Tag Archives: slavery

A Moral Contradiction

The history of chocolate spans centuries; yet while many people enjoy the sweet treat, far fewer understand just how deeply chocolate’s history is embroiled in traditions of controversy, violence, and racialized prejudice. This blog post will narrate one small yet impactful period in chocolate’s history, concerning one of the biggest players in chocolate’s history and present: Cadbury. At the turn of the 20th century, the then-called Cadbury Bros. company found itself wrapped up in an international scandal over its business ethics, and more specifically their labor practices. This controversy did not only concern economic practices, but also political affairs of Britain, Portugal, and their condoning of colonial extralegal slavery (not in name, but in practice) in the Carribean. From 1905 to 1914, journalist Henry Nevinson sought to hold Cadbury accountable — in court — for their purchase of cocoa beans from the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe (Satre 12), , despite the fact that the beans were the product of illegal, brutal enslavement and forced labor of native and African people. Though Cadbury condemned slavery in name, the company imported tens of millions of pounds of cocoa beans from São Tomé and Príncipe between 1900 and 1910 — nearly a century after slavery had been legally abolished in Britain (though certainly not practically or economically). Over the course of this period, challenges to Cadbury’s company business ethics in Sao Tome versus in Britain reveal an apparent disregard for the violence against thousands of enslaved laborers, despite their proclaimed intentions to enact fair labor practices within their company.

Workers at the Cadbury chocolate factory in Bournville, England (NPR 2010

John Cadbury first opened his tea and coffee shop in Birmingham, England in 1824. After incorporating use of the newly invented hydraulic press, the company finally gained success in the 1860s. Cadbury grew into a factory business, employing 3,310 workers by 1900–in whom the owners “took a paternalistic interest” (Satre 15). This was because the Cadbury brothers were proud pillars of Britain’s Quaker community, and aimed to run their company “in accordance with Quaker tenet in providing aid to those less fortunate” (Satre 15). Despite long hours and close control over the employees, Cadbury factory jobs were highly sought after. According to a 2010 interview with descendant Deborah Cadbury:“”As soon as they were able,” Cadbury says, “they were doing things like raising the wages of their workforce, introducing Saturdays off, introducing pensions, introducing unemployment benefits and sickness benefits, and even free doctors, free dentists and vitamin pills for staff” (NPR 2010). However, despite an emphasis on fair conditions at home, Cadbury’s actions abroad painted a very different picture of their labor ethics.

After visiting Trinidad in 1901, William Adlington Cadbury (1867-1957) was tasked to investigate reports that slave labour was producing Cadbury’s cacao beans on São Tomé (Satre 18). Though W. Cadbury claimed overall ignorance about conditions on São Tomé and Príncipe at this time, the chocolate firm had purchased over 45% of its cocoa beans from the island by 1900 (Satre). Moreover, nearly eight years passed before decisive action was taken about Cadbury’s influence on the slave contract labor being used on the islands. Curiously, this period of lack of action coincides with a series of donations made to the Anti-Slvery Society in Britain by William’s brother George, a member, totaling to 510 pounds between 1900 and 1908 (Satre 21). Throughout this time, extended investigations, written and rewritten reports, suppressed publication of the controversy in British news (on the part of Cadbury), and diplomatic meetings between governments and chocolate companies resulted in no action until 1908 at the latest. Moreover, Henry Nevinson’s report, a project begun in 1905, was not available to the British public until 1908 (Satre). Meanwhile, William Cadbury spoke many times on record about opposing slavery yet vehemently opposed a boycott of purchasing the islands’ cocoa amongst the coalition of chocolate makers in Britain. In fact, he explictly went on record saying that his firm would like to continue purchasing cocoa from the islands (Higgs).

Though his Quaker anti-slavery humantarianism was expressed publicly, it seemed not to extend to the laborers in Sao Tome, based on the company’s extensive purchases of Sao Tome’s cocoa throughout this period: in 1902 Cadbury Bros. alone purchased 20% of São Tomé and Príncipe’s cocoa. This number decreased by 1907 (likely due to the pressure applied by journalists like Henry Nevinson)–to around 13% of Sao Tome’s total cocoa export, around 7.4 million pounds. This amount is still significant despite the change over time, especially when considering the violence experienced by thousands of enslaved laborers all for the sake of this export. According to Satre, Sao Tome held a total of around 40,000 slave laborers and Principe held around 3000 laborers at this time. He goes on to explain that 14% of laborers died in São Tomé died every year, and 20% of laborers died in Príncipe every year. This means that during this 8-year period of reluctant inaction on the part of Cadbury to address their investment in slave labor as a means to fund their business growth, a total of 43,200 enslaved peoples died. With regards to the company’s business ethics, this tends to reveal an interesting practice: that is, to keep a clean home but leave muddy shoes outside the door, so to speak.

These challenges to Cadbury’s business ethics remind me of a quote from artist Felix von der Weppen on his series “Chocolate Slavery” (above): “I wanted to create images that lead the viewer into a moral contradiction between desire and rejection. Hands stand for the power of action of individuals. By losing the power to act, we lose liberty, equality and are most likely controlled or enslaved by others” (Cargo Collective). Within the context of Cadbury’s inaction — not to mention today’s chocolate makers continued investment in forced labor — the violent impact of business practices like Cadbury’s during this period on human lives becomes even more salient.


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

NPR, 2010. “The Sweet, Social Legacy of Cadbury Chocolate.”

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

Cargo Collective, “Stop Chocolate Slavery.”


NPR, 2010. “The Sweet, Social Legacy of Cadbury Chocolate.”.


Felix von der Weppen’s “Chocolate Slavery.”

Slave to Pleasure: How the Demand for Labor to Produce Cacao and Sugar Drove the Slave Trade

The slave trade was a brutally dehumanizing affair that ultimately resulted in the forced displacement of more than 12 million African men, women, and children. Driven by the demand for cheap labor, greedy traders – primarily from the United Kingdom, Portugal, and the Netherlands – stole people from their native lands across the continent of Africa and shipped them to the new world as involuntary labor for the colonies (The Transatlantic Slave Trade). These enslaved individuals were then forced to produce many of the cash crops (see image below) that powered the emerging industrial economies of Europe and contributed to the creation and consolidation of immense wealth for those individuals who were in positions from which they could take advantage of the free labor, namely those in the planter class and professionals who provided the initial cash in the form of collectives. Given these conditions, it is important to recognize that the slave trade was a manifestation of the extant power dynamics between Africans and Europeans. Africans, as a result of the distinct fragmentation and systems of rule in their tribes in comparison to the Europeans, were unable to design effective systems in which they would be able to resist the infiltration of the Europeans, and this, ultimately, left their people vulnerable to enslavement as a result of local war, kidnapping, ransoming, and other horrific, deceitful acts committed by the Europeans. Identifying political tensions, religious differences, economic crises, etc. as weaknesses, the Europeans chose to exploit them for their own benefit and seized the opportunity they saw to obtain free labor to produce those crops that were becoming essential to the European economy (The Transatlantic Slave Trade). The growing popularity of cash crops (sugar, cotton, cocoa, etc.) and expanding European consumption powered the enslavement of Africans and maintained the system of slavery that would quickly emerge in the colonies as a direct result of demand outpacing the capacity of free production; the plantation owners’ constant needs for labor would outweigh any moral obligation to fellow man.

An image of the cash crops most dependent on slave labor: sugar, rum, rice, cotton, tobacco, coffee, and cocoa.

The Europeans’ engagement in the commodification of human beings exhibited a callous disregard for human life. Lowell Satre’s Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business specifically analyzes the evolution of slavery in the Portuguese colonies as it related to the production of chocolate. In the opening chapter, Satre details the journey of one English journalist, Henry Nevinson, into Angola’s interior, commonly referred to as the “Hungry Country.” Nevinson’s trip uncovered the sordid details of the new version of slavery occurring in the early 1900s despite the fact that Portugal had abolished slavery in all of its colonies in the 1870s (Satre 2). This new system was occurring under the guise of “contract labor.” Under this system, “the curator general of Angola was responsible for ensuring that the contract binding a worker for five years was legal and that its provisions….were appropriate” (Satre 7).  This “contract” was renewable after five years and magistrates were required to enforce the conditions; however, this protection was only provided in the legal sense, and the serviçal (contract laborer), in reality, was not free (Satre 7). Despite the fact that Portugal had abolished slavery in the 1870s, they had done nothing to replace the “free” labor that the plantation owners had grown accustomed to, and as a result, the owners’ desperate need for workers led to the emergence of a contract labor system that was, in reality, not contractual labor. Within the Portuguese empire, as well as in other systems that were transitioning from slave labor, this system of indentured servitude without the promised repatriation and wages (workers were often forced to spend their money at plantation stores on food and clothing and other necessities), was a disguise for slavery. 

An image of Henry W. Nevinson, the man who published the first reports of the redesigned slavery occurring in the Portuguese empire.

The abolition of slavery, particularly in the crop producing colonies, was not easy, especially given the many varied interests. In the case of the chocolate companies, the first conflict arose because of reports that laborers were not free, and this posed a serious problem for many company owners, particularly the Quaker chocolate producers like Cadbury, Rowntree, and Fry. Morally, these companies all objected to the use of involuntary/slave labor and the discovery that their chocolate was produced in such a manner caused them a great deal of strife. On the one hand, if they chose to boycott the plantations, they would lose their bargaining power; on the other hand, by maintaining their business with these plantations, they were complicit in the maintenance of a new system of slavery. This tension led to their inability to take strong, assertive action to remedy the situation and put the appropriate amount of pressure on the Portuguese government. (Satre). These tensions faced by the chocolate producers illuminate just how interlinked different systems of power were with slavery. From owners of the means of production to government to people who provided the news to the citizenry, everyone was tied to the profits of slavery. The company owners who benefitted from the cheap price of cacao produced on San Tome and Principe had a lot to lose if they wanted to guarantee that labor was voluntary; it would have driven the cost of their product up and affected their gross profit. 

Another obstacle to the abolition of slavery was the relationship between various governments. As English subjects, the chocolate companies looked to the British Foreign Office to put pressure on the Portuguese, but the British were limited in just how much pressure they could apply – the Portuguese were involved with the labor they were “employing” in South Africa and would view any action they took as hypocritical. Moreover, the general ineffectiveness of the Portuguese officials prevented any real action from being taken. Nevinson wrote that, “Portuguese authority was ineffective. Portugal’s civil and military officials, and its traders as well, operated outside the law, and whatever authority officials exercised was either misused or abused” (Satre 6-7). The planters also had a huge stake in the abolition movement. If slavery was truly abolished, they would see all of their profits quickly disappear. Cash crops were already a very risky business (fluctuating prices cause a lot of people to go bankrupt), but the end of slavery would signify the total destruction of their way of life. In addition, many of them truly believed that they were not doing anything wrong. A few planters asserted that they “have a right to transfer labour from colony to colony at will without foreign interference – this is not emigration while under one government and therefore no repatriation is needful”  (Satre 96). These planters also had the support of government officials. In Catherine Higgs’ Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa, she quotes Jerónimo Paiva de Carvalho, a Portuguese government official on the island of Principe, who states, “Laborers…enjoyed working conditions superior to those of crews who served on British ships and they were also treated better than most rural workers in Europe….On the Porto Real and Esperança roças on Príncipe… great attention was paid to worker’s housing, clothing, labor assignments, salaries, and healthcare…. ‘If this is slavery, then we are completely in the dark about the problem of manual labor in the colonies’” (Higgs 139)

A map of colonized Africa, circa 1898, displaying the various possessions, protectorates, spheres of influence, and occupation of each country.

Overall, the issue of slavery was not an easy one to answer.  The interconnectedness of various systems created a cycle that reinforced itself – as more goods were produced in the system and generated more wealth, the demand only increased, which further increased the demand for labor.

Works Cited

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

Mintz, Sidney W. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power. Pp. 151-214

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

“The Transatlantic Slave Trade.” AAME, http://www.inmotionaame.org/migrations/landing.cfm?migration=1&bhcp=1.

“Contract Labor” or Slavery Remade: The Never-Ending Exploitation of African Workers

The Atlantic Slave Trade, which ended in the 19th century, set the precedent for “contract labor” in several west African countries. Unfortunately, this “contract labor” was certainly just another form of the slavery that existed before it. In the book Chocolate on Trial, by Lowell Satre, a journalist that ventures to Portuguese colonies in West Africa documented alarming stories that lend to the idea of the persistence of slavery in another form. The introduction of cacao into these west African colonies called for immense amounts of labor and although slavery in Portuguese was abolished in the 1870s, labor contracts served as an alternative method for the exploitation of African workers (Satre, 2006). 

This image is the King of Kongo receiving the Portuguese slave traders while offering captives to serve as slaves in return for goods

São Tomé, an island off the coast of West Africa and one of the Portuguese colonies, thrived off of the production of cacao beans. Consequently, it was also the hub of between twenty thousand and forty thousand contract laborers (Satre, 2006). With the potential of substantial economic gain and the abolishment of slavery in the colonies, the Portuguese quickly found a way to use labor contracts to profit off of the work of individuals who were in some ways still enslaved. In the midst of the conflict between African tribes and debts owed to the colonizers, there was not much difficulty finding the laborers to put to work. Between Africans selling their own family members to pay off debts, individuals in fear of forced labor rather than underpaid labor, and the exploitation of captives from civil war, the concerns of a shortage of workers was very minimal. 

This image depicts the poor conditions of African slaves, or “contract laborers” on a boat set to land in São Tomé

The colonizers did everything possible to make the labor seem voluntary. From the journalist Henry Nevinson it was very clear that slavery persisted. In Chocolate on Trial, he mentions witnessing a young mother sold to “a white man for twenty cartridges” (Satre, 2006). The sale of this mother wasn’t from a white man to another white man, rather she was taken captive by another African tribe who desperately sold other captives and people fit for contract labor. Furthermore, she was later spotted in a group of West Africans that were labeled as “voluntary workers” by the soldiers when in truth she was just another captive sold into extremely underpaid labor with awful working conditions. Another father that the journalist just missed committed suicide because he had sold all his children in hopes of paying his debts to the colonizers. Although these stories are just of two individuals it goes to show the extent that the Portuguese colonizers were willing to go to ramp up cacao production for their own economic gain. 

The book Chocolate Islands: Cacao, Slavery, and Colonial Africa, provides further insight into this new form of slavery as a William Cadbury, a member of the family-owned Cadbury Bros., decided to boycott this source of cacao after his visits to the colonies (Higgs, 2012). Witnessing this new form of slavery was clearly nothing to deny or be taken lightly. Captives were taken and shipped to São Tomé, often having no chance to return until the end of their contracts. The living conditions in São Tomé were beyond subpar (Weinberg, 2013). Furthermore, the already low wages the workers received were often paid back to the plantation owners through stores they owned. The boycotting of this source of cacao was a major political play for the British and the Cadbury Bros. as it highlighted ethics as primary concern that should be taken into consideration. Unfortunately, the Portuguese consistently denied the claims of extensive exploitation of their works by claiming that their workers were getting fair wages and had decent living environments (Higgs, 2012). 

An image highlighting the purity of Cadbury’s cacao once they stoped buying cacao produced from Portuguese labor contracts, likely signifying the importance of ethical cacao production.

Another interesting matter discussed by Nevinson throughout his time in the colonies was the seemingly forced conversion of children to Catholicism. According to Nevinson, it seemed like joining the missionaries and their practices of Catholicism was a way out of contract labor. This provides support to the idea that the so-called “voluntary labor” was indeed forced because large numbers of children did indeed join these missionaries and likely as a way to escape the labor (Satre, 2006).

The abolition of slavery in Portuguese colonies very clearly was not an abolition. Rather, they simply changed the form in which slavery exists to fit a more “ethical” time period where concerns were raised about slavery. With the British and companies like the Cadbury Bros. making points about ethical concerns, the Portuguese attempted to justify their contract labor by mentioning that it must be signed by both contractor and worker and that there were clear guidelines for the conditions in which the labor would be done. However, through anecdotal stories and investigations done by journalists such as Nevinson, it is clear that these standards of labor were almost always ignored for the sole purpose of economic gain through cacao production. By abusing power and existing conflict within these colonies, the Portuguese successfully enslaved, not paid, thousands of West Africans for the purpose of cacao production.

Works Cited:

Higgs, C. (2013). Chocolate islands: cocoa, slavery, and colonial Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

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

Weinberg, S. (2015, October 22). Chocolate and slavery. Retrieved from https://www.1843magazine.com/places/chocolate-and-slavery

The Development of Chocolate as a Mass Commodity Over Time

I will be discussing the development of chocolate as an industrialized food in the modern world. We take the existence of chocolate a mass commodity — and that is as a easy to find and massively consumed commodity — for granted. However chocolate was not always this way. Chocolate originated in the Americas that is that is where the cacao plant from which chocolate is created was initially a grown. That is where it is native and it had been used by the peoples in those areas to our knowledge for thousands of years and it had been used for various purposes. But initially well it is difficult to it is difficult to know exactly all the ways in which chocolate has been used and exactly when it have been using these ways throughout all of history due to birth inherent limitations in looking back at history but also the unfortunate reality that much of mesoamerica History has been obscured and erase do to colonialism. 

But none the less the information that we do have indicates that chocolate largely had spiritual purposes in these Mesoamerican societies and was seen as something of the elite. So in other words it was not a massively consumed food. Cacao products there were massively used for non culinary purposes for example they were used as a means of exchange, as a currency. This is the way in which cacao products and chocolate were being used and the way they were distributed throughout Mesoamerican societies when the Spanish first came to these Societies in the late 1400s and early 1500s. 

Initially the Spanish did not Produce chocolate for culinary purposes because they did not like the taste of chocolate. It was very bitter at that time and was usually consumed as a drink and this did not fit the Spanish is liking for Taste. However overall overtime they began to see more and more the potential for the use of chocolate is food and part is this coincided with their introduction of sugar into chocolate products to make it sweeter. Once they’ve found a combination of ingredients that made chocolate palpable to them they decided to mass produce it. In order to mass produce chocolate and other ingredients in chocolate products especially sugar they turn to slavery to a master juice cacao and chocolate on plantations. Initially they use the native peoples of mesoamerica for these purposes but after while when these people started to unfortunately die off due to diseases imported by Europeans and also just the harshness of slave life the Spanish began to use slaves from Africa. They would import people from Africa and use them as slaves to grow chocolate in the Americas cacao and sugar. 

Eventually other European powers such as Britain starting to do the same thing to the point where it became mass-produced and discontinued into the twentieth century even after the abolition of official slavery. What also began to happen is that cacao began to be grown in Africa and in other regions of the world that had been colonized by the European powers. Slowly the location of cattle growth shifted sister today most Cacao is grown outside of its native regions. That is Cacao a genetically we know probably began in South America but then was I move to mesoamerica and was largely use there and then from there imported to Africa in other regions. 

Cacao is now mostly grown in those after mentioned other regions. Even though in modern times cacao and sugar, which are highly linked in terms of their production, to one another are not a generally not grown using official slavery they are however still unfortunately grown using coerced labor. Brown and Black people  are paid peanuts for their work and work under very harsh conditions and actually suffer disease and early death as a result of what they do. And that has coincided of course with chocolate being massively consumed all over the world by by many different people. And even though chocolate is consumed worldwide, it is consumed more in the West in industrialized nations. So in other words the people who bear the brunt of chocolate production, the production of cacao, the production of sugar, and the refinement of those raw materials into chocolate actually consume chocolate the least whereas the people who profit most off of of the production of chocolate consume it the most. So chocolate is tasty and massively consumed but also over time has become a blood-stained commodity, and that is the unfortunate reality of our culinary world.

Works Cited

“Consequences of Violence.” Violence, 2019, pp. 161–181., doi:10.1002/9781119240716.ch9.

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

Sloan, Kealy, et al. “One Size Does Not Fit All: Private-Sector Perspectives on Climate Change, Agriculture and Adaptation.” The Climate-Smart Agriculture Papers, 2018, pp. 227–233., doi:10.1007/978-3-319-92798-5_19.

Multimedia Sources


Loo, John. “Chocolate.” Flickr, Yahoo!, 24 June 2007, http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnloo/606739059.

Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Slaves_cutting_the_sugar_cane_-_Ten_Views_in_the_Island_of_Antigua_(1823),_plate_IV_-_BL.jpg.

The Growth of sugar consumption in Britain

From the first introduction of sugar in Europe in 1000 AD until present times, its consumption has skyrocketed amongst British people. The mass availability of sugar in Britain is linked to a global labor market with its roots in chattel slavery. When sugar first entered Britain, it remained a food stuff of the elite in England for centuries before spreading to the common people. After the introduction of sugar to the masses, the consumption of the product grew immensely and solidified itself as a staple of the British diet, well into the present. This paper will first trace the cultivation of sugar in Britain’s sugar plantation in the Americas in order to understand the availability of sugar as a commodity and the impact of the global market on mainland Britain’s consumption habits. Next, this paper will look at the growth of sugar usage among the elite of the country. Sugar then proliferated to the masses through medicinal uses and the popularization of teas, as well as to fit the productive needs to the working class. Therefore, the popularization of sugar in Britain can be attributed to the combination of slavery’s economic system as well as the versatility of the food’s usages from ritual to practical in the daily lives of British civilians.

The popularization of sugar as a staple in British society could not have come about without the colonial endeavors of Britain and its dependence of slavery in the new world. Europeans first came about the existence of sugar in the early 1000s AD. In Europe, Spain was first to cultivate sugar abroad, but Britain was later to develop its colonial sugar plantations. In 1637, Britain successfully cultivated sugar in Barbados, setting off an expansion of sugar cultivation in Britain’s other colonies (Mintz). In “Sweetness and Power”, Sidney Mintz writes that “England fought the most, conquered the most colonies, imported the most slaves, and went furthest and fastest in creating a plantation system. The most important product of the system was sugar” (Mintz). With this statement Mintz affirms a very deeply unbreakable connection between Britain’s colonial efforts, slavery, and the availability of sugar for it to even become a staple item in the mainland. In fact, Mintz also asserts that sugar produced a greater influx of slaves than other crops (Mintz) With the increasing importation of slaves to colonial plantations, the availability of sugar began to skyrocket. While the connection between the slave trade and sugar consumption exists, it is key to understand the magnitude of human capital necessary for the popularization of sugar and its availability for social life. The process of making sugar for consumers required constant, back breaking work, that required a year long process. Slave labor was not just menial unskilled labor, as slaves were involved in many tedious steps of planting, harvesting, boiling, and crystalizing (Dunn). This process was so strenuous and relentless that slaves died at alarming rates and had to be replaced constantly. Mintz asserts that by the nineteenth century, sugar was a staple among all British people. In the animation on the slave trade below, it is illustrated that the import of slaves to the Carribbean rose almost exponentially between the first introduction of sugar to British elite and to its popularization among the masses. 


The direct relationship between slave imports and sugar consumption can not be ignored. Further, as Britain’s advancement of its colonial power and its increased productivity of sugar allowed them to increase their market share of the product. Soon, the underdogs were able to compete with other countries, which allowed their prices to decrease and as a result, their domestic consumption of sugar was also able to rise (Mintz). Hence, the slave labor of Africans in Barbados, Jamaica and other colonies was key for the increased consumption of the product at home, which will be illustrated below. 

Even though Britain had fine tuned their production of sugar abroad, the initial consumption of sugar at home was limited to the elites of the country, which made the sugar’s usages in the seventeenth century symbolic of opulence. Mintz writes that by “1650  in England the nobility and the wealthy had become inveterate sugar eaters, and sugar figured in their medicine, literary imagery, and displays of rank” (Mintz). Sugar’s utility as a status symbol among the elites of Britain is best exemplified in the popularity of subtleties. Subtleties were figurines made of sugar mixed with other materials. They would be utilized, for example, during banquets of royalty to denote between different courses of meals (Mintz). At this point, sugar was a rare and expensive resource, so the display of sugar in this form was an ultimate display of power and wealth. Large amounts of sugar, of different kinds of colors would be molded into different structures to be admired, and then eaten afterwards. By displaying such art and then eating it, subtleties were a way to flex one’s wealth. With time, the usage of sugar as decorative accessories diffused from the upper elite into the aspiring upper classes who wanted to use subtleties as a way to stake a claim into high status groups. Thus, more people were going out their way to acquire sugar and to display this commodity for its social significance. As this trend continued, Mintz notes cookbooks that appeared in the eighteenth century with sugar subtleties recipes within (Mintz). The existence of these cookbooks can be argued to mean that subtleties were becoming more widely consumed, as now there was an audience interested in producing their own versions. An interesting fact however, is that with the continued spread of the subtleties down the social ladder, the symbolic meaning, and the prestige associated with ornate sugar structures decreased. In a fast forwarding to the present, the “British Bake Off” shows an example of the continuation of intricate dessert pieces. 

In fact, a contestant even once built a colosseum out of cake. One could imagine a king making a subtlety of a colosseum to flex their royal might and descendancy from the ancient Greeks. However today, such shows of sugar artistry are merely for the everyday person’s entertainment on television. 

Beyond the proliferation of sugar among the masses as a means to illustrate one’s prestige, sugar became popular among commoners because of its utility as an energy source for the increasingly busy working class. Mintz writes that the diets of the working British were often harsh, and not full of enough nutrients. Specifically, the complex carbohydrates in the largely grain based diets were difficult for the body to process and to convert into needed energy. Sugar became popular because the body is easier able to access energy from the more simple carbohydrate structure of sucrose. In essence, it became a saving grace for people working long hours, without great nutrition, who couldn’t afford to stop moving. Although by the time sugar reached the masses in the nineteenth century, people were not so educated about why they were so drawn to sugar. Today of course, we have a better understanding. To fully understand why sugar became such a rage, an overview of how it is broken down by the body is important, and can be found below. 

Also helpful to the boom of sugar usage was the increase in consumption of teas in Britain (Mintz). Today, tea has become a cultural signature of British culture in the United States. However, the simultaneous emergence of tea with sugar really allowed people to enjoy tea. Tea has caffeine, and was an energy source for working people. Tea does not have high caffeine content, but it was still a help to people in need of fast energy. Similarly, coffee emerged for British consumers as a source of energy and became intertwined with culture. The growth in popularity of tea and coffee was assisted by sugar, which was used as a sweetener. However, the exact caffeination content of tea and coffee are not so high, so it is interesting that their energy effects popularized them so much. According to the Mayo Clinic, a brewed cup of coffee only has 96mg of caffeine, and a cup of black tea has  46 mg (Mayo Clinic). This is a juxtaposition to energy shots readily available today with 215 mg of caffeine. However, everyone’s sensitivity to caffeine varies, and is unknown in several ways. Well known is that the need for energy has persisted into many cultures today. 

Understanding the changes in sugar consumption among the British is a complicated endeavor involving economic catalysts, status motivations, and the necessities of the working class. While the narrating the full picture would require a much more extensive paper, this paper focused on key causes as expressed by Mintz. Understanding the growth of sugar reveals that the foods we enjoy are not solely determined by random chance, and our taste buds. Although sugar now is a key item in cuisine, this paper shows that it was not always this case. To get to this place, slaves died, kings flaunted, the upper class yearned, and the working class fueled themselves. 

Works Cited

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power : the Place of Sugar in Modern History. Viking, 1985.

How Do Carbohydrates Impact Your Health? – Richard J. Wood. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wxzc_2c6GMg&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

“How Much Caffeine Is in Your Cup?” Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/caffeine/art-20049372. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Kahn, Andrew, and Jamelle Bouie. “The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes.” Slate, June 2015. Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_history_of_american_slavery/2015/06/animated_interactive_of_the_history_of_the_atlantic_slave_trade.html.

Top 10 British Bake-Off Treats. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJS7JWP1NEo. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Dunn, Richard S., and Institute of Early American History Culture. Sugar and Slaves; the Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va., by the University of North Carolina Press, 1972.

Sugar and Chocolate: Two Industries Rooted in Racism

“Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor. [The planter] would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon, nearer too than the more populous countries of India and China. But their turn was to come.”

– Eric Williams, historian & former Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago

Slavery was an integral part of the development of both the chocolate and sugar industries; without the labor provided by the tens of thousands of enslaved Africans that were taken from their homes and brought to the New World in order to perform painstaking labor on sugar and cacao plantations, I don’t think either of these industries would be where they are today. In addition to this system of chattel slavery, in which enslaved people were treated as personal property and were bought and sold as commodities, indigenous people also fell victim to European greed and conquest through the slightly different, but equally antagonistic encomienda system; natives were forced to farm the land and produce quotas as a way to pay tribute to the Spanish colonists that were intruding on their land (Martin). Today, it’s obvious that the work these people were forced to do and the conditions they had to endure, with little to no reward, were completely and utterly unjust. And according to Eric Williams, historian and diplomat, the motive behind this unjust treatment was purely economic; “it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor” (Martin). But I have to disagree; upon further investigation of the horrendous details of the history of slavery in these industries, it’s obvious that racism and white supremacy played huge roles, and continue to do so today.

The Atlantic Slave Trade began around the mid 1500s and lasted about 300 years; the trading took place in a three-way system: ships from Europe carrying manufactured goods would sail to Africa where they’d be exchanged for “human cargo.” These enslaved people would then be transported to the New World, and raw goods, such as sugar, cacao, indigo, and tobacco, would be loaded onto the ships and taken back to Europe (Coe 186). This cycle continued for centuries, reaching its peak in the 18th century. And even after the abolition of the slave trade at the beginning of the the 19th century, thousands of ships continued to transport enslaved people to South and Central America up until 1860 (Kahn).

Five years later, slavery itself was finally outlawed in the United States, but in many Caribbean countries, this was not the case; slave labor was still used until the turn of the 20th century. In fact, Cadbury, one of the big six companies in the chocolate industry today, was caught up in a controversy involving the Portuguese government and the use of slave labor on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe around the year 1910. A pamphlet entitled Alma Negra was published in 1912 stating that “‘the existence of slavery on the islands is a fact’” (Higgs 158). However, as time went on, situations involving slavery diminished and cacao cultivation made a transition from South and Central America and the Caribbean to the West African countries of Ghana, Nigeria, and Ivory Coast. Today, this region produces a whopping 70% of the world’s cacao (Coe 196-197). And though it may seem as if all cacao farmers are being paid for their labor, this is not the case. Unfortunately, child labor is a huge problem in African agriculture as a whole, but especially with cacao. Children are being trafficked and forced to work in dangerous conditions; they come into contact with strong pesticides, often cut themselves with the large machetes they must use, and receive little to no medical treatment (Coe 264). And that, sadly, is where we are today.

The young boys pictured here are working on a cocoa farm in Côte d’Ivoire

Forced, unpaid labor in itself is objectionable, and when taken at face value, it’s easy to see why Williams’s statement regarding economic opportunity as the sole motive for slavery is plausible. However, once one takes a closer look at some of the gruesome details of the system, along with the way in which cacao cultivation developed into what it is today, the large impact that racism and white supremacy had becomes more clear. Going back to “Three-Way Trade” and looking at the way in which human beings were treated as cargo: forced to lie down, chained, stacked on shelves in a ship’s hold for weeks on end, with very little food or water, forced to defecate on themselves and each other; this type of treatment can only be categorized as inhumane. In fact, in order to justify such treatment, European traders had to have believed that these enslaved people were less than human, disposable pieces of property that didn’t possess basic human rights.

This video from the History Channel describes the appalling details of what occurred on the typical slave ship.

And this trend continued as the enslaved people who survived the voyage across the Middle Passage entered into forced labor on plantations. The conditions were simply atrocious, so bad that the life expectancy for an enslaved person working in the Caribbean or Brazil was only seven to eight years (Martin). The lives of these people were simply not valued, and this fact is not only recognized now, but also by many who lived back then; abolitionist movements quickly arose amongst those who were enslaved and those who were not. And even as abolition has been achieved and the very slow transition has been made from slave labor to paid labor, systematic racism continues to play a role in the chocolate industry. As aforementioned, West Africans, the same people who were torn from their homes and forced to work on plantations, are the main cultivators of cacao today. And while most of them are paid, they are not paid nearly enough; they only earn a measly 3% of the profits while those involved in marketing, processing, transportation, and retail take the rest (Martin). Because of the system, these African farmers remain poor while the big chocolate companies only get richer. And the sad part is, they have no other choice; there’s no way for them to escape this system. Thus, the racist sentiments that started way back in the 1500s continue to exist, more subtly, today.

All that being said, it’s impossible to look at the history of the sugar and cacao industries without confronting slavery and the racist, supremacist views used to justify it. And though we cannot change the past, there’s still hope for the futures of these industries as more people are being made aware of the injustices that occur and are advocating for change. Hopefully, this change will come soon and the cultivators of cacao will finally get what they deserve.

The Inextricable Nature of Slavery and Chocolate Production

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.

A close up of a map

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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.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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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.

Works Cited

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 Studies664.

“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[1985]. 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.

The Contradiction of Capitalism: Sugar Plantations in the early 1800s

           When we think of sugar, we usually think of candy, decadence, and sweet treats. We associate sugar with emotions of joy, celebration, and excitement. Despite our immediate associations with sugar, what often goes unknown is the darker histories of sugar and its legacy today. Particularly in the 1800s, sugar began to be seen as a commodity of the masses in England, and at the same time, capitalism had newly emerged as an economic system. During this time, sugar became an increasing necessity and a marker of socioeconomic equality within England, but it remained as the foundation of capitalism and racial hierarchy on a global scale. Sugar’s existence exemplifies the contradictory nature of capitalism, how it can seemingly become a food of the masses in 1800s England but in actuality be the root of exploitation. To use sugar to examine the contradictory nature of capitalism, I will first explore the seeming equality that sugar symbolized in England then explain how in actuality, it perpetuated enormous amounts of inequality and hierarchy both within England and on a global scale.

The Rise of Capitalism in the late 1700s

Capitalism became a governing economic form in the late eighteenth century, as we see the rise of mass production and mass consumption governed by the presupposed markets for wage labor (Harvey 66). However, the rise of capitalism can also be seen as involved in “the destruction of economic systems that had preceded it – notably, European feudalism – and the creation of a system of world trade” (Mintz 55). As the New World imported slaves to the Caribbean plantations, this process was vital to the destruction of preceding economic systems and the emergence of capitalism. Now that I’ve set the scene of the late 1700s as the rise of capitalism, I will delve into the contradictory aspects surrounding the so-called equality that capitalism brought with it.

Slaves cutting sugar cane in the 1800s in Trinidad

The So-called Symbolic Equality of Sugar in 17th Century England

           Historically, sugar had been a marker of wealth before the 1800s, but the status of who was consuming sugar changed over time as it became incorporated into the diet of every English person by the 1800s. According to Sydney Mintz in Sweetness and Power, very few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar, in 1000 AD. By 1650, the nobility and the wealthy in England consumed much sugar and used it in their medicine, literature, and status symbols. In 1800, sugar became a necessity that existed in the diet of every English person, though it might have been costly and not as accessible to those of lower socioeconomic statuses. Clearly, in 1800s England, sugar was in the process of transitioning from being a food of the wealthy to a food of the masses.

“In 1000 AD, few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. But soon after they learned about it; by 1650, in England the nobility and the wealthy had become inveterate sugar eaters, and sugar figured in their medicine, literary imagery, and displays of rank. By no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity – albeit a costly and rare one – in the diet of every English person; by 1900, it was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet.”

Sydney Mintz in Sweetness and Power (pp 5-6)

           In fact, in the mid-1800s, George R. Porter, a broker in sugar and an observer of English eating habits wrote that “long habit has in this country led almost every class to the daily use of it” (Mintz 174). England had in essence become a “nation of sucrose eaters” (174). Sucrose or sugar in the early 1800s was transitioning into a food of the masses, and by the mid-1800s it had seemingly been well incorporated into the nation as a whole and not as divisive based on economic status. Upon first glance, it seems like every English person has access to sugar and that sugar is a commodity of the people.

Dismantling the Symbolic Equality of Sugar

           While sugar lost its symbol as wealth in England and instead became a commodity of the people, its role on the global scale reinforced labor structures that were fundamental to vast amounts of inequality.

            Sugar was a major contributor in the popularity of chattel slavery that existed between the 1600s to 1800s. African slaves were brought to Caribbean plantations to produce crops, primarily consisting of sugar. The only party that benefited from the plantation system were the planters, or slaveowners, themselves. Under harsh working schedules and conditions, slaves became exhausted, often taking on the heavy pulling work at a sugar mill that could kill off bulls and horses (Hollsten 255). Slaves faced malnourishment, sexual abuse, extremely difficult and laborious work, and inhumane punishments (Hollsten 256). The production of sugar was deeply rooted in the intense laborious processes and inhumane treatment that slaves received.

This map of the Triangular Trade shows how sugar was produced and exported to Europe and New England from slave labor in the Caribbean.

           Even within Britain, a deeper examination of accessibility to sugar showed that it was inherently unequal. The government taxed the poor regressively for their sugar, which kept sugar consumption lower among the poor (Mintz 175). Even as the poor in England were grappling with learning to use sugar, their use of it was limited – sugar was a minor item in the family budget of the rich in England and they would purchase the same amount regardless of the price, but this was not the case with those who were poor in England, making regressive taxes so prohibitive. In short, “the enslaved Africans who produced the sugar were linked in clear economic relationships to the British laboring people who were learning to eat it” (Mintz 175). Inequality was more present than at glimpse on the surface level of the “nation of sucrose eaters” – it was extant in both England and also on a global scale.

           Thus, as seen by both instances of inhumanity and inequality on a global level and even within Britain, the seeming symbolic equality of sugar tied with “free trade” and emerging markets was, in fact, rife with disparity.

The Contradiction

           Even today, sugar and candy are generally accessible to most individuals in first-world countries but not necessarily to the individuals who are producing the sugar in the first place. While U.S. residents, for example, might not blink an eye when thinking about whether individuals have access to sugar, the way labor markets are structured to this day make it so that there is vast inequality between the global south and the global north, the producers and the consumers respectively of sugar. The emerging economic system of capitalism in the 1800s, rooted in the plantation slavery of the sugar plantations, laid the foundation for the contradictions at the time and its legacy today – symbolic, performative equality of access to sugar in the Global North but inhumane working conditions, inaccessibility to the commodity itself in the Global South.


“Cutting Sugar Cane in Trinidad, 1836.” Wikimedia Commons, 2013, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cutting_Sugar_Cane_in_Trinidad,_1836,_lithograph.jpg.

“Detailed Triangle Trade.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Detailed_Triangle_Trade.jpg.

Harvey, Mark. “Slavery, Indenture and the Development of British Industrial Capitalism.” History Workshop Journal, vol. 88, no. 1, 2019, pp. 66–88.

Hollsten, Laura. “Night Time and Entangled Spaces on Early Modern Caribbean Sugar Plantations.” Journal of Global Slavery, vol. 1, no. 2-3, 2016, pp. 248–273.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. 1986.

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.

The Development of Chocolate as an Industrialized Food

Globally, chocolate production rakes in $100 billion each year (Lecture 01, slide 4). Though just five companies control almost two-thirds of the chocolate market worldwide, an abundance of people have an invested stake in this business – almost 50 million people around the world financially depend on cacao (Leissle, 2018; Lecture 01, slide 4). Evidently, chocolate possesses a large importance in the global economy, and this eminence has been made possible by its massive industrialization. This industrialization of chocolate would not have occurred on such a large scale without the development of machinery, as well as the utilization of slave labor.

Man in factory, 1985.
Man in factory, 1985.

Before the rampant industrialization of chocolate, chocolate was produced by hand. Originally, cacao was found in the Amazon basin, and consumed by the Olmecs, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that preceded the Mayans (Lecture 02, slide 15). For some time, cacao remained local to Mesoamerica, until the first half of the 16th century (experts disagree on the exact year), when Hernaz Cortez brought cacao to Spain (Coe & Coe, 1996). Before this voyage, chocolate had to be culturally accepted by Spanish colonizers. Thus, they combined their own preferences with those of the Aztecs, consuming hot, rather than cool or cold, liquid chocolate; adding sugar, and spices; and employing the use of a molinillo to froth chocolate (Coe & Coe, 1996). Furthermore, the conversion of chocolate from a beverage to a solid form, as well as a powder that could subsequently be converted back to a liquid, was essential in the transportation of chocolate from Mesoamerica to Spain (Coe & Coe, 1996). Following the arrival of chocolate in Spain, this food subsequently made its way through other countries in the continent, going next to Italy, France, Britain, and then to the British colonies in the New World (Coe & Coe, 1996; Lecture 03, slide 25). 

As cacao made its way across the world, the means of chocolate production likewise changed. In Mesoamerica, cacao beans were ground with a metate, ultimately producing chocolate liquor. However, this mode of production was energetically expensive, and time-inefficient. With the inception of machines that were able to mechanically grind cacao beans into chocolate liquor, chocolate production has been able to increase exponentially, and this increased supply has been able to meet the growing demand of consumers – once consisting of the wealthy, now consisting of people from a variety of cultures and socioeconomic spheres. In fact, in 2018, US consumers of chocolate ingested more than a whopping 12 pounds of chocolate per person (Lecture 01, slide 3). 

Also important in the development of chocolate as an industrialized food was the use of slave labor in cacao production. “From demands for cocoa tribute by ruling Aztec kings, to enforced production by Spanish colonists in the Americas, through the importation of African slaves in South America and the Caribbean…the violent exploitation of humans has been a recurrent feature of cocoa production” (Leissle, 2018, p.131). Without this labor, cacao production, and consequently, the production of chocolate, would not have ballooned to modern-day levels, and the popularity of chocolate would likewise not be as great, as fewer people would have access to it. The first major explosion of cocoa production occured in the Gulf of Guinea, during the 1800s (Clarence-Smith, 1993; De Vasconcelos, 2007) . Through the employment of slave labor in this colony, Portugal was soon able to become the largest producer of cacao in the world (De Vasconcelos, 2007). Indeed, “the greater success of the Portuguese was due mainly to their access to a plentiful supply of slave labor” (Clarence-Smith, 1993, p.152). By 1876, slavery was legally abolished in the Portuguese colonies, but effectively continued in the shadows long after this emancipation. As chocolate production spread, slavery – whether legal or illegal – spread with it, allowing the industry to boom. Forced child labor can be found even in the modern era, as studies have indicated that almost 30 percent of child laborers in the Ivory Coast are effectviely held hostage on the fams on which they produce cacao, and more than an additional 10 percent of child laborers lack the financial stability to leave these farms, as of 2002 (Leissle, 2018). Coerced labor is the cheapest form of labor, and evidently still supports the industrialization of chocolate, even today. 

Artistic rendition of slave labor

Though the industrialization of chocolate has been supported on the backs on unfree laborers, the rise of Fair Trade organizations has served as an attempt to attenuate this injustice. These organizations award Fair Trade certification to companies that employ ethical cacao production practices, including protecting children from harsh labor, refraining from the use of unfree labor in their production, and instituting environmentally conscious practices (Leissle, 2018). Though much of the history of chocolate development as an industrialized food is morally unsavory, Fair Trade organizations provide the potential for a more just future in chocolate production. 

Box of chocolate confectionaries


Chocolate shapes [Photograph] (2015). Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/chocolate_201509

Clarence-Smith, W.G. (1993). Breaking the Chains: Slavery, Bondage, and Emancipation in Modern Africa and Asia. The University of Wisconsin Press.

Coe, S.D., & Coe, M.D. (1996). The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson. 

De Vasconcelos, A. The Cadbury and the Portuguese Cocoa, first decade 20th century. Economic interests, slave trade, and Quaker business ethics. Universidad de Aveiro, Dep. de Linguas e Culturas (2007).

Klimek, M.E. (1985). Vice President John J. Sullivan inside closed Ferry-Morse factory [Photograph]. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/cmv_000979

Latuff. (2008). Afro-Brazilian, from slavery to poverty [Illustration]. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/Afro-brazilianFromSlaveryToPoverty

Leissle, K. (2018). Cocoa. Polity Press.