The role of slavery in contributing to the rise of a global capitalist system cannot be understated. Early European colonialism in the Americas and Africa introduced a new crop into European society: cacao. While initially many colonizers were hesitant to consume a project central to many indigenous cultures, they soon saw the benefits of cacao. They sought to export the crop in large quantities to Europe, generating massive profits as they met the rapidly growing demand (Martin lecture 2/12). Slavery was a crucial component in meeting this demand for this new, popular crop. The growth of a world capitalist system dependent on slavery and forced labor was vital to the expansion of chocolate beyond cacao growing regions and the rapid increases in production and consumption that have been seen since the 1800s. Despite the abolition of slavery and boycotts of plantations that rely on slave labor from major chocolatiers in the early twentieth century, forced labor, especially of children, continues to undergird the global chocolate industry.
In understanding the linkages between slavery and capitalism, it is helpful to start at the plantation. While some scholars see the rise of modern capitalism beginning in the 1800s, cacao plantations and plantations of other crops are remarkably capitalistic in their organization, albeit not at the level observed today. As Desmond argues, “the owner supervised a top lawyer, who supervised another lawyer, who supervised an overseer, who supervised three bookkeepers, who supervised 16 enslaved head drivers and specialists (like bricklayers), who supervised hundreds of enslaved workers. Everyone was accountable to someone else. This organizational form was very advanced for its time, displaying a level of hierarchal complexity equaled only by large government structures, like that of the British Royal Navy” (2019). Plantations, at the most basic level, operated as a capitalist firm where workers alienated from the outputs of their labor were forced to make products for the profiting of the firm’s owner. Critical to these firms was a constant supply of labor, which Europeans found through enslaving Africans and forcing them to work on plantations for crops like cacao and sugar, cultivating these commodities that were later sent to Europe.
The figure above shows how millions of Africans were transported to various locations in the Americas to sustain the massive demand for labor on plantations. Without this forced relocation plantations would have been unable to operate, and the commodities generated by them would not have come to fruition. The inhospitable living conditions on plantations, especially Caribbean plantations where slaves had an average life expectancy of seven years (Carrington and Noel 1982), required a steady supply of expendable labor.
While some argue that the plantation represents a proto-capitalism or even primitive version of capitalism (Desmond 2019), Mintz highlights how important the profits generated from chattel slavery on plantations was to the economic growth of Europe as it underwent a capitalist revolution. “The development of new forms of slave-based production in the New World, using imported slaves—perhaps Europe’s biggest single external contribution to its own economic growth. The Caribbean plantations were a vital part of this process, embodying all of these features, and providing both important commodities for European consumption and important markets for European production” (55). The profits generated from these plantations and the commodities they produced were necessary for financing the industrial revolution in Europe (Williams 1994), thus providing the foundation for modern capitalism.
Throughout the 19th century, European nations abolished slavery. Despite this, the burgeoning chocolate industry continued to rely on slave labor in many cacao growing regions. Many chocolatiers, such as Cadbury, discovered that the plantations they sourced their cacao from was dependent on slavery and forced labor to meet the massive demand for the product. Abhorred by the living conditions and the mistreatment of those working on cacao farms, Cadbury called for a boycott on plantations that utilized slave labor to produce cacao (Higgs 2012). Despite how well-intentioned these boycotts may have been, the explosion of the chocolate market into what is now a billion-dollar industry would not have been able to reach the heights it has without a significant amount of forced labor, especially child slavery.
Under the current capitalist system, ethical labor practices are antithetical to profit generation. This extends to all major multinational industries and businesses, and the chocolate industry is no exception.
This video from CNN highlights the dependence of modern cacao plantations has on child slaves in the Ivory Coast. Similar to the plantation model, these young children are alienated from their outputs, often having never tasted the end product. CNN’s reported traveled to the Ivory Coast to find out how the Harkin-Engel Protocol—an international agreement aimed at eradicating forced child labor in cacao production—has changed the state of child slavery on cacao farms. Their investigation uncovered a massive human trafficking network where many children are trafficked across borders to work on farms. Despite the passage of the Protocol, many farmers say that it has changed nothing for those enduring the worst forms of child slavery as the majority of them have not been contacted by anyone regarding child labor on cacao farms.
This graphic from the WSJ highlights the growing demand for cacao over recent years. As the demand has grown, cacao farmers in the Ivory Coast, and other cacao-growing regions—turn to child labor as a cheap form of labor necessary, in their eyes, to make ends meet. Just as the chocolate industry in colonial times relied on expendable labor, so does the modern chocolate industry.
First-hand accounts of former child slaves on cacao farms provide a window into the cruel conditions children are forced to live in. Aly Diabate was 11 when he was tricked into working on a cacao farm by a trader. He described being unable to carry the large loads required of him, often falling from the weight. When this would happen, he would be beaten by the farmer until he got up again. He was forced to live in a single room with 18 other slave workers, where the only opening was a hole in the wall so that air could enter. They had to each share a can as a bathroom. Aly described an immense fear that came from living on the farm, which often kept him from attempting to escape. Luckily for him, authorities were alerted to the farm’s slave conditions, and he was rescued (Chanthavong 2002). Aly’s case of being rescued, however, is an outlier for child slaves on cacao farms, not the norm. Many are not so lucky.
From the onset of the chocolate industry, slavery has been integral to its functioning. Despite the outlawing of chattel-slavery worldwide, many of the world’s most vulnerable are often forced into servitude to meet the global demand for chocolate. As companies express their opposition to cacao sourced from slave labor, the capitalist system prioritizes profits over ethics and is why despite the widespread recognition that the worst forms of child slavery exist on cacao farms, change has not occurred. If it was to, billions would be lost, which is evidently a worse outcome than this continued slavery.
Carrington and Noel, “Slaves and Tropical Commodities,” in Stephan Palmie Francisco Scarano, The Caribbean: A History of the Region and its Peoples, chapter 15
Chanthavong, S., 2002. Chocolate and slavery: Child labor in Cote d’Ivoire. TED Case Studies, 664.
“Chocolate’s Child Slaves – CNN Video.” CNN, Cable News Network, 26 May 2015, http://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2015/05/26/chocolate-child-slaves-ivory-coast-spc-cfp.cnn.
Desmond, Matthew. “American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Aug. 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/slavery-capitalism.html.
Higgs, Catherine. 2012. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. pp. 133-165
Mintz, Sidney W. 1986. Sweetness and Power.
Wernau, Julie. “Child Labor On The Rise in West Africa as Demand for Cocoa Grows.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 30 July 2015, blogs.wsj.com/frontiers/2015/07/30/child-labor-on-the-rise-in-west-africa-as-demand-for-cocoa-grows/.
Williams, E., 2014. Capitalism and slavery. UNC Press Books.