Tag Archives: Slavery and Chocolate

The Two Faces of Chocolate: Food of the Gods and the Harbinger of Violence

A Brief History: Cocoa and Chocolate

The creamy, luxuriant, dark brown sweet of pure bliss – chocolate is the enticing candy with an irresistible taste of heaven and the Gods. Yet, little do we know, chocolate has had its tie to Gods since its origins in the New World. The story began in Mesoamerica where the cacao tree, termed Theobroma cocoa or “the food of the Gods”, flourished among the Mayan and Aztec civilizations way before the arrival of European colonizers (Coe and Coe, 1996). The cocoa beans were adopted in every aspect of life – beyond food, they were medicine; an offering in religious, marriage, and burial rituals; and money. The social, religious, and economic significance of cocoa was markedly noted by European ethnographers like Bernardino de Sahagun, and with the arrival of Columbus along with other colonizers, cocoa was brought to Europe. Using sugar, Europe transformed cocoa into chocolate, as the delicacy we know today, which quickly became a widely desired, palatable treat for the rich and poor alike. Not long after, chocolate was mass produced by chocolate manufacturers, and consequently, the chocolate empire took root.  

Underneath the Veil

Hidden beneath the veil of sweetness, however, the history of chocolate reveals a much more bitter reality weaved with violence. To satisfy the insatiable demand in the chocolate market, chocolate manufacturers turned to an incredibly exploitative system of obtaining their raw ingredient, cocoa. Chocolate, like many other imperial commodities, was the refined product of slavery and forced labor on plantation farms, and the consequences of this system can be felt up to today in the global racial, economic, and social landscapes.

The Atlantic Slave Trade

What fed into the imperial market and its strong economic interests was none other than the trans-Atlantic slave trade that uprooted millions of African people to the Americas, the Caribbean, and Europe [figure 1]. An internal system of slavery persisted in Central and West Africa before the European exploitation, and this indigenous slavery provided fuel for the rise of this global slave trade (Rodney, 1966). The local slave trade was initially recorded and taken of interest by Portuguese chroniclers, who, in the 16th century, were the first to engage in the trade trans-Atlantic (Rodney, 1966). Other Europeans soon followed, and the slave trade bloomed into what supported colossal economies of commodities like sugar, coffee, tobacco, cotton, and of course, cocoa. By the 19th century, various countries passed laws to ban the importation of slaves, including Britain, the United States, Spain, France and Portugal, but at that point, demands soared, and cocoa’s market had become wholly dependent on the slave trade for mass production. Here, we saw a surge of illegal slave trading under the pretense of contract labor.

Figure 1. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Route

The Chocolate Islands – Cadbury’s Cocoa Scandal:

The persistence of slave labor despite efforts to end it unfolded in the Cadbury cocoa scandal of the 1900s. Cadbury Bros, the British Quaker-owned chocolate company, dominated the market at the time and came under criticism when despite warnings of labor conditions and potential use of slaves, they continued to purchase cocoa produced by the plantations of the island of Sao Tome, a Portuguese colony (Satre, 2005). Notably, Henry W. Nevinson, a journalist who documented his encounters with slavery in Portuguese West Africa in his later published book, “A Modern Slavery” [figure 2], marked that the dynamics of the labor market were as reported – laws passed to ban slavery were worthless, commercial interests begged to be satisfied, and by signing a paper, the slave was a “free” worker and everyone was happy. His report brought into light injustices against native Africans disguised in the legal pretense of contract labor. Disregarding Nevinson and other accounts of anti-slavery campaigners, Cadbury chose to make their own investigations into labor conditions of Sao Tome. Yet, even when these confirmed conditions on par with slavery on the cocoa plantations, Cadbury continued to be a major consumer of the cocoa product from Sao Tome, simply choosing to lobby the Portuguese government to more strictly implement their labor contract laws (Satre, 2005). While Cadbury did make some effort against the use of slavery, they undoubtedly fell short of their Quaker moral and ethical principles of justice and fair trade. The key issue in the persistence of slavery is highlighted here – commercial interests for profit constrain moral action from truly taking root.

Figure 2. “A Modern Slavery” accounted Nevinson’s encounters with slavery in Portuguese West Africa, a land where slavery should have been banned by law. The book became the center of controversy in the English political, economic, and humanitarian landscapes and eventually brought Cadbury to court for their purchase of cocoa from Sao Tome.

Modern Slavery, Child Laborers, Implications

This also comes to explain the reality we see today in “modern slavery”.  At the turn of the 21st century, widespread media reports uncovered child slavery on cocoa plantations in Cote d’ Ivoire, one of the major exporters of cocoa to the world market  (Manzo, 2005). An estimated 15,000 children workers were found to be working as slaves on the 600,000 cocoa farms in Cote d’ Ivoire and were subjected to inhumane conditions and extreme abuse (Chanthavong, 2002). The existence of a form of labor practically parallel to old slavery in modern times implicates many contributors in play, intentional and non-intentional. Whether it be the cocoa  farmers, the slave traffickers, the Ivorian government, the chocolate manufacturers, or us the consumers who buy chocolate at a supermarket, all are relevant to the existence of slave labor and the sufferings it incites. Perhaps the wake of a ravenous market like cocoa and chocolate inevitably demands cheap labor that spirals into exploitative systems of forced labor driven by greed and convenience, but we all have the responsibility to challenge the inevitable. We can begin to ask the next time we stand in the sweets aisle for a Hershey bar, are we playing into the cycle of perpetuating labor abuses? What can we do in our power to mitigate these abuses?

Figure 3. A Child Laborer in the Ivory Coast Harvesting Cocoa Pods

Works Cited

Chanthavong, Samlanchith (2002). Chocolate and Slavery: Child Labor in Cote d’Ivoire. TED Case Studies, Number 664.

COE, SOPHIE DOBZHANSKY (1933-1995)|COE, MICHAEL D. (b. 1929). (1996). The True History Of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Manzo, K. (2005). Modern slavery, global capitalism & deproletarianisation in West Africa. Review of African Political Economy32(106), 521–534. doi: 10.1080/03056240500467013

Rodney, W. (1966). African Slavery and other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the Atlantic Slave-Trade. The Journal of African History7(3), 431–443. doi: 10.1017/s0021853700006514

Satre, L. J. (2006). Chocolate on trial: slavery, politics, and the ethics of business. Athens, OH: Ohio Univ. Press.

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:

A picture containing text, book

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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 and the Slave Tade

Today there is no mistaking the interconnected state of the world. Trade is international, products are manufactured across border lines, and people can partake in ecommerce with others halfway across the world using the internet. While globalized economics is engrained within today’s society, it has been a reality of the world for centuries. One of the biggest international trade networks in history was the Transatlantic Slave Trade. This network involved the exchange of goods (most notably enslaved humans) between Western Europe, Africa, and the New World and some individuals, families, and countries very wealthy. Despite the moral implications of enslaving and trading human beings, the Slave Trade persisted for centuries due to the lucrative economic benefits to those exploiting humans for free labor. Slavery as an economic system prioritized the monetary benefits of industry participants over the liberty of the laborers. Because of the growing popularity of chocolate in Europe and American in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the opportunity for profit and satiation of a market outweighed the moral imperative to end slavery in cacao-growing regions, even after it was officially outlawed.

Below: Triangular Trade Routes

The version of slavery which employed Africans as laborers began in the fifteenth century by the Portuguese[1] and emerged as a solution to an economic problem. In simplest terms, Europeans were looking to maximize their profitability and in order to do that they needed a system which reduced the cost of labor as much as possible and prevented laborers from utilizing resources for their own benefit[2]. African slavery was not the only solution to this problem, Europeans tried to enslave natives in the New World however they were not a suitable population: their immune systems could not ward off European diseases and they died at rapid rates, and those who remained alive knew the land better than their captors and could escape. Europeans indentured servants were also brought in, but their numbers were insufficient, and they expected to be emancipated following the conclusion of their term of labor. Using African slaves provided massive numbers of laborers whose prior contact with Europeans allowed them to ward of disease, were unfamiliar to the land on which they toiled, and would be enslaved not only for life but for generations.

Slave labor produced goods which reached many corners of the globe and made the slave trade extremely lucrative. The Atlantic Slave Trade reached its peak in the 1780s, after which European countries began abolishing the trade of human capital and later the practice of slavery in the 19th century. While slavery was officially outlawed by European countries, the practice continued, especially in cacao growing regions. Monetary gain was the reason the system of slavery was implemented, and it was the reason it persisted despite being officially outlawed. Portugal––the pioneer of purchasing slaves from African–cultivated cacao on the island of Sao Tome off the coast of Africa. To obtain the labor for this production, Portugal had a significant presence in Angola where Africans were captured and marched across the country to the coast[3]. Though Portugal outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1858, this practice continued into the 20th century. An entire system of secrecy and injustice formed in the African colony to protect the slave trade there because the value of the labor was so high.

Below: Sao Tome

The reason Portuguese in Angola went to extreme lengths to cover up and maintain their slave trade in Angola even while it was being investigated was because of the profitability of the cocoa produced in Sao Tome. It was said that the taste of cocoa from Sao Tome was so irresistible that people could not abstain from buying it even with the knowledge of the means used to produce it[4]. Not only was the cocoa especially tasty, the market for it had grown significantly. In 1828, CJ Van Houten created a hydraulic press which drastically cost of chocolate production and in turn the price of chocolate[5]. What was once a luxury for the elite was now a commodity available to the masses, creating more of an incentive for companies to operate outside of Portuguese law and utilize slave labor.

Below: Van Houten’s Hydraulic Press

Slavery was instituted as a system for its economic benefits while its moral shortcomings were justified in all variety of ways. Eventually, the moral implications were too strong to be overlooked and abolitionist movements were successful in getting the practice outlawed… at least nominally. While slavery was officially banned, slave labor continued to be used, especially in cocoa-producing regions which were responding to a growing market. The demand called for supply, and the need to supply justified means of production and complicated the true abolition of slavery in these regions.

[1] “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade · African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations · Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.” Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/africanpassageslowcountryadapt/introductionatlanticworld/trans_atlantic_slave_trade.

[2] Coclanis, Peter. “Economics of Slavery.” Shibboleth Authentication Request, www-oxfordhandbooks-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199227990.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199227990-e-23?print=pdf.

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

[4] Higgs, Catherine. 2012. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. pp. 133

[5] Satre, Lowell. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. pp. 14

Works Cited

Coclanis, Peter. “Economics of Slavery.” Shibboleth Authentication Request, www-oxfordhandbooks-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199227990.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199227990-e-23?print=pdf.

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

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

“The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade · African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations · Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.” Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/africanpassageslowcountryadapt/introductionatlanticworld/trans_atlantic_slave_trade.

Multimedia sources:




Slavery, Chocolate, and the development of the Culture of Taste

Connecting the establishment of chattel slavery in the Americas to the development of the culture of taste begins with the historical analysis of both commodity crops and chattel slavery as fundamental to the development of capitalism. Crops such as cacao, sugar, rum, tobacco, and coffee, were introduced to and commodified by Europeans in the span of over 400 years. As the economic value of these crops rose within European society, so did the demand for them. Chattel slavery was a direct response to this demand. From 1500-1900 approximately 15 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean and enslaved in the Americas. Enslaved Africans were treated as the “chattel” or personal property of an owner and were therefore bought and sold as commodities. Owners forced enslaved Africans to work on highly surveilled plantations, producing commodity crops. Sugar produced a greater influx of slaves than the other crops and the labor of fifty-thousand enslaved Africans was required to produce 20,000 tons of sugar a year for English consumers. Chattel slavery became fundamental to economic gain for Europeans because of the demand for commodity crops.

Portrait of Margaretha van Raephorst, c. 1668

Over time slavery became a key element of white self-fashioning identity and therefore slavery became entangled with the culture of taste. In Slavery and the Culture of Taste, Simon Gikandi defines the culture of taste as “the world of politeness, manners, and aesthetics” (Gikandi 2011, x). Slavery, especially the cruelties of slavery, was seen as a taint to good taste and therefore left out of the narrative high culture. Gikandi explains this as having to do with the Western world’s culture of modernity with defined itself by human values that were contrary to the establishment of slavery (Gikandi 2011, 4). Despite the rejection of slavery from the narrative of high culture, ownership of slaves remained a symbol of status and wealth. One of the most popular mediums for flaunting good “taste” was displaying enslaved black people in portraits. Medieval and Renaissance Era art featured black servants and slaves as “accessories” to the high culture white bourgeois. Additionally, in these depictions of black people, their facial features were exaggerated and are presently deemed as racist caricatures. The caricatured aspect of these portraits also demonstrates how the rise of racism derived from slavery and is also very much entangled with the culture of taste. 

Portrait of Princess Charlotte, c. 1761

So, how does all of this connect to chocolate? In addition to slavery being a direct response to the growing popularity of commodity crops, enslaved black people were often depicted on advertisements for food regarded as high culture such as chocolate. As enslaved black people featured in portraits became a symbol of wealth became popularized, chocolate manufacturers capitalized and began advertising using racist caricatures to establish their product as tasteful. In this vein, the word “taste” in the culture of taste holds a dual meaning. 

As an early form of advertising, trade emerged in the late 1860s. These trade cards were produced at a relatively low cost and were slipped into shopping bags and used for product packaging. In Racial Indigestion, Kyla Wazana Tompkins explains the importance of these trade cards, 

“The effective excess and semiotic overload of these images encode the use of disgust to facilitate and accompany the white bourgeois consumer’s disavow and enjoyment of commodity pleasure. Here I am understanding disgust as the form of pleasure-in-excess that often accompanies comedy.  Disgust here is married not only to the disavowal of big affect—joy, pain, desire, pleasure—away from the white, Protestant, middle-class body and onto black, Asian, and ethnic white bodies; it is also, seemingly inversely, married to envy and desire. Disgust is thus born of the everyday public encounter with bodies that seem to enjoy what whiteness is meant to disavow” (Tompkins 2012, 150).

In both using black bodies as a means to demonstrate good taste, and by using racist misrepresentations of black bodies, the white public sphere dehumanizes enslaved black people in order to justify slavery and the exclusion of slavery from the narrative of high culture. 

Trade Card. Cover of Racial Indigestion by Simon Gikandi

Depictions of enslaved black people in art and advertising regarded as high culture and tasteful exemplify how the display of black bodies became a symbol of status and taste for the white bourgeois. The development of the culture of taste is inextricable from the establishment of chattel slavery and “tasteful” foods. The enslavement of Africans and the economic system employed from this exploitation led to the culture of taste that depended on overlooking the antithetical nature of slavery to the Western World’s culture of modernity for economic gain and good taste.  

Works Cited 

Gikandi, Simon. Slavery and the Culture of Taste. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Martin, Carla. “AFAMER 119X Lecture 04.” Lecture, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA,

February 19, 2020.

Martin, Carla. “AFAMER 119X Lecture 05.” Lecture, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, February 26, 2020. 

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

Tompkins, Kyla Wazana. Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century. America and the Long 19th Century. New York: New York University Press, 2012.

Chocolate, Sugar, and the Effects of The Transatlantic Slave Trade

Today, if I asked a room of people to describe chocolate, they would say it is a sweet, tasty candy that you usually eat. However, if I asked people from before 200 years ago, they would call it a bitter, spicy drink. In fact for the majority of chocolate’s history, the latter definition would fit better than the former. So what lead to this transformation of the taste of chocolate? The most important factor for this evolution in chocolate has to be its introduction to colonial Europeans and sugar. Interestingly, chocolate serves as a way to observe colonizers coming into contact with a strange, new substance and how their understanding and modification transformed our understandings as well. I argue that European taste for sugar and chocolate greatly impacted the modern world through the Transatlantic slave trade. 

First, it is important to examine the early history of chocolate. Before the Europeans arrived in the New World, ancient Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Olmecs, Maya, and Aztecs used cacao seeds for many different reasons including consumption as a beverage. “Cacao was one of the most unusual substances in Mesoamerican life because it was comestible but also a wealth item and given as tribute eventually becoming a token of currency”(Sampeck and Thayn, 75). Cacao was extremely important, believed to have divine properties and would become known to Europeans as the food of the Gods. The picture shows a Mayan representation of two Mayan gods exchanging cacao which provides a look at the divinity of chocolate in ancient Mesoamerica (Puiu 2017). 

The arrival of Europeans in Mesoamerica marked an important step in the development of chocolate. In the early 1500s, Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to be introduced to cacao and chocolate and import it back to Europe (Fiegl 2008). They quickly noted the love the natives had for chocolate but the Spanish themselves did not initially enjoy the drink themselves.  Girolamo Benzoni, a conquistador, even described chocolate as being “ more of a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity” (Fiegl 2008). Chocolate did not yet include sugar and European tastes were not accustomed to bitter tastes in food (Altaweel et al. 2018). This preference resulted in Europeans searching for ways to change the taste.  

Soon, Europeans found ways to make chocolate better fit their tastes by using sugar. By the 1590s, chocolate was mixed with honey or sugar to make it sweeter. It quickly became popular in Spain and spread to the rest of Europe (Fiegl 2008). With the conquest of South America and the beginning of sugarcane plantations, the production of sugar combined with chocolate revolutionized European tastes. Sugar consumption now increased in parallel with the importation of chocolate. The desire for chocolate and the need for sugar, in part because of chocolate, also pushed the demand for slavery in plantations during the 17th and 18th centuries (Altaweel et al. 2018). While native Latin Americans were enslaved, many of them had died due to European born diseases that they had no immunity to. As a result, there was an increase in demand for slave labor which resulted in the Transatlantic slave trade. The video below depicts how the slave trade worked and how it still affects the world today. It left a lasting impact that can be traced back to Europe’s taste for chocolate.

So how did the slave trade impact the world? The slave trade left a lasting impact on many parts of the world. In Africa, as stated in the video, a majority of the slaves taken were male which meant that much of the able-bodied population was gone and demographic issues arose in the future.  Also, the competition over the capturing of slaves by powerful African rulers set a dangerous precedent for the future. This competition also resulted in wars that negatively affected the political landscape of Africa to this day ( Hardy 2019).  

An image of slaves working a sugar plantation

The slave trade also played a huge role in the New World. African slaves were an integral part of the development of New World economies.  They were particularly important as the labor force for the plantation agriculture that became common in the New World doing much of the manual labor illustrated above. The economic exploitation of blacks left behind deep, social divides that are still being overcome today (Hardy 2019). As shown in the video above, Europeans justified their slavery through racist theories that blacks were biologically inferior to whites. These theories were passed down generation to generation as fact, therefore deepening the divide between blacks and other races(Hardy 2019). 

In conclusion, European tastes for chocolate and sugar had a great effect on the modern world.  It did so through the Transatlantic slave trade where slaves were taken from Africa to produce raw exports such as sugar and cacao. The repercussions of the slave trade can still be felt today because of its lasting social, political, and economic effects in Africa and the Americas. It is intriguing how so many of our lives are still deeply affected today due to the desire for commodities like chocolate and sugar. 

Works Cited

Altaweel, Mark, et al. “How Did Chocolate Become Popular?” How Did Chocolate Become Popular? – DailyHistory.org, Nov. 2018, dailyhistory.org/How_Did_Chocolate_Become_Popular%3F.

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/.

Hardy, William. “Riches & Misery: The Consequences Of The Atlantic Slave Trade.” OpenLearn, The Open University, 1 Mar. 2019, http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/riches-misery-the-consequences-the-atlantic-slave-trade.

Hazard, Anthony, director. He Atlantic Slave Trade: What Too Few Textbooks Told You. Youtube, Ted-Ed, 22 Dec. 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NXC4Q_4JVg.

National Geographic Society. “The Plantation System.” National Geographic Society, 20 June 2019, http://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/plantation-system/.

Puiu, Tibi. “Chocolate Files: from the Early Days to Today’s Dark Pleasure.” ZME Science, 13 Sept. 2017, www.zmescience.com/other/feature-post/chocolate-history-the-early-days-mesoamericans-culture-and-rituals/.

“Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, by Kathryn E. Sampeck and Johnathan Thayn, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 72–95.

Why Did The Chocolate Industry ‘Need’ So Many Slaves?

The chocolate industry has always been a well recognized and significant abuser of slave labor throughout the centuries of chocolate production. However, often going unrecognized in popular media and education are the sheer numbers of slaves used in both cacao and sugar plantation settings to make the chocolate industry prosper. From pre-industrial revolution chocolate production to that of modern day, slavery has been a prominent source of labor for the raw materials required to make chocolate. Traditional slavery and modern slavery (such as forced servitude, debt bondage, coercion and the smuggling, underpaying of illegal immigrants etc.) encompass a significant portion of the conditions impressed upon the labors used to create our chocolate. As goal posts shift around the world between the definitions on what modern slavery/slavery constitutes and the punishments for those engaging people in slavery and servitude the actual numbers of people involved throughout history become more and more foggy but all current estimates are well into the tens of millions. Additionally our larger society becomes more and more disassociated from the production processes of our food which means those being forced and/or coerced into the labor harvesting cacao and sugar become more unrecognized, but the fact remains that large numbers of slaves and/or forced labor is used to produce the chocolate we consume, even today. So why does/did the chocolate industry ‘need’ to use so many slaves? The answer largely comes down to the cost effectiveness of slave labor, the intense physical demands of collecting and processing the raw materials needed for making chocolate, and the high demand and financial reward of chocolate itself. 


What may come as a surprise to many is the intensity of labor required to harvest both cacao and sugar. Cacao is grown in tropical conditions, especially in rain-forest environments which means it is difficult for machinery to not only gain access but also be used/maintained, additionally the cacao pods are rather delicate requiring further  human intervention to ensure pods don’t become damaged or rendered unusable. Therefore, people are forced to manually pick the cacao pods by hand and haul them through the jungle in which they are grown. With the aid of dangerous machetes slaves are made to cut pods from cacao trees and break them open to reveal the seeds inside. The seeds are then dried and husked often by hand. This is an incredibly labor intensive process and a clear violation of human rights that has been abused since the rise of chocolate. 

Above: This video demonstrates some of the effort that goes into harvesting cacao.

Similarly, sugar is the other component of chocolate that required vast input from slave labor. Grown in warm, sunny, frost-free climates; the planting, cutting and processing of sugarcane into sugar required a lot of manual labor, even with modern technologies that help aid efforts harvesting sugarcane remains a labor intensive job. The labor requirements of harvesting sugar cane were significantly higher pre the invention of the cane harvester, slaves were forced to cut the strong stalks with machetes and carry them to be processed further in sugar mills.

Above: A modern sugar cane harvester. These machines have reduced the need for manual cutting of cane.

Chocolate and the raw materials used to make it have been a very lucrative source of money throughout the evolution of chocolate. Sampek (2017) notes that because cacao was seen as such a valuable commodity from its time of discovery, not only as a food but as currency, has played a huge role in the degree to which people believe in the need for slavery (and the accompanying racism). During and after the industrial revolution, factories making chocolate grew to meet the demands of the public. Instead of reducing the need for slave labor as one may assume with the development of processing technology and the lower costs of running said machinery, the demand for more raw material was increased because the cost of the chocolate was lower and therefore the product was more accessible to the general public (Mintz, 1986). Slaves were required to fill the increased demand for raw materials. Nowadays labor abuse is largely that of grossly underpaying immigrant workers in conditions that can be considered those of modern slavery (ILO, Profits and Poverty). Both cacao and sugar plantations often required 18+ hour days from their slaves (Satre, 2005); the intense work conditions and long hours ultimately led to high rates of mortality and illness throughout the slave labor force.    

While laws regarding the use and abuse of slavery and forced servitude have changed dramatically since the rise of chocolate, slavery has persisted throughout the history of chocolate production because; ultimately using slaves for the harvest of cacao and sugar cane was and is a cost effective way for farmers and businesses to produce their chocolate products. In an account of slavery in Angola around the late 1800’s stated “The only motive for slavery is money-making, and the only argument in its favor is that it pays” (Satre, 2005), this quote sufficiently highlights the greed motivating the use of slavery in the production of chocolate for the last few centuries. There were few, if any laws regarding the feeding and basic care required for slaves  and these guidelines were rarely enforced (Mintz, 1986). This meant keeping slaves was relatively cheap, especially compared to paying workers fairly. The poor working and living conditions endured by slaves resulted in a high slave turnover and a near constant replenishment was required to supply the growing demands for cacao and sugar used in chocolate production, this was still more cost effective than fairly paying workers. In modern settings the slavery used on cacao and sugar plantations is generally reminiscent of traditional slavery but less extreme and comes under the banner of modern day slavery this includes; debt bondage, illegal selling and trading of people, smuggling of illegal immigrant workers, coercion etc. (ILO, Profits and Poverty

The chocolate industry has always had an intimate connection to slavery and servitude. In the early history of chocolate the number of slaves required to produce the raw materials cacao and sugar to satisfy the worlds demand for chocolate was well into the millions. With the abolition of slavery this traditional slavery was driven underground and became what we call modern slavery. The primary driver of slavery throughout history is money. Slaves are cheap labor for what is undeniably labor intensive jobs (harvesting and processing cacao and sugar) and they can reduce the need for expensive machinery. Slavery has thrived throughout the history of chocolate because of the money that it saves business owners and the money it generates in the chocolate industry.  


ILO. Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labor https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/–declaration/documents/publication/wcms_243027.pdf 

Mintz, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books. 

 Sampeck, Kathryn E. “Cacao and Violence: Consequences of Money in Colonial Guatemala.” Historical Archaeology, vol. 53, no. 3, Dec. 2019, pp. 535–58. Springer Link, doi:10.1007/s41636-019-00206-7.

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

Sugar Cane Harvester in Australia – YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOwbvKz_VSU. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Sugar Plantations ***. https://www.landofthebrave.info/sugar-plantations.htm. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

The Cultivation and Harvesting of Cocoa – YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrydEoCFpH4. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

The Role of the Spanish Encomienda, The Pope, and Cacao in the Enslavement of Civilizations Across The Americas

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.

“The Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Nation” by Diego Rivera

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. 

Fertile lands suited for cacao’s growth where the encomienda prevailed

“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 Sublimis Deus emitted by Pope Paul III Farnese on June 2, 1537

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.

Works Cited

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

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/.

Chocolate, Slavery and Aristocratic Decadence: Jamaican Plantations and London’s Wild Side in the 18th Century


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.

See the source image


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.

Works cited:

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

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/.