A negro slave beating a woman slave watched by two white men. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The treatment of black slaves on the sugar plantations of 18th century Jamaica was brutal. Distressing evidence of this is provided by songs that slave women on such plantations sang about being forcibly separated from their families, suffering sexual abuse, and receiving punishment whippings. For the purpose of these punishments, the slaves would be stripped and held down by other slaves, while the plantation overseer or owner instructed a male slave to deliver the lashings (Altink, 2000).
Popular representations have made us familiar with the idea that such brutality provided the foundation for the cultivated and elegant lifestyles of the social elite across the ocean in Great Britain. In a scene from Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park as shown below, for example, Fanny Price discovers Sir Thomas Bertram’s sketchbook showing scenes of brutality from the Jamaican plantations that had provided the source of his wealth.
Less well known is the connection between slavery on the plantations of Jamaica and the decadent lifestyles that grew up among some of 18th century London’s wealthiest elite. This connection is provided by one of the products that sugar was grown to make: hot chocolate for drinking. For not only sugar, but also cacao was grown on British-owned slave plantations in Jamaica (Grivetti and Shapiro, 2011). And London not only offered establishments for drinking coffee, but also, if one could afford it, ones for drinking chocolate.
If one has formed one’s idea of 18th century London life from reading about the erudite and witty conversations that figures like Samuel Johnson, James Boswell and their circle of talented friends held in the city’s pubs and coffee houses (Damrosch, 2019), then it can come as a shock to learn about the decadent culture that prevailed in the city’s chocolate houses. The most prominent of these institutions were White’s, Ozinda’s and the Cocoa Tree (Green, 2018). The opulent decor of the socially exclusive chocolate houses was consonant with their aristocratic clientele and stood in contrast to the more drab interiors of the city’s coffee houses.
In 1778 White’s Chocolate House moved from its original location in Mayfair to new premises in St James’s Street
White’s became notorious for the crazy gambling that took place there. The Connoisseur, a down-market weekly newspaper that Johnson felt “wanted matter” (i.e. lacked substance) but that was appreciated by Boswell, reported that at White’s “there is nothing, however trivial or ridiculous, that is not capable of producing a bet” (Coe and Coe, 2019). Large sums of money were wagered on such matters as which armies would be defeated in battles, whether a certain Duke would or would not have an illegitimate child within two years, or whether a given number of White’s members would die within exactly a year (Green, 2018; Doyle and Scott, 2020). One frequenter of White’s is reported to have bet £3,000 on which of two raindrops would first reach the bottom of the bow window at the club. While in their True History of Chocolate (2019) Sophie and Michael Coe state that his was Lord Arlington, many websites focusing on the Regency period suggest it was the “Regency Buck” Lord Avanley. (My search for definitive information continues.)
The famous – or infamous – bow window at White’s
Perhaps the most notorious incident to occur at White’s occurred in 1750 when a man collapsed in the street in front of St. James’s Palace. When he was carried into the nearest building, which happened to be White’s, the establishment’s aristocratic chocolate drinkers took bets on whether he would die. These degenerate gamblers forbade anyone from providing assistance to the man, as they couldn’t tolerate the idea of their bet being spoiled by an “unfair” intervention (Green, 2018).
Hogarth, A Rake’s Progress No. 6, The Gambling House
Such attitudes and practices earned White’s the disdain of the satirical artist William Hogarth, who expressed his disapproval in the sixth painting in his work A Rake’s Progress. This series of paintings depicts the picturesque vicissitudes in the life story of Tom Rakewell, a well-to-do young man who comes to London and dissipates his fortune through wild living. In The Gambling House, the sixth picture, Tom re-loses the fortune he had earlier regained, amid the grotesque countenances of huddled degenerate gamblers. Incidentally, the smoke that can be near the ceiling represents a real fire that occurred at White’s in May 1733 (Uglow, 1997).
An interesting theory about what drove aristocratic gamblers of London’s chocolate houses has been advanced by Matthew Green. Viewing their behavior through the lens of Thorstein Veblen, Green chides Hogarth for being unfair to the gamblers as a consequence of being trapped in his own middle-class perspective. Instead, Green argues, we need to recognize that for the nobility of Georgian London life had become “one big game of conspicuous consumption” (Green, 2018). Seen in this light, their behavior may appear somewhat more rational, but one wonders whether such a sophisticated analysis is really justified. The bets were indeed huge, but could any of the players really hope to impress their equally wealthy friends with them? An alternative explanation might focus on the psychology of gambling—including perhaps a need for excitement in a world that had become boringly secure and devoid of danger (Baraniuk, 2020).
Production of chocolate in the 18th century—in particular the key ingredients of cacao and sugar—bore a heavy cost in human suffering. This suffering was largely invisible to the inhabitants of London, Paris and other major cities of Europe, even as the eighteenth century became the “apogee of British and French slave-based sugar plantations” (Mintz, 1986). By contrast, for many thoughtful people today is impossible to encounter images of elegant eighteenth century and Regency elite lifestyles without also having evoked images of the barbaric cruelty that sustained it. Yet perhaps people can still be seduced by the nihilistically glamorous dissolution of the aristocratic gamblers who frequented London’s chocolate houses. Keeping in mind the link between this world and the unspeakable misery which African slaves on the cacao and sugar plantations endured in order to produce the chocolate that fuelled its decadence may help us to avoid such moral lapses.
Altink, Henrice “Jamaican Slave Women’s Dance and Song in the 1770s – 1830s.” Web. 7 March 2020
Baraniuk, Chris. “Why gamblers get high even when they lose.” Web. 8 March 2020
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson 2019
Damrosch, Leo. The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age. Yale University Press 2019
Doyle, Marissa, and Regina Scott. “Where the Boys Are: Betting at White’s.” Web. 9 March 2020
Green, Matthew. “How the decadence and depravity of 18th London was fuelled by hot chocolate.” Web. 7 March 2020
Grivetti, Louis, Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage
John Wiley & Sons 2011
Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness And Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin 1986
Uglow, Jenny. Hogarth: A Life and a World. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 1997