When you bite into a chocolate bar, you are probably thinking something along the lines of “Yum, this bar of sugar is delicious” or “I’m on period, I deserve this”. Well, I’m sorry to say, but I am here to ruin chocolate for you. As you bite into that chocolatey sweetness, have you ever paused to think about where chocolate comes from? The origin of what we now call chocolate are racist, violent, and complex. Chocolate as we know it today would not exist without slavery and the forced servitude of entire groups of people around the world.
Chocolate is made from cacao beans and, as far as we can tell, originated with the Olmec in what is now southern Mexico some three thousand years ago. It is theorized that they were the first civilization to make chocolate from cacao (Coe, 37). Cacao was incredibly important in both Maya and Aztec cultures. In ancient Maya society, cacao was consumed as a beverage and used as a flavoring for food. It was usually drunk from tall, cylindrical vase and these jars were often buried with their owners.
Meanwhile, the Aztecs inhabited an area that was not conducive to growing cacao trees, so they mainly imported cacao beans through merchants and used it as currency as well as food. When the Spanish arrived, they found consuming cacao beverages to be a sensory experience unlike anything they had been exposed to before (Sampeck, 77). Columbus himself first came across cacao beans when his ship passed by a canoe full of traders. Though he didn’t know what the beans were at the time, it was clear they held some sort of value based on how the traders treated the beans. Today, people (especially chocolate-aficionados) tend to romanticize that moment, claiming that it was the moment “chocolate was discovered”, while ignoring the centuries of colonization, exploitation, and violence – also just because a white man sees something does not mean he discovered it.
Eventually, the Spanish developed what most textbooks call the encomienda system (it was slavery) so that indigenous people could grow cacao and the Spanish could take it for themselves. In these “systems”, the Spanish owned the land, a percentage of the crops, and the lives of the indigenous laborers toiling in the fields. Indigenous laborers faced serious abuses and violence in these encomiendas, despite the fact that the purpose of this system was to protect indigenous people and bring them into the Christian faith. It doesn’t get much better from here. Cacao beans eventually made their way to Europe, where chocolate drinks became increasingly popular and as Coe writes, it “conquered Europe” (Coe, 125). Thus began the process of enslaving millions of Africans around the world to work on sugar cane plantations and cacao farms to feed the growing hunger for chocolate in Europe and the Americas.
Even today, you would be hard pressed to find chocolate untouched by child labor at some point in the supply chain. Around two-thirds of the world’s cacao supply comes from the former Gold Coast in West Africa. Over 2 million children work in this region on cacao farms, in harsh conditions, away from their families, often unable to attend school. This is chocolate’s dark side. Though it is often advertised as a guilty pleasure, a sultry indulgence, next time you feel the craving for some sweetness, think about where your chocolate has come from and try supporting businesses that ethically grow cacao.
Sampeck, Kathryn, and Jonathan Thayn. 2017. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.”
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2007. The True History of Chocolate.
In the sixteenth century, Spain and Portugal conquered the majority of the continental territory of the Americas. Civilizations that inhabited present-day Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, and other countries were conquered by Spanish conquistadors. The Spanish initially adopted traditional slavery as it had been practiced in the West Indies. But the encomienda was introduced in the early 1500s as an alternate form of forced labor as a response to a mandate emitted by Pope Paul III Farnese.
While scholars often refer to the Spanish encomienda as a system of labor, it should be highlighted that it was a form of slavery. The encomienda was forced labor with unrealistic and abusive expectations from workers. The Spanish encomienda was a type of slavery because the encomenderos controlled the work and lifestyle of workers native to the Americas. By calling the Spanish encomienda a “system,” scholars have suggested a dangerous separation from our idea of slavery. This separation is rooted in the rhetoric used by the Spanish monarchy to justify the implementation of the encomienda.
An encomienda was an organization by which Spaniards (encomenderos) managed property rights over the land and labor of natives from the Americas. Spaniards demanded a quota or percentage of the output from the labor of natives. This could be in the form of goods, metals, currency, or other types of services. Encomenderos would provide instruction in the Catholic faith, pay taxes to the Spanish Crown, and provide military protection over the land. The encomienda was established after “Pope Paul III Farnese published the bull Sublima Deus, excommunicating any Christian who enslaved [natives to the Americas]” in 1537.
This image above is a mural painted by Diego Rivera in Mexico’s National Palace. We see a clear depiction of the abuses that the Aztecs suffered when working to produce the output that the Spaniards demanded. There is a member of the high Spanish aristocracy in the middle of this mural receiving payment from another Spaniard, with an individual between them recording the transaction. This is probably a depiction of an encomendero paying a representative of the Spanish Crown his due taxes. The atrocities in this mural happen around this transaction and clear depictions of the involvement of Catholic instruction. Spaniards exploited and mistreated natives, as depicted in the strenuous work of Aztecs of chopping and carrying tree trunks while a friar raises the Holy Cross, with the justification of a need to spread Catholicism.
Although the rhetoric around the encomienda in the sixteenth century was that of a less brutal system to slavery, rules of the encomienda could make it even more brutal work than the slavery form of labor practiced when the conquistadores initially settled in New Spain. Encomenderos were forbidden inheritance rights. Encomiendas did not automatically transfer to future generations. They would revert to the Crown upon the death of the second-generation encomendero.
Inheritance prohibition, combined with the abolition of slave ownership, lead to incentives for encomenderos to destroy human capital more quickly than before. Second-generation encomenderos had no assurance that their family members would enjoy the fruits generated by their management and their workers after their deaths. Natives were not legally owned by Spaniards. Encomenderos, therefore, had no reason to watch for the health of Aztecs, Mayans, and other people native to the Americas. The encomienda prohibited the relocation of workers by the encomenderos. While this proved beneficial for keeping families together, the inability to trade and rent people forced to work under the encomienda to other Spaniards reduced economies of scale and incentivized Spaniards to demand higher productivity—even if that meant forcing working painfully long shifts in arduous conditions.
The encomienda prevailed for a couple of centuries and was especially popular in Soconusco and its neighboring fertile regions. Soconusco—home to the world’s premier cacao in the sixteenth century—is part of a large, Pacific lowland plain which runs all the way from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec down to the border country of Guatemala and El Salvador.
“So rich was this piedmont zone in this product that highland Maya kingdoms had vied for control of these lands, and the Aztecs had made their most profitable conquest by taking over Soconusco. Lured by the cacao, the Spaniards were here soon after the Conquest.”
Soconusco was an incredibly important region for the Spaniards not only because they needed to satisfy the growing popularity and demand for cacao in Europe, but also because cacao seeds were used as currency in parts of New Spain. The Spanish conquistadores therefore filled these regions with encomiendas that grew cacao in lands rich in conditions suited for the growth of Theobroma cacao.
The Spanish continued using the encomienda extensively in conquered lands, even by the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Sublima Deus emitted by Pope Paul III Farnese set up a path for Spanish Crown to justify the encomienda. The transition from slavery to the encomienda was surrounded by the rhetoric of a divine intervention and action. The narrative was that of a transition from brutality to a Pope-approved form of labor—even if cruelty did not cease. The Sublima Deus set up the encomienda, not because the Pope suggested such “system,” but because he affirmed that “the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it.” The Spanish Crown therefore justified this form of forced labor by offering Catholic instruction, even if thousands of natives to the Americas fought to preserve their cultures and religions.
The Spanish Crown also justified the encomienda with the provision of “protection.” Yet the presence of Spaniards did the opposite. Spaniards brought diseases from Europe in their bodies, vessels, and cargos. The testimony of Bernal del Castillo evidenced the impact of the Spanish presence in the population of Soconusco:
“Let us turn to the province of Soconusco… it used to be peopled by more than 15,000 [heads of households]… and the whole province was a garden of cacao trees and was very pleasant, and now… it is so desolate and abandoned that there are no more than twelve hundred inhabitants in it.”
The Spanish brought diseases to the Americas to which the immune systems of the natives to the Americas had never been exposed. These diseases wiped out the vast majority of populations across New Spain, including Soconusco’s. The Spanish promised protection, but their proximity to those natives working under the encomienda proved more deadly than any war or famine these civilizations had endured.
Overall, there is no question that the encomienda was a form of slavery, even if scholars repeatedly dismiss this fact by constantly focusing on the organization of this “system” rather than its brutality. The Spanish used the spread of Catholicism to justify this form of slavery, mainly as a response to the Sublima Deus. The protection that Spaniards provided to those working under the encomienda was actually an attack on the safety and health of entire civilizations. Spaniards robbed natives to the Americas their ability to practice and pass on their culture, legacy, tradition, and religion by forcing them to work under the encomienda. And the production of cacao incentivized the spread of such form of slavery.
Coe, S. (2019). The True History of Chocolate.
Kaplan, Jonathan. “Cacao Heartland in the Southern Maya Region.” Research Gate.
McAlister, L. (1984). Spain and Portugal in the New World, 1492-1700 (Europe and the world in the Age of Expansion ; v. 3). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Pope Paul III Farnese. “Sublimis Deus.” Historia De México, Funación Carlos Slim, 1537.
Rivera, Diego. La Conquista Española De La Nación Azteca.
Yeager, T. (1995). Encomienda or Slavery? The Spanish Crown’s Choice of Labor Organization in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America. The Journal of Economic History,55(4), 842-859. Retrieved March 22, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2123819
Spanish colonialism undoubtedly played a huge role in the decline of indigenous Mesoamerican populations and ultimately the expansion of cacao production outside its birthplace. We often read about how the brutal systems under Spanish rule and new diseases decimated natives, eventually leading to the use of African slaves as replacement labor for valuable cacao production (Coe & Coe, 2019). This tragic narrative applies not only to Mesoamericans and Spanish colonialists, but many societies across the world that were devasted by colonialism. What these narratives have in common are their declensionism, a term coined by renowned environmental historian William Cronon (Cronon, 1992). As the name implies, declensionist narratives tend toward decline rather than progress. Cronon (1992) argues that a narrative is deemed declensionist based on the stories we tell, which are shaped by the characters, their agency, setting, tone, and more. The same narrative can be read as declensionist or progressivist depending on which stories are told.
In considering the narrative of Spanish colonialism and the production of cacao in Mesoamerica, the most common accounts inevitably tend toward the decline of Mesoamerican peoples (Coe & Coe, 2019; Martin & Sampeck, 2015). Of course, this overall trend is supported by the brutality of colonial rulers and the devastating and inescapable effects of disease on local populations. While Mesoamerican peoples undoubtedly suffered under Spanish colonial rule, I argue that the overall declensionist narrative obscures the agency that some groups enacted to protect their civil rights and traditional cacao farming practices. To support this point, I will focus on a case study of the Soconusco region, still famous for its high quality cacao today (Figure 1).
Colonial Labor and the Encomienda System
To contextualize how indigenous peoples in Soconusco were able to take agency under Spanish rule, we first must understand the form that cacao-based colonialism took in most of Mesoamerica. Mesoamericans had long been paying cacao tribute to the Aztecs: indeed, when the Spanish arrived in Soconusco in 1524, they found a thriving cacao industry because the Aztecs had finished their conquest just 25 years before (Gasco, 1997). Across Mesoamerica, the Spanish mirrored the Aztec tribute duty through the encomienda system, by which the Spanish crown rewarded colonists of merit, such as conquistadors, with labor and land in the region (Martin & Sampeck, 2015). However, the Spanish changed several aspects of cacao production, distribution, and consumption. For example, they lifted existing restrictions that limited consumption to the elites. As a result, even though local populations were being decimated by the introduction of new diseases to which they had no immunity, demand for cacao increased and prices sky-rocketed. Even the Spanish began to consume cacao with a recipe that sweetened it with sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon rather than the local maize, chile, and achiote (Gasco, 1997). Demand for cacao, especially the high quality criollo cacao of Central America, grew substantially.
The success of cacao commercialization caused the Spanish to adopt coercive measures in an attempt to gain control over every last farm. They enacted violent policies and illegal abuse, holding indigenous cacao producers hostage from buying or producing everyday products (Martin & Sampeck, 2015). Encomenderos had monopolies on basic foods, and were even accused of sending slaves into houses and orchards to take cacao by torturing and imprisoning local producers. Considering the Izalcos region, Martin and Sampeck note that colonial cacao labor was “a mix of chattel slavery (in that indigenous residents were held hostage) and wage labour, paid by the native families” (2015, p. 45). Even though Pope Paul III excommunicated any Christian who enslaved an Indian in 1537, conditions continued to worsen through the following decades. By the late sixteenth century, only 10-20% of indigenous populations remained in some towns (Coe & Coe, 2019). In summary, this is the declensionist narrative of the Mesoamerican people under Spanish rule.
Case Study: Soconusco and Independent Cacao Production
This section slightly complicates the declensionist narrative by focusing on at Soconusco (Figure 2), which was also integrated into the colonial system through the cacao industry. Farmers in Soconusco produced high quality criollo that was considered superior to the forastero cacao produced in South America, such as modern day Ecuador, Venezuela, and Costa Rica. But like other regions in Mesoamerica, Soconusco’s population of 80,000-90,000 decreased to a mere 5,000 by 1575 (Gasco, 1997). Despite these similarities, the evidence indicates that cacao production was still controlled by natives undeterred by Spanish rule.
How were native people in Soconusco able to take agency under Spanish rule? Based on the archaeological research of anthropologist Janine Gasco in the region (Gasco, 1997, 2005), I point to the structure of the Spanish enterprise in the area: unlike other Mesoamerican regions, it was limited to just trade rather than all aspects of production. Because the area was hot and humid, fewer Spaniards actually moved to Soconusco, and production of cacao was predominantly left to indigenous populations. By 1530, the Crown took control of the region, administering it as a crown encomienda without encomenderos (Gasco, 1997). The lack of encomenderos meant that farmers in Soconusco retained control of their orchards. Indeed, some evidence suggests that cacao producers in Soconusco purposefully retained smaller orchards, contributing to less social stratification (Gasco, 2005).
Additionally, religious activities in Soconusco were carried out by a secular rather than regular clergy. While the regular clergy sometimes protected natives in other regions, they exercised a great deal of community control; the secular clergy focused on their own wealth. Thus, religious and governmental rule were limited to the trade of cacao. Three Spanish factions formed: the trading merchants, colonial officials, and clergy, who competed over access to valuable cacao from indigenous producers. Based on documents of lawsuit charges and countercharges between these three factions, Gasco explains that native farmers may have taken advantage of these divisions to maintain their own rights (2005). As a result, producers in Soconusco enjoyed a greater range of imported goods than other groups in Mesoamerica, such as the relatively expensive majolica (lead-glazed earthenware, Figure 3). In this way, colonial-era documents suggest some agency of Soconuscan cacao producers despite Spanish rule.
Taken together, Spanish colonialism undoubtedly devastated local Mesoamerican populations, especially in concert with Old World diseases. But the declensionist narrative surrounding indigenous populations in Mesoamerica under colonial rule obscures the stories of agency, such as that of the high quality producers in Soconusco. Indeed, by 1820, the population of Soconusco had bounced back 10-fold with a much more equitable cacao-production system in place (Gasco, 1997). We can only hope that brutal encomienda systems will continue to be a thing of the past.
Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2019). The True History of Chocolate (4th edition). London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Cronon, W. (1992). A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative. The Journal of American History, 78(4), 1347–1376.
Gasco, J. (1997). The Social and Economic History of Cacao Cultivation in Colonial Soconusco, New Spain. In A. Szogyi (Ed.), Chocolate: Food of the Gods. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Gasco, J. (2005). Spanish Colonialism and Processes of Social Change in Mesoamerica. In G. Stein (Ed.), The Archaeology of Colonial Encounters: Comparative Perspectives (p. 40). Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.
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 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.
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.
It’s no secret that a lot of us love chocolate, but what has always been a source of pleasure for us remains a source of pain for millions of others. When we say that chocolate is our guilty pleasure, we think of how it tastes great but is loaded with sugar and fat. However, one source of guilt that we often fail to acknowledge when consuming chocolate is the human cost hidden behind its production. From the indigenous people of Mesoamerica to the current children working in cocoa farms in West Africa, millions of men, women, and children have been exploited in the production of cocoa over the span of several hundred years. Despite countless efforts to reform labor practices in cocoa production, we continue to see issues like the child labor epidemic in West Africa. Moreover, while efforts to reduce exploitative labor practices in the chocolate industry continue, the future looks grim. With a history of cocoa and chocolate producers valuing profits over people, producers are likely to only continue looking for ways to cheapen the cost of their labor.
When the Spanish first arrived in Mesoamerica, the origin of cacao and chocolate, it took very little time for them to grasp the importance of chocolate and begin to exploit the indigenous people of the land they had invaded (Coe and Coe 110). While chocolate was initially of interest to the Spanish due to the economic importance of cacao beans in the native economy, the Spanish slowly acquired a taste for chocolate and began to export it to Europe (Coe and Coe 125). Soon after the Conquest, the Spaniards were lured to Soconusco for their cacao. As the demand for chocolate increased due to a growing craving for chocolate in Europe, rapacious conquistadors began enslaving the indigenous people of Soconusco such that a slave would be valued at one fifth of a load of cacao. However, on May 29th, 1537 Pope Paul III Farnese would publish the Sublima Deus which threatened to excommunicate any Christian that enslaved an “Indian”. While this led to the end of the enslavement of indigenous people, this merely led to the Encomienda system in which encomenderos were getting what amounted to forced, free labor in return for which they were to see that the native people became Christians (Coe and Coe 178). However, due to an epidemic of diseases of Old World origin and mistreatment by the Spaniards, approximately 90% of the ingienous population of the Americas had died while the demand for chocolate only grew (Coe and Coe 125).
In order to meet the demands for cocoa by Europe without the loss of profits, the falling population of the indigenous people of Mesoamerica were offset by the importation of slaves from Africa. By the 17th century, two triangles of trade would arise in which raw materials, goods, and slaves would be traded between the New World, Europe, and Africa. The most important feature of these triangles was the “Middle Passage” in which human beings were sent across the Atlantic to be forced into labor on plantations run by European colonizers (Mintz 44). This plantation system in which sugar, cacao, and other products were produced were grounded in the use of harsh, forced labor in which the average life expectancy of an enslaved person living in the Caribbean and Brazil was about seven to eight years. Despite abolition and the emancipation of slaves throughout the 1800s, abolition did not put an end to extreme inequality or exploitative labor practices. For example, in the early 1900s, it was found that cocoa plantations in Fernando Po and Cameroon were still using slave labor. Moreover, the use of slaves was common on Portuguese plantations from the 1880s well into the 1950s (Martin). Thus for years many plantations were able to keep the price of cocoa down as demand went up by using forced labor and slavery.
Currently despite labor reformation efforts, child labor is still being utilized to produce the chocolate that we eat in the United States. Although major chocolate producers like Mars, Nestlé, and Hershey pledged to discontinue their use of cocoa harvested by children approximately 20 years ago, a great portion of the chocolate we buy and consume today contains cocoa produced by child labor (Whoriskey and Siegel). According to the U.S. Labor Department, more than 2 million children have been found to be engaged in dangerous labor in cocoa-growing regions in West Africa, where 60 percent of the world’s cocoa supply comes from (“Child Labor in the Production of Cocoa”). Despite efforts to eradicate child labor from the chocolate industry, chocolate industries are unable to identify the farms from which their cocoa comes from, let alone identify their labor practices. For example, Mars can only trace 24 percent of their cocoa supply back to the farms in which they were produced (Whoriskey and Siegel). Thus, despite efforts by the chocolate industry to solve the child labor epidemic in the cocoa industry, deadlines and goals have only been pushed back.
While the fight to improve labor conditions in the chocolate industry continues, it is unlikely that we will see big changes any time soon. With the history of cocoa producers having a blatant disregard for human life and clear mindset of profits over people, it will be extremely difficult for chocolate producers to trace their cocoa supplies back to farms or punish farms for exploitative labor practices as both of these efforts would require a large financial investment and cuts to profit. Moreover, until chocolate producers are willing to pay more for ethically sourced cocoa, farmers will be forced to continue using child labor in order to cope with cocoa’s low market price (Whoriskey and Siegel). Therefore, as long as the cocoa industry refuses to cut its profits in order to enact change, exploitative labor practices will continue.
“Child Labor in the Production of Cocoa.” U.S. Department of Labor,
At my family’s most recent holiday party, I spotted my favorite dessert: my mom’s famous salt, butter, and sugar of the Earth, homemade “Christmas Crack.” In other words, a chocolatey saltine toffee delight that seemed to have been sent to us by the Mayan Cacao God himself (Figure 1). I eagerly grabbed a piece, brought it to my lips, and closed my eyes in anticipation…only to have them fly open in horror, as I remembered that the hundreds of years of labor atrocities that plagued the production of its key components were anything but sweet.
Society perceives chocolate to be a comfort food and luxury, views that are perhaps reminiscent of its introduction to wealthy and noble Europeans in the 1500s-1600s.3 At this time, the lower classes desired the security of high-society individuals – likewise, they aspired to emulate their habits, and in doing so, associated the act of eating sugar and chocolate with happiness and wellbeing.3 Increasing demand for sugar and cacao amongst all social classes in Europe aided in the New World’s shift from indigenous forced labor to slavery, perpetuating a cycle of mass demand, mass production, and egregious human rights abuses until abolition in the mid-1800s.
Modern chocolate was born of the encomienda system in the 1500s in the Central American Izalcos region, which had the perfect combination of environmental conditions for the Theobroma cacao tree – and thus, forced labor – to thrive (Figure 2).4 Instituted by the Spanish crown, the encomienda system granted colonists the right to impose substantial production quotas on the indigenous people of the region, under the guise that it was payment for Spanish “protection” and “Christianization.”2 This system helped cacao output to grow, such that peak Izalcos production coincided with cacao’s high-priced introduction to the European market and diet around 1580.4 In this manner, cacao – and thus, chocolate – made its violent European high-society debut, leading anthropologist Kathryn Sampeck to claim that “the wretchedness of the Izalcos example was so extreme…because the Izalcos was a roguish, wayward economic frontier, the kind of frontier that created wildness so that some—and not others—may reap its rewards.”2 While Spanish colonists and nobles accumulated money and power, indigenous farmers endured “physical violence and extreme labor demands with almost no regard for human dignity.”2 Thus, the Spanish use of indigenous forced labor to extract tribute in the form of cacao beans enabled the European elite to derive power from the consumption of this expensive commodity; as chocolate became increasingly popular with the wealthy, it developed into a symbol of social status and financial security. Consequently, the masses began to associate chocolate with a sense of well-being, while failing to recognize that it was a product that was deeply rooted in forced indigenous labor on the other side of the world.
Chocolate, however, was just a single component in the development of the European sweet tooth. The harsh conditions that laborers in the New World endured can only be fully explored when sugar itself is analyzed as a high-powered commodity, one that asserted its authority over the masses as its functions shifted from spicing up small-scale bonbons to widespread use as a preservative, and later, as a substantial caloric source.3 Like cacao, sugar was one of the crucial crops that fueled the rise of capitalism in Europe – and thus, the boom in slave labor in the Americas and the Caribbean. Increasing demand for the two commodities required that production increase at corresponding levels (Figure 3).3 There was only one problem – 80-90% of the native Central American and Caribbean populations were dying from exposure to European diseases, meaning that colonizers had to bring in laborers by the millions to sustain society’s increasing hunger for sugar.6
In this manner, slaves became yet another commodity, shipped in from Africa because this was the most economical and feasible location from which to source human bodies to match demand (Figure 4).6,8 From 1690-1790, Europe imported roughly 12 million tons of sugar– about the same number of African lives that were lost in its production; in this way, sugar became the “most notable addiction in history that killed not the consumer, but the producer.”6 Such a dramatic toll on human life was enabled by a scaling of economies that was perpetuated by the lower class’ desire to emulate the wealthy, who, in turn, were more than happy to comply if it brought them more money and power. Mass production became the European mindset – after all, money now grew on trees. With this shift to mass production came a capitalistic use of slavery, a labor source that was rooted in countless human rights abuses. Thus, growing demand for sugar and cacao in Europe, spurred by the lower class’ aspirations to obtain a sense of security enjoyed by the elite, enabled the shift from indigenous forced labor to slavery in the New World.
On that note, I returned to the present day, toffee melting satisfyingly on my tongue, yet mouth open in disgust. How can it be that something so enchanting is rooted in such brutality? How did some conservative members of society consider chocolate to be sinful when it was first introduced to Europe, not because its production required barbarism and carnage, but because it was enjoyable?6 So, the next time you indulge in a chocolate concoction, pay tribute to its exploitative and cruel past, and remember that your favorite holiday treat may not be coated in dark chocolate chips, but instead in deceit.
“Christmas Crack” Saltine Toffee Recipe
Prep + Cook Time: 20 minutes
1.5 sleeves saltine crackers
1.5 sticks butter
1.5 cups brown sugar
2 cups chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spray with nonstick cooking spray.
Line baking sheet with one layer of saltine crackers. Crush remaining crackers for later use as a topping.
Place the butter and brown sugar in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a rolling boil, then carefully pour the mixture evenly over the crackers. Use a baking spatula to smooth the mixture over all crackers.
Bake the crackers in the oven for 5 minutes, until the toffee is bubbling all over. Carefully remove baking sheet from the oven and let cool for 1 minute.
Sprinkle the chocolate chips over the hot toffee crackers. Allow to partially melt, then use a baking spatula to spread the melted chocolate evenly over the entire sheet. Add desired toppings.
Freeze the toffee for 30+ minutes. Once frozen, break into small pieces and enjoy!
2. Sampeck, K. Cacao and Violence: Consequences of Money in Colonial Guatemala. (2019).
3. Mintz, S. W. Sweetness and Power. (1985).
4. Sampeck, K. & Thayn, J. Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism. (2017).
5. Kaplan, J., Umaña, F. & Hurst. Cacao residues in vessels from Chocolá, an early Maya polity in the southern Guatemalan piedmont, determined by semi-quantitative testing and high-performance liquid chromatography. Jounrnal Archaeol. Sci. Rep.13, 526–534 (2017).
6. Hobhouse, H. Seeds of Change: Five Plants that Transformed Mankind. (Harper & Row, 1986).
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:
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:
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:
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:
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
of Black Swiss Chocolate.” Wikimedia
Commons, 8 Oct. 2015,
Francois. “The Afternoon Meal.” Wikimedia
Commons, 10 Aug. 2017,
Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True
History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2013.
Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.
Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial:
Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio Univ. Press, 2006.
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.
Lives Project. Chocolate Slaves. Vimeo, 2 Aug. 2015, vimeo.com/135172005.
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.
The hands that consume chocolate sadly know very little about the hands, stricken by poverty and coercion, that tirelessly work to produce the coveted product (Contrasts: Things Kids Like). Today, over 70% of the world’s supply of cacao is produced in Africa, largely in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, two West African countries that depend heavily on child labor to meet the growing demands of the international chocolate industry (“Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry”). Of the 1,203,473 child laborers involved in the cocoa sector in Cote d’Ivoire, approximately 95.7% of those children were performing hazardous work involved in cocoa production (“Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor-Côte d’Ivoire”). Similarly, this alarming proportion of child laborers engaged in risky labors for cocoa production was also reported in Ghana (“Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor-Ghana”). While reports exposing the extent of child trafficking and labor in the chocolate industry shocked Western consumers, the reliance on forced labor is hardly a recent addition to the production of cocoa.
“Labor rights issues in cocoa production are nothing new. They are tradition.” Professor Carla Martin, Harvard University
Over the past few centuries, forced labor in cocoa and sugar production has adapted to fulfill economic incentives as well as resist pressures of abolition. From the Encomienda system established by Spanish colonizers to the chattel slavery that manifested in the triangular trade, and now to the child labor that plagues cacao-producing regions, coerced labor has modified its form but has remained a major component of production. The systems of labor inequality that persist in cocoa and sugar production reflect the checkered history of slavery and elucidate the role of economic factors in perpetuating forced labor to drive the commodities to massive consumption.
Human Interventions in Cacao Production
Understanding the nature of cacao helps to elucidate why human labor particularly was so essential to sustain its procurement and how forced labor systems developed to maximize the profit of this cash crop. The cultivation and retrieval of cacao itself is a delicate process, thereby necessitating the precision and tender care of human labor that cannot be easily replaced by a mechanical substitute. A fragile plant, the cacao tree must be kept carefully unharmed during recovery of the cacao pods. This requires human labor to precisely and skillfully use a cutlass, knife, or long-handled tool to remove the cacao pods from the tree (Martin, Lecture 4). The pods are then transferred to a sack, totaling more than 100 pounds in weight that must be carried back (“Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry”). The photo above captures the difficulty of this task, among others that are also extremely laborious and dangerous and continue to be so for child slaves in West Africa. The careful and gentle treatment required in the initial steps of cacao production partly explains why despite immense mechanization of our industries, technological alternatives have not satisfied the need for labor in the stage of cultivation and crop retrieval.
The Encomienda System
While the characteristics of the cacao plant help explain the demand for human labor, economic factors better demonstrate why the labor systems implemented over the centuries were steeped in inequality and disparity. One of the first major labor systems imposed on indigenous people was the encomienda system introduced to the Americas in the sixteenth century by the Spanish. The Spanish were granted the right to exact tribute, whether in the form of gold or forced labor, from the indigenous people (“Encomienda system established”). This system was intended to Christianize and care for inhabitants but quickly morphed into a means of usurping indigenous land and exploiting indigenous people, as portrayed in the image below. The economic incentive underlying this system of forced labor was clear: the Spanish aimed to extract cacao coinage in order to maximize the profit of this lucrative commodity (Martin, Lecture 6). The indigenous people were not protected or paid, and worked in harsh conditions; even though they were not technically owned, they were required to produce cacao for the Spanish. Though the encomienda system eventually ended due to protest from clergy, it was quickly replaced by the repartimiento, another exploitative means of further wealth extraction (Martin, Lecture 6). This account serves to demonstrate how one form of forced labor merely transitioned into another abusive form in response to pressures of abolition; this theme of modification in the face of abolition is recurrent, leading to the persistence of forced labor. Therefore, the economic motive of resource extraction made the encomienda system an abusive burden for indigenous people.
The Triangular Trade
This early form of an economically incentivized labor system set the precedent for more egregious forms in the following decades. In the sixteenth century, chattel slavery emerged as one of the largest systems of forced labor, as evidenced by the Triangular Trade. As the demand for sugar, cocoa, cotton, and other products began to escalate, the need for human labor also drastically increased. The triangular trade, a trading system involving Britain, West Africa, and the Americas, was implemented to accommodate the growing demand for labor. By the nineteenth century, nearly 15 million enslaved Africans were transported to the New World as “chattel” (Martin, Lecture 6). Chattel slaves refers humans that are treated as personal property that can be owned and sold as a commodity. Interestingly, African slaves were “false commodities” rather than actual commodities (Mintz 1986). In the complex triangular exchange, slaves were being traded for goods but they themselves were not objects, despite being treated as such. These slaves suffered a very long and harsh voyage, a significant proportion of them dying, and endured many more hardships upon arrival. While a common misconception holds that slaves were doing unskilled, menial tasks, they were actually involved in many labor intensive responsibilities that severely diminished their quality of life (Martin, Lecture 6).
Much like the encomienda system, this system of slavery was fueled by economic considerations. Firstly, the exchange was designed to maximize wealth and prospects for the colonizers; secondly, the origin of Negro slavery can be traced back to the economic decision to capitalize off the cheapest form of labor, rather than back to any racial explanation (Martin, Lecture 6). This form of forced labor was also met with substantial opposition, slowly leading to abolition by the late nineteenth century. Abolition, however, did not eliminate all forms of forced labor. The permissive attitudes towards labor inequality bred throughout centuries of slavery has led to the exploitation of other vulnerable populations by industry giants.
Addressing Practices of Child Labor in the Twenty-first Century
Tracing the incentives and nature of major systems of coerced labor demonstrates how in response to pressures of opposition and abolition, forms of forced slavery transitioned into a form that exploited a different susceptible population. Today, as we grapple with the challenges of child trafficking and labor within the chocolate industry, it is important to similarly examine the economic precursors that contributed to this problem. While lack of education and enforcement contribute to the child labor problem, a significant factor is an economic driver, as was the case in many other previous forms of forced labor. The immense poverty experienced by cacao-growing farmers prevents them from being able to manage their business or pay their adult employees, they are forced to recruit their children rather than educating them (“International Labor Rights Forum”). Addressing this problem requires counteracting the consequences of poverty with measures that economically empower these communities. As consumers, it is our responsibility to expect fair treatment of workers and to demand accountability from the major players in the chocolate industry.
Therefore, examining the role of economic incentives in driving different forced labor forms in the past has informed us about why these coercive systems persist, and how economic considerations continue to hinder complete abolition of forms of inequality in labor.
From the encomienda system, to repartimiento, to chattel slavery, the history of sweetness and of chocolate are, unfortunately, inextricably linked to the history of slavery. The need to produce larger amounts of sugar to use for one of its many purposes—medicinal, as sweetener, preservation, decorative, as a spice—and to do it more quickly, led different sugar producers to engage in activities that were deemed less than desirable and ideal. Slavery was considered to be a stain in the clear finesse of sugar and its consumption, to the point where people masked it, ignored it, and denied it, in order to not feel the emotionally taxing consequences that thinking about the morality of the issue would bring them, which would perhaps detract from their sugar consumption experience. Here I argue that as sugar changed from being a luxury to being considered a necessity in European day to day, the existence of slavery started to decrease.
Contextually, slavery was not uncommon in the sixteenth century. Over ten million people were taken from Africa to some destination in the Americas to partake in slave labour, including women and children (Higgs). Of these people, about 60% of those who survived the brutal journey across the Atlantic were taken somewhere in the Caribbean, 30% of them were taken to Brazil, and 10% ended up in lands that are now considered part of the United States. As the demand for sugar rose, different slave-owning systems were developed and put in place in order to obtain as much economic benefit from slavery as possible (Mintz). However, there were always people who were against slavery and demanded its abolition. These people asked for something that firstly required the recognition of slavery, which was against European customs, since these dictated that slavery was to be hidden from the public eye.
The timeline for the reason behind the consumption of sugar in Europe indicates that sugar went from being considered an item of luxury and high social standing around 1750, to becoming a communal necessity for the quotidian European in 1850. In this period of a hundred years, the way in which sugar was consumed changed, and therefore, so did the methods of production utilized to craft sugary products. Although slavery had been the norm for a period of time in matters of production techniques, and although abolitionists had long asked for the removal of such practices, it didn’t happen overnight. Instead, abolition came gradually into being. In 1834, the British Slavery Abolition Act abolished slavery in colonies of the British empires, followed by French and Danish colonies in 1848 (Satre). The United States and Cuba followed, and then Brazil abolished slavery in 1888. Over a period of years, slavery became less and less common, but due to difficulties in communicating the news immediately, sometimes it took weeks or months for slaveowners and slaves themselves to find out about the changes that were occurring.
It is possible to see that the abolition of slavery and the change in sugar consumption happened in parallel, but they did not happen in isolation. In fact, there is a strong relation between them. European social norms made the general population ignore slavery, and the fact that sugar consumption was restricted to an elite that considered it a luxury only added to this hidden factor, which meant that abolitionist tendencies were next to inexistent. However, as sugar became more widely spread amidst the European population and went from a luxurious item to a necessity, the realities behind the production of this prized good became well-known among citizens of European metropolises. Upon realizing the morbid steps that took place in order to produce sugar, more pressure to abolish slavery in the colonies ensued, which in turn provoked the establishment of Abolition Acts throughout colonies, and therefore had positive consequences for those being exploited in them. The presence of similar timelines for the abolition of slavery and the switch in sugar consumption indicates a shift in thought that related both sides of the same argument: since maintaining the image of sugar as pure as possible was no longer feasible due to its wide spread, new ways of thinking overruled previous ones, and the request to free slave workers, as well as their demand for freedom, intensified to the point where they became a reality and slavery started decreasing.
Sugar still has sculptural uses nowadays, such as the one depicted in this video, where a street sculptor creates a dragon out of sugar derivatives.
Higgs, Catherine. 2012. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. pp. 133-165
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.
Satre, Lowell. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. pp. 1-32, 73-99
With the colonization of the New World by the Europeans came great power, and with that great power came great responsibility. However, unfortunately the Europeans, and especially the Spanish colonizers and English empire, did not harness that power solely for good. What was originally planned as a grant or approval by the Spanish authorities in the 1500s to colonize the land of the indigenous people–termed the ‘Encomienda’–to teach them their religions, and have them work for them in return, in reality, became a period of coerced labor, harsh working conditions, and many deaths of the indigenous people (Betchelder and Sanchez, 2013; Martin, 2016). What began to arise further around the sugar and cacao growing regions of Africa and the Caribbean would soon emulate similar conditions for natives and further African Americans up until and somewhat through the mid 1800s. Europeans would continue to usurp land of indigenous people and even enslave natives, forcing them into labor for production of the empire’s desired goods for trade (Martin, 2016). And although throughout time there would be many acting powers and forces against slavery, abolition faced significant challenges leading up to the 1900s. As certain goods like sugar became commodities and goods of all classes, and mass production started to increase, slavery would sky rocket (Richardson, 1987). This blog post will further discuss forces behind the economy of slavery and the consequent challenges abolition faced in the wake of the era of forced labor amidst sugar production. In essence, as sugar production began to emerge as a leading economic stimulus, supporting mass growth of the English empire and economy, the possibility of abolition became tougher and tougher as slavery was in fact, becoming the crux and strength of these growing empires and powers.
As Mintz mentions in Sweetness and Power, as the English began to cultivate sugar in larger amounts of production, it became more of a commodity, one that many classes regarded not only as political or a way to display wealth, but also economical, and a way to increase the economy (Mintz, 1984). In fact, England had the most colonizing and importing of slaves for the cultivation of sugar. Sugar production rose in countries like Barbados and Jamaica which required more slaves to keep up with production (Martin, 2016; Mintz, 1984). As African Americans were shipped along the Atlantic Slave Trade in tens of millions, many millions were still dying off, ceasing the growth rate of the black population and causing more and more African Americans to be traded as property (Martin, 2016).
The path of trade between the Americas and Africa in terms of slaves as well as sugar and other commodities. As seen in the above picture, Africa was the closet to the Americas for colonizers to bring in mass, coerced labor, so it was most economically sound to them.
Yet amidst all of this unethical production, there were still abolitionist movements such as the Haitian Revolution, however even then, when slaves received freedom in Haiti, other regions would pick up from where they left off.
Early abolitionist attempts and slavery revolts: the Haitian Revolution against the French who enslaved the African Americans for their contribution from their enslavement to 40% of the French economy – hence, the “Crown Jewels”
In fact, slavery was truly the “crown jewels” of many of these empires (Mintz, 1984). 40% of France’s economic growth would be based on slavery. As sugar became a commodity of all classes in England and people rose their demand for the good for adding it to spices and foods, and calorie consumption, slavery was deemed necessary to keep these empires thriving (Richardson, 1987). Therefore a key, crucial challenge to abolitionism was in fact the economy. These empires had gotten away with slavery for quite a while that it got to the point that with the zero growth rate of the slaves and the sky rocketing economy due to forced labor, slave trade, and sugar and cacao production, slavery was invetiable without the falling of an empire.
However, one may ask why African Americans were enslaved and not other populations. In fact, it has been mentioned to be purely economical, and not racially rooted (Mintz, 1984). If this is fact, then it seems an obvious barrier to abolition. In other words, abolition of slavery was one thing, but specifically abolishing slavery of black individuals was another, even harder attempt, given that Africa was the closest neighbor to the colonizers and therefore the cheapest method to keep the economy growing (Mintz, 1984). If the English empires and even the Spaniards were to move their production and manufacturing to another region of indigenous people, the economy would surely suffer as the distance and resources would drain production costs.
Therefore, although slavery was an immoral and ruthless act taken up by growing empires during the commodification of cacao and sugar, abolition would not significantly be able to emerge until later into the 1800s. However, even then, and through the early 20th century, in areas such as Säo Tomé there would be acts of coerced labor, indentured servitude, and in some extremes, slavery (Martin, 2016). As long as the economy was thriving and production was booming, these empires would consider their people before those of other countries. Not until the Industrial Revolution and amendments along with mass media and the press would abolition have a stronger foot in the door.
Batchelder, Ronald W., and Nicolas Sanchez. “The encomienda and the optimizing imperialist: an interpretation of Spanish imperialism in the Americas.” Public Choice 156.1-2 (2013): 45-60.
Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and power. New York: Viking, 1985.
Richardson, David. “The slave trade, sugar, and British economic growth, 1748-1776.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 17.4 (1987): 739-769.
Martin, Carla. “AAAS E-119 Lecture 6: Slavery, abolition, and forced labor.” Harvard University.Cambridge, MA. 2 March 2016.