The Chocolate Industry and Slavery

Here at York’s Chocolate Story we unwrap centuries of the history of chocolate. We believe it is important to be aware of the role colonisation and slavery have played in the chocolate trade. Slavery is an ongoing problem in cocoa production and steps are being taken to help eradicate it from the chocolate industry.

History of the Chocolate Industry and Slavery

While the Portuguese were the first Europeans to encounter cocoa, the Spanish became involved in cocoa production first. After their conquest of central America in the 16th century, they introduced an “encomienda” system. The Spanish Crown granted colonisers the legal rights to the labour of the native non-Christian population. The colonisers forced them to work in horrific conditions.

Demand for cocoa increased dramatically in the mid-to-late 17th century because drinking chocolate became popular amongst upper classes in Europe. The first cocoa house in England house opened in London in 1657. Cocoa beans were shipped to Europe from New Spain (Mexico), Ecuador and Venezuela. By the late 17th century, the labour force had shifted to mainly enslaved Africans. They were transported across the Atlantic in terrible conditions and forced to work on cocoa and sugar plantations throughout South America and the Caribbean.

Throughout the 18th century Britain directly profited from the slave trade and slavery. Tea, coffee, sugar and cocoa poured into ports as colonial products.

York’s Chocolate Industry’s Involvement

York’s Quaker chocolate manufacturers often purchased cocoa from British and other European colonies. These companies included some of York’s most recognisable, like Rowntree’s. However, as philanthropists, Quakers were one of the leading voices in the abolition movement. The Tuke family, responsible for the Retreat hospital in York, helped to fund the election campaign of William Wilberforce. He was a prominent anti-slavery campaigner and philanthropist.

With the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire in 1807, and slavery as an institution in 1833, colonial indenture developed as a bonded labour system used on cocoa farms in European held Caribbean and West Africa. As slaves were freed, they had little choice but to continue working on plantations with little pay and poor conditions. Colonial indenture was eventually abolished in 1920. An investigation by The Rowntree Society into the history of the Rowntree’s supply chain has revealed they benefitted from colonial indenture. In the 1890s Rowntree & Co purchased multiple plantations in British colonies (the islands of Dominica, Jamaica and Trinidad). Research is ongoing into how the company benefitted from the forced labour of enslaved and indentured people.

British chocolate manufacturers also bought cocoa from the West African Islands colonised by Portugal, such as Sao Tome and Principe. While companies raised concerns about slavery on these plantations and even sent a journalist to investigate, they continued to buy ingredients from the regions. They believed they could address the issue of slavery through diplomatic channels. This failed and in 1909 the chocolate manufacturers publicly announced they were going to buy cocoa from elsewhere.

The Modern Chocolate Industry and Slavery

The abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and the colonial indenture system did not end slavery in chocolate production.

Despite major brands vowing to stop using cocoa harvested by children two decades ago, child labour in modern day chocolate production is unfortunately still a huge problem. The chocolate industry is still guilty of human rights abuses because these children, often victims of human trafficking, work for low pay in terrible conditions.

Modern Initiatives to End Slavery in Chocolate Production

York’s Chocolate Story are Partners to Callebaut. Their program Forever Chocolate aims to make sustainable chocolate with no child labour the normal across the industry by 2025.

Callebaut’s involved in the World Cocoa Foundation establishing CocoaAction and they are going to go beyond the initiative.

Forever Chocolate has four main aims: to lift farmers out of poverty, eradicate child labour, become carbon and forest positive and have 100% sustainable ingredients in all of their products.

Callebaut is aiming to start a movement with their industry partners, governments, NGO’s and consumers to meet these aims.

York’s Chocolate Story’s shop stocks a range of chocolates from suppliers that are making leaps in terms of sustainability.

Find out more about York’s Chocolate Story here

Text reads: team chocolate


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