Chocolate, smuggling, and slavery: A Q&A with WWU's Jared Hardesty about his new book, 'Mutiny on the Rising Sun'

Western Washington University Associate Professor of History Jared Hardesty’s newest book, “Mutiny on the Rising Sun: A Tragic Tale of Slavery, Smuggling, and Chocolate,” published by NYU Press last October, tells the story of one ship, its crew of smugglers, and the mutiny that overtook the vessel off the northern coast of South America in 1743.

Hardesty uses that story as a lens for exploring the economies and practices in place at the time, and how slavery was the functional pillar that supported cross-Atlantic trade. Like his other two books, Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in 18th Century Boston” and “Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England,” Hardesty works to tell stories about slavery that have often been left untold, especially within the broader context of how slavery was a “southern issue,” when the reality was that slavery made many people rich who never set foot in the south.

Western Today sat down with Hardesty to talk about the book, the scholarly work that went into it, and how it is reflective of a larger, growing body of scholarship such as the 1619 Project that works to re-examine and refocus our historical look at slavery as an American institution.


Western Today: How did you first come upon the story of the Rising Sun?

Jared Hardesty: In September 2016, I received an invitation to give a talk about my first book, Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston, at the Old North Church and Historic Site in Boston, Massachusetts. While there, I learned about one of Old North’s eighteenth-century parishioners named Newark Jackson. Old North had opened a historic chocolate shop and named it after Jackson, who was a merchant, ship captain, and one of the first chocolatiers in Boston. They had done some basic genealogical research on Jackson, but still had questions about who he was and, especially for the shop’s sake, where he acquired the cacao to make chocolate. I started to dig into Jackson’s life a bit and, in the course of that initial research, I discovered that two things. First, Jackson was a smuggler, conducting illegal trade throughout the Americas and especially in the Dutch colony of Suriname. Second, he died in a mutiny on board a ship he captained, the Rising Sun, in June 1743. Most exciting for me as a historian, the mutiny generated a large amount of documentation in Dutch, British, and American archives.


WT: What made you decide to take the tale of the mutiny on that one small ship and turn it into a clear-eyed look at the Atlantic slave trade?

JH: That was a process. After learning about the mutiny and all the records surrounding it, Old North applied for and received a Forest E. Mars Jr. Chocolate History Grant from Mars-Wrigley Confectionary (yes, of M&Ms fame!). I was the principal investigator for the grant, hiring a multinational team of researchers to conduct research and learn more about Newark Jackson. As we delved into the records, we discovered a far richer documentary record than I first imagined. What emerged was less about Jackson, who moved away from the center of the story, and more about an international cacao smuggling ring that trafficked New England produce (salt fish, timber, etc.) and captive Africans from the British colonies to exchange for cacao grown in Suriname.

Most significantly, the voyage of the Rising Sun was a slave trading voyage. In October 2018, the project’s research assistant in the Netherlands, Ramona Negrón, discovered an inventory of the ship taken after the mutiny and, at the end, it listed 15 enslaved people, 13 of whom were children, on board the vessel. They were, in the cruel language of the Atlantic slave trade, the “remainders” of a much larger cargo of captive Africans that the smuggling ring, using the Rising Sun, trafficked from the British Caribbean plantation colony of Barbados to Suriname.

Upon learning about these captives, it completely changed the nature of the project and the subsequent book. The book that I had envisioned as a swashbuckling tale of smuggling, mutiny, and murder transformed into a much more somber and sober history of smuggling and the illegal inter-American slave trade. Mutiny on the Rising Sun is ultimately what I call a “human history of smuggling” that details the lives of all the people caught in the webs spun by illicit commerce. Important for that “human history” are the lives of the captives onboard the Rising Sun, whose role in this world of smuggling meant being cargo to be bought and sold. 


WT: In the same way that pirates weren’t really pirates if they had a Letter of Marque that made the same activities legal, “smuggling” seems to be an institution that occurred as part of a thriving, yet very known, illicit trade, where many simply chose to look the other way to make profit. How important was smuggling to the “triangular trade” from Europe to the Caribbean and to the colonies?

JH: Very important. First, however, it is important to discuss what “smuggling” meant in the eighteenth century. All European empires in the Americas — British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, and Dutch — placed trade restrictions on their colonies. Usually, these laws prohibited trading outside of the empire without paying exorbitant tariffs on foreign goods. The idea was to create a cohesive imperial market where the colonies provided valuable commodities and raw materials to the mother country and, in turn, served as a market for manufactured goods. In practice, it meant that everyday items such as sugar, molasses, coffee, and chocolate faced commercial restrictions and taxes. Not every empire produced these commodities and some empires produced them cheaper than others. Such unevenness incentivized smuggling. Given the slow speed of communication and transportation in the eighteenth century, enforcing trade laws was impossible, while there was always a market for cheaper, smuggled products. Almost anyone who was a consumer in eighteenth-century America — in short, everyone — would have engaged in this economy of smuggling at some point in their lives. Conservative estimates are that, under this broad definition of illicit trade, at least 50% of all commerce in the eighteenth-century Atlantic could be considered smuggling.

Slavery intersected directly with this world of smuggling in abstract and concrete ways. Enslaved labor produced some of the most commonly smuggled commodities, such as sugar and molasses. Much of the capital raised to fund smuggling voyages—and certainly the smuggling ring at the center of Mutiny on the Rising Sun—came from the business of slavery, such as plantation ownership, provisioning plantations with food, timber, and livestock, and slave trading. And, as the case of the Rising Sun shows, enslaved people were often part of the cargoes of smuggling voyages, being bargained for slave-produced commodities.


WT: Chocolate – or at least the trade for its base form, cacao – became extraordinarily popular during the colonial era. How was it also tied into slavery?

JH: Much like sugar, molasses, and coffee, slave labor produced almost all the cacao grown in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Whole regional economies, such as that of what is today Venezuela, centered around using enslaved Africans to grow and process cacao. Other major plantation societies, like Suriname, grew cacao as a supplemental crop, dedicating a portion of a plantation’s land and slaves to its production. And yet, cacao’s connection to slavery went even deeper than that. Newark Jackson, the captain of the Rising Sun, owned a shop in Boston that sold chocolate. He also owned three enslaved people and at least one of them worked in the shop, transforming cacao into chocolate for consumers. From planting to harvesting to processing to packaging, enslaved labor was central to chocolate consumption in the colonial era.


WT: What finally had to happen to make this type of smuggling stop being even tacitly approved as a means of trade? Was it increasing pressure from abolitionists or more basic market forces?

JH: Essentially, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century—long after the mutiny on the Rising Sun—most empires accepted reality, realized they could not effectively enforce the restrictive trade laws, and embraced free trade instead. It was a capitulation to the smugglers. While I probably could never prove it, it does make me wonder if the embrace of free trade aided abolitionist sentiment. Since so much of the business of slavery was illicit and explicitly hidden from view, free trade would have allowed that business to be practiced freely and openly, demonstrating to anyone paying attention just how much commercial activity was connected to slavery and the slave trade. That could have empowered and furthered the moral arguments made by abolitionists.


WT: Do you think an increased willingness exists to re-examine slavery in this country, given movement towards more frank discussions in our society around social justice?

JH: Absolutely. One of the most rewarding parts of writing Mutiny on the Rising Sun was the opportunity to work with the Old North Church and Historic Site. Every step of the way, they have been willing to embrace their site’s connection to smuggling, slavery, and the slave trade, incorporating that information into their interpretive and educational programming. They also removed human trafficker Newark Jackson’s name from their historic chocolate shop. And Old North is not alone. We’re in a moment of historical reckoning as historic sites, libraries and archives, religious and educational institutions, and governments are not only willing, but often eager to examine their connections to slavery and other unsavory histories. The real question, however, is what to do with that information. Confronting the past is ultimately good, but, in most instances, the place of that confrontation in our current moment and its connection to contemporary social justice movements remains to be seen. Reckoning for reckoning’s sake is not enough. How institutions put that reckoning into action is what matters most.


WT: Any idea what your next project will be?

JH: Currently, I am examining the lives of two brothers and merchants from Boston, Thomas and Cornelius Durant, who settled on the Danish Island of St. Croix (the modern U.S. Virgin Islands) in the 1760s. There, they became plantation owners, slave traders, active members of St. Croix’s large Anglophone community, and ardent patriots during the American War of Independence. The experiences of the brothers Durant illustrate that revolutionary and republican sentiment was just as often cultivated abroad as it was at home and deeply influenced by involvement in slavery and the slave trade.


Jared Hardesty is an associate professor of History at Western, where he has taught since 2014. He obtained his doctorate in History from Boston College. Find out more about the research, teaching and scholarship being done by Western's History faculty here.