Bitter Sweet History - aspects of the British Slave Trade

Unfair Trade: Chocolate, coffee, sugar and tea

Chocolate, coffee and tea became popular drinks in this country from 1650 onwards. Coffee-houses, which served the hot brews, were also used as meeting places for men where business could be transacted and politics discussed in a lively manner.


The fashion for consuming these drinks meant there was money to be made in importing the raw product. Coffee bushes, cocoa trees and tea plants do not grow in a European climate - this meant merchants were buying the beans or leaves in a trading port and shipping them to England to be sold on. France, Holland, Spain, Portugal and England soon realised that they could make more money if they could control growing the plants


Coffee bushes are thought to have originated in Ethopia, from where they spread to Egypt and the Yemen, but the Dutch took some to Indonesia and were successful in growing them there, making a fortune shipping the beans back to Europe. The French took plants to their islands in the Americas, where the climate was just right, and soon coffee plantations were on many islands. They relied on slave labour to keep the price down for the European market.


Cacao trees were native to South America and discovered by Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century. Chocolate was extracted from dried, ground cocoa beans and mixed with flavourings like vanilla and grated nutmeg. Often milk, and especially sugar, was added to make it palatable to the European taste. Cacao trees were also cultivated in plantations and used slave labour.

Tea, along with the ritual surrounding making it, was imported from China. In England tea became the favoured drink of rich and poor alike, but sugar was almost always added and sugar bowls were included in some of the earliest tea sets made by English manufacturers. The demand for sugar to sweeten all these new hot beverages fuelled the sugar trade and consequently the slave trade

The native populations of central and south America were decimated by European diseases. Spanish attempts to force the remaining Indians to work the cacao plantations also failed, so African slaves were introduced to maintain Europe’s supply of chocolate. African slaves also laboured to provide the sugar needed to sweeten this bitter brew.


The Quakers had condemned the slave trade as early as 1724 and were ardent anti-slavery campaigners. It would seem ironic that the Quakers also dominated the chocolate industry. Those campaigning for the abolition of slavery refused to buy slave-grown sugar during 1791-2, but non slave-grown cocoa was not available in any quantity until the 19th century.


William Tuke & Co, the firm that was to become Rowntree’s, supported abolition and donated £50 to William Wilberforce’s election fund in 1807.

Map link: see where coffee bushes originate from»

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