Source: https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/infogram-particles-700/madisonlong_1385062049.jpg)

The conquerors used Native Americans to farm the land and work the mines to produce wealth, the system of force labor is called the Encomienda System. These activities provided food for the population and products for the trade with Europe and the east. The Encomienda System was similar to The Manor System in Medieval Europe or the Feudal System. Instead of having nobles as lords who controlled the peasants, in this case the Spanish were the lords, and the Native Americans were like the peasants. The Spanish claimed that the Encomienda system would benefit both settlers and Indians. The idea is that they would come with their superior intellect and military might to protect and care for the indigenous people, and thereby save their souls by baptizing them or by making them Christian. In return, the indigenous people would work a portion of their time for Spanish settlers, and give them a tribute of their crops, such as a form of cacao, often 10’s of thousands of cacao beans per year (Martin). The reality played out differently.

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(Source: http://cdn.dipity.com/uploads/events/0d8054001025d85654853dd5f81d502e_1M.png)

The Spanish settlers forced long labor on different crops. They didn’t pay indigenous workers. They failed to protect them, and they also seized their lands as time went on. So indigenous people were unable to pay tribute the Spaniards would claim their lands as theirs. And as a result, indigenous people died from a variety of different diseases in which they didn’t have immunity and experienced harsh living, and working conditions. The Encomienda system really went on until it was clear that demographic collapse was imminent that the clergy protested. So the Spanish clergy in this area of the world protested and the indigenous people themselves revolted against it. However abuses continued (Martin). After the indigenous slave labor proved to be insufficient, Chattel slavery is what the Europeans turned to next.

slave20trade20map1(Source: http://macquirelatory.com/Slave%20Trade/slave%20trade%20map.jpg)

Chattel Slavery, slavery in which people are treated as the chattel (personal property) of an owner, and are bought and sold as commodities had the greatest result from sugar (Martin). As sugar was a rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, and a necessity by 1850, the enslavement of Africans was disseminated by Europeans who prosecuted and profited from the slave trade for three centuries (Mintz 148).  “The institutionalization of slavery in the New World led directly to the Transatlantic slave trade due to the fact that demand for slaves outpaced the growth in supply by natural increase nearly everywhere in the Americas”(Cumo). As there was massive demand for labor, the Europeans looked to Africa. The African’s themselves sold African slaves as a commodity in return for goods such as rum, guns, textiles and other goods to exchange for slaves, and then transported them across the Atlantic to sell to plantation-owners, and then returned with sugar and coffee, also fueled the first great wave of economic globalization (The Economist). By the Africans selling their own people, they enriched their own realms and strengthened them too. This is where the dehumanization aimed at Africans begins.

It was, after all, in the interest of slave traders and slave owners to propagate the myth that Africans were not human beings, or at least not fully human, a species different from the rest of humanity most likely due to the pro-slavery lobby that lived on. Thus, it is the idea of racial hierarchy, developed, refined and disseminated by Europeans over such a spectrum of time where racism really initiated against African Americans. It is not clear why Europeans fixated on the skin color of Africans. Imaginably, they did so simply because the physical appearance of blacks was as markedly different from their own and, regarding themselves as superior beings, most Europeans associated a series of negative characteristics with blacks (Olusoga). Also, it was thought that Africans were said to “be able to need less food, and be able to withstand the elements better than whites”, this here is social and psychological violence falsely generated to dehumanize Africans (Asante). The false claims of blacks that was intentionally imagined preceded slavery and helped to justify it.

In conclusion, without European slave traders, slave buyers, slave insurers, slave sailors, slave auctioneers, and slave owners, there would have been no transport of Africans across the sea for enslavement, and therefore no racism developed. Further exploration on this topic would be to watch the multimedia source below, and see the further developed myth of racism that stemmed from economics and the byproduct of the transatlantic slave trade to this day. Although racism is a myth derived, developed, and changed from generation to generation, the impact of racism is very real to this day.

Works Cited:

Asante, Molefi Kete. The Ideology of Racial Hierarchy and the Construction of the European Slave Trade. Vol. 3. 2001. Web. 01 Mar. 2016.

Cumo, Christopher. “The Transatlantic Slave Trade, 1750–1900.” World History Encyclopedia. Alfred J. Andrea. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2011. Credo Reference. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

International: Breaking the chains; slavery. (2007, Feb 24). The Economist, 382, 64-73. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

Martin, Carla. “AAAS E-119 Lecture 5: Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. 2016. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “AAAS E-119 Lecture 6: Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. 2016. Lecture.

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

Olusoga, David. “The Roots of European Racism Lie in the Slave Trade, Colonialism – and Edward Long | David Olusoga.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.

The Interdependent Relationship between African Slaves and British Culture

A cursory glance at the African slave trade, the sugar industry, and British culture suggests that there is little these three topics have in common. After study, it is discovered that while it is true that there is little these three have in common, a more interesting and complex relationship surfaces, one of interdependency. The cyclical interdependency that developed from the 1600s-1800s between enslaved African laborers on sugar plantations and English consumption of sugar, was driven on one end by the economic advantages found in African slave labor and on the other by the cultural, economic, and political significance sugar held in English culture. I will demonstrate the economic dependence sugar plantation owners had on African slave labor and how that developed into an English cultural dependence on the slave trade, creating an interdependent relationship.

As the American Natives succumbed to European diseases, European plantation owners looked across the ocean to Africa for their source of labor. These African slaves were procured by African slave traders through various inhumane methods and sold to European buyers on the African coast.

Alexander Falconbridge was a surgeon who took part in four voyages on slave ships, where he spoke with numerous slaves about their experiences and witnessed the slave trade firsthand.
Alexander Falconbridge was a surgeon who took part in four voyages on slave ships, where he spoke with numerous slaves about their experiences and witnessed the slave trade firsthand.

Surgeon Alexander Falconbridge wrote in his 1788 An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa, “most of the negroes shipped off from the coast of Africa, are kidnapped” (13). With a majority of African slaves procured through kidnapping, the supply of slaves was seemingly endless, essentially the entire African population, since anyone could be kidnapped and sold into slavery. Unstable politics and lack of regulation and enforcement meant all Africans were vulnerable to becoming slaves. In this, plantation farmers found an economical solution, an endless supply, to their labor supply deficiency. Scholars have since provided additional evidence that Africans were the economically prudent choice of labor. Africans were supposedly more productive than Natives: “sugar… required strength which the Indian lacked, and demanded the robust “cotton nigger” as sugar’s need of strong mules produced…the epithet “sugar mules” (Williams 3). The belief that Africans were biologically suited for labor in addition to the endless supply meant that African labor was a prudent investment, and so, 10 to 15 million enslaved Africans were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean between 1500 and 1900 (Martin, Lecture 10). Furthermore, economists Alfred Conrad and John Meyer showed that African slave labor was not only a smart individual investment, but also a generator of global economic growth: the rate of return on the purchase of a slave stands at a high 13% while slave finance, procurement, and transport created a huge industry in which many made their fortune (The Economist 4).

Sugar plantation owners depended on Africans as laborers because of the economic advantages Africans allowed for: an endless supply of labor, biological suitability for labor, and high returns for individual owners and the world economy. Thus, sugar plantation owners came to depend on African slaves as their source of labor and producer of sugar.

Sugar was a rarity in 1650, a luxury in 1750, but by 1850, sugar had transformed into a necessity for the entire population, thus making it a commodity that motivated the need for a large labor force (Mintz 147-148). In England, sugar made its way from the wealthy mouths of the elite to the masses through cups of tea and coffee. The cultural significance of sugar (and so slaves) and the elitism associated with it can be seen through literature, art, and personal journals of the time. For example, posing in portraits with slave or sugar became quite a popular genre, representing excellent taste as well as wealth and power.

George Washington by John Trumbull. George Washington was a well-known figurehead during his time and his portraits were well publicized. It is believed that as a result, his personal servant Billie was one of the most well known slaves.
George Washington by John Trumbull. George Washington was a well-known figurehead during his time and his portraits were well publicized. It is believed that as a result, his personal servant Billie was one of the most well known slaves.

Untitled by Anonymous is believed to depict a Frenchman due to his wardrobe. The royal colors that he is adorned in, the cane he carries, and even his dominant position all lend to a aura of power and wealth.
Untitled by Anonymous is believed to depict a Frenchman due to his wardrobe. The royal colors that he is adorned in, the cane he carries, and even his dominant position all lend to a aura of power and wealth.

In Untitled, a young slave boy is offering a European plantation owner a sample of refined ground sugar while a slave woman labors in the background. George Washington poses proudly in George Washington with his personal servant and slave William “Billy” Lee in the background. In both of these portraits, the slaves are painted smaller, more demure, and with less detail, all lending their inferiority to the white man. Meanwhile, all details of the portraits depict the white man exuding confidence and importance: the color and quality of his coat, his cane, and his posture. The presence of sugar and slaves imply that this white man is wealthy and powerful.

As sugar gained popularity, the English people used it as medicine, spice condiment, decorative material, sweetener, and preservative. And so, sugar became an integral English commodity: sugar mitigated the bitterness of medicine, made meals more delicious, decorated halls and foyers, sweetened teas and coffees, and lengthened the life of short seasoned crops.

The growing demand for sugar boosted England’s economy to unseen heights: Herman Merivale, a prominent British colonial administer, answered “sugar” when asked “What raised Liverpool and Manchester from provincial towns to gigantic cities?” (Lecture 10). Sugar inspired the invention of new machinery, mass production, and consumerism. Sugar equaled progress and money. As sugar gained importance, its economic power also transformed into political power. Sir Dalby Thomas, governor of Jamaica and sugar planter, noted that the entire process of slave labor – colonial establishment, slave procurement, protection of shipping, all the way to the actual consumption of commodities – “took shape under the wing of the state,” and so each stage of the system was “meaningful politically as they were economically” (Mintz 41).

1600-1800: The rise in sugar consumption rose as sugar gained cultural, economic, and politic significance. In turn, this drove the demand for a labor force, ideally cheap and efficient.
1600-1800: The demand in sugar consumption rose as sugar gained cultural, economic, and politic significance. In turn, this drove the demand for a labor force, ideally cheap and efficient.

Sugar’s cultural significance, and later economic and political, resulted in increased demands, an exponential rise as seen in the chart. As demand rose, England became more and more dependent on the African labor force to supply their demand.

Initially, English plantation owners depended on the African slave as their cheap source of labor. As sugar gained popularity, culturally, economically, and politically, the English people also came to depend on the African slave labor to supply their demand for sugar. The interdependency between British culture and African slaves would eventually become a huge obstacle in the abolitionist movement because the end of slavery implied the end of Britain’s rise.

Work Cited

Primary Sources

Falconbridge, Alexandra. An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa. London: J. Phillips, 1788. Internet Archive. Web. 13 March 2015.

Trumbull, John. George Washington. 1780. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 13 March 2015.

Anonymous. Untitled. Date Unknown. Location Unknown. Hérodote. Web. 13 March 2015.

Secondary Sources

C.W. and A.J.K.D. “Did slavery make economic sense?” The Economist. Sep. 27. 2013. Web.

Martin, Carla D. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 3 March. 2015. Class Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. Brattleboro: The Book Press, 1922. Print

Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Richmond, The Will Byrd Press Press, Inc, 1944. Print.