Third of a 5-part series as a model for student work.
American Original Sin: Slave Chocolate
28 March 2020
Fortunately, the indigenous origins of chocolate as a natural resource have allowed the developing world a critical income based largely on our obsession for more and more chocolate. Well, . . . it’s hard to write that sentence without screaming, honestly. Beneath our love for the ubiquitous cookie churns a generations-long nightmare of slavery and abuse.
It began very soon after Mama Ka’Kaw was “discovered” by the Europeans when they first “explored” the “New World.” It is not at all surprising that early explorers quickly loved the cocoa drink; and neither that the richest Europeans were among the first (and only) who could afford it. Most “histories” of chocolate articles recount the spread of the drink through Spain by Dominican friars, the additions of wine or coffee to the drink, the London chocolate cafes, or the courts of Louis XIV where the palace treated chocolate as an aphrodisiac. Ah, the wonders of Dutch who converted it to “eating chocolate” by adding sugar! Ah, the values of its caffeine and natural healing properties assured by early doctors! (See Hart, “History of Chocolate,” “Discovering Chocolate”)
How many places is this happening?
But what don’t these histories recount? When the Aztec Empire fell to Cortez, killing over 250,000 people, chocolate began to flow to Europe. And once Europe sugared it for taste, both cocoa and sugar became non-negotiable crops. Of course, farming either is difficult, even back-breaking work, so it was unsuited to those who would pay for chocolate. But if the crop was industrialized under slavery? Absolutely! And so, while the indigenous peoples of Central America were indentured to grow a crop they considered a gift of the gods (the Encomienda system primarily; see “The Intertwined History”), so too was West Africa re-designed for cocoa crops, and now nearly ⅔ of cocoa comes from there (Duducu). Beyond this, of the millions of slaves transported to the Americas in the same era, nearly ⅔ were set to growing sugar, vital to the chocolate trade (“The Intertwined History”).
“Hanging out in the background of our Obsession with Sweetness is a none-too-moral history of classism, slavery, and genocide. “
Each of these images, taken by me at the 2016-2017 exhibition at the DIA, shows a powerful contrast: the rich and white consume the luxury of chocolate while the poor and black serve it as an obligation within their social class. Black and other minority indentured are the ubiquitous background of all things chocolate.
Hanging out in the background of our Obsession with Sweetness is a none-too-moral history of classism, slavery, and genocide. Chocolate, once an indulgence of the elite who could pay for it, fast became accessible and commonplace to everyone once slavery dropped the price. It’s a simple model of economics: drop cost to increase sales; make profit on quantity. And, to avoid the disgust of human rights abuses, be certain that your market is not geographically close to your “production sites.” And though we may reasonably argue that chocolate did not cause slavery, it’s harder to argue that we are not doing exactly that right now.
Images from the DIA Exhibition “Bitter|Sweet”
So we go ahead and eat them. After all, if we cannot see the slavery, we can still feel special with chocolate chip cookies each and every day we eat them. And let’s be clear: the United States is the #1 consumer of chocolate chip cookies. Americans each eat an average of 35,000 cookies in our lifetimes (that’s a cookie a day for 95 years, for those calculating). And the United States manufactures 7 billion cookies each year (Bills). It’s not merely an injustice we commit in supporting slave chocolate: it’s a gross injustice in every sense.
Once upon a time in America, chocolate was sacred. It was a slow and thoughtful meditation on our relationship with nature and the gods. But over time and conquest, we have replaced that divine meditation with a kind of monstrous “choco-vorism,” a thoughtless consumption of cookies with no sense of guilt or shame or sin, though all three might well be present. To repair our consciousness won’t be easy–and it won’t merely be about hoping for Fair Trade Certifications, even though I am a personal participant in that very fight. It will require, I think, a re-imagining of our relationship with others and with the earth itself. No small order.
Bills, Joe. “Ruth Wakefield & the Chocolate-Chip Cookie.” New England Today, 26 July 2016, newengland.com/yankee-magazine/living/trivia/close-ruth-wakefield-chocolate-chip-cookie/.
Bitter|Sweet: Coffee, Tea & Chocolate At Detroit Institute Of Arts. antiquesandthearts.com/bittersweet-coffee-tea-chocolate-at-detroit-institute-of-arts-2/. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.
“Bittersweet: Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate.” Special Exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, 18 November 2016.
Chisnell, Steve. “‘The Main Ingredient.’” Chisnell.Com , 21 Jan. 2011, https://www.chisnell.com/chizblog/the-main-ingredient/.
Discovering Chocolate. cadbury.com.au/About-Chocolate/Discovering-Chocolate.aspx. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.
Duducu, Jem. “The Bloody History of Chocolate – The History Vault.” The History Vault, 16 Nov. 2014, thehistoryvault.co.uk/the-bloody-history-of-chocolate/.
Hart, Hugh. “July 7, 1550: Europeans Discover Chocolate.” WIRED, 4 June 2017, wired.com/2010/07/0707chocolate-introduced-europe/.
“History of Chocolate.” History.Com, https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-americas/history-of-chocolate. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.
“Inside Big Chocolate’s Child Labor Problem | Fortune.” KOLUMN Magazine, 21 Nov. 2017, kolumnmagazine.com/2017/11/21/inside-big-chocolates-child-labor-problem-fortune/.
“Is Your Chocolate Produced By Child Labor?” Green America, greenamerica.org/end-child-labor-cocoa/chocolate-scorecard. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.
“The Intertwined History of Chocolate and Slavery.” Chocolate Class, 15 Mar. 2019, chocolateclass.wordpress.com/2019/03/15/the-intertwined-history-of-chocolate-and-slavery/.