(Photo credit: Wikipedia).


Theobroma cacao: a slightly shrunken football shaped husk, filled with perhaps forty seeds entombed in a delectable pulp sought after by moneys and birds, which lives within 20 degrees above and below the earth’s waist. Sucrose (colloquially, sugar): a carbohydrate, born a sweet juice extracted from sugar cane (and sugar beets), heated, crystalized and offered before an eager global palate. Can two seemingly innocuous and edible commodities offer us more besides tickle the periphery of our tongues[1] and a dose of calories? Exploring the history and culture enveloping chocolate and sugar reveal a story less about a fruit and a grass and more about the human predicament, of who wins and who looses, who eats and who feeds, who lives and who dies.


Islamic expansion to 750 C.E. Movement of Islam from the east introduced to Europe, among other things, Sugar. Note Poitiers in modern-day France, where Christian armies halted this push into the continent. (Photo credit: Amherst Central Schools).

Without conquest by empire, our two storied staples may never have left their modest existence as domesticated foods at the foot of the northeastern Andes and in lush New Guinea.[2] The Aztecs were satiated with pochteca importing, or failing that, using persuasive armies to extract the elusive bean from the Soconusco region. It took ocean-crossing European empires to unfurl the global commercial planting of cacao. As the Native labor force in Mexico was decimated by disease and murder, both from the Spanish, the encomiendas (and later, less religious but equally commercial entities) brought cacao enterprises to Ecuador and Venezuela. The Portuguese, carefully treading the lines set in the Treaty of Tordesillas, grew the crop in Brazil, then eventually to Gabon, an island off West Africa. This region now accounts for 70% of the worldwide output.[3] The spread of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula towards the Mediterranean and into the belly of Europe meant, “sugar, we are told, followed the Koran.”[4] Having the doors of Europe shut forcefully on them by Charles Martel in 732 at Poitiers, it was left to the Europeans to carry sugar across the Atlantic. Christopher Columbus was first to bring sugar cane to the New World during his second voyage.[5] Within 150 years, the Portuguese, French, and especially the English established sugar plantations in Brazil, and the West Indies to feed the voracious European home markets.


A diagram of the Triangular trade system, which characterized the cacao and sugar trade before and after the 18th century, as well. What is lacking in most explanations is the profit and development (or underdevelopment) processes underway in each arrow. (Photo credit: West Chester University).

The bane of many history students is the dreaded Triangular Trade. As explained, finished goods from country A are traded to B, who in return send slaves to country C, where they work to mine or harvest commodities to be sent back to country A. What gives? The missing ingredient that clarifies this system is the profit motivation. The finished goods, say a bar of chocolate, have had human labor put into it. It is worth more than its equivalent in cacao beans and sugar (and others) because humans have worked on it. Since it will be sold above the cost it make it, there is profit in it. Therefore, country A will make a profit from selling to B. B on the other hand, hardly makes anything, but is simply a source for labor, who are sent to C, to plant, care for, harvest, and turn cacao pods into beans, ready for processing. B sends the beans to A, where they are made into chocolate. Since the most profit will occur in country A, where the cacao beans will become chocolate, country A has a vast stake in maintaining this triangular system. Country A will also become the most developed, both technologically and economically, since the sophisticated and most profitable part of the manufacturing process will occur there. Country B and C merely supply less profitable and less sophisticated labor and raw materials. In historical terms, we understand this as Spain or England trading “manufactured goods like clothing, weapons, [and tools to Africa]”[6] for human slaves, who are sent to the New World to mine metal ores, cacao and sugar, which are sent to the home country, to be processed into finished items, to repeat the cycle.


A worker harvests cacao in West Africa. (Photo credit: Henrik Ipsen).

Who then benefited from the cacao and sugar trade? And who lost? Who fed who and who ate? The growing of cacao and sugar commercially posed many technical challenges for the European royals, Viceroys, governors, clergymen, and other entrepreneurs. How to create a cacao strain resistant to disease, but is both flavorful and with high yields? How to sequence the planting of cane to get the largest harvest? How to obtain the sweetest cane juice without rotting it, to reach crystallization by precariously maintaining the needed temperature? These and other issues were pressing concerns. But without the labor to plant, care for, and harvest the cacao pods or sugar canes, production did not occur. Availability of labor one was part of the equation, but cost of labor was another figure to look after. To maximize profits and competitiveness, it simply made sense to push the cost of labor towards nothing. In other words, slavery. Human slavery solved this business dilemma: a labor force to replace the dropping Natives and a cheap labor force to reduce the cost of production. The forastero cacao became a mass commodity not simply for its natural higher yield, but because “African slaves had been brought” to produce it[7], as nine of ten Natives perished. [8] The most successful missionary group in the New World, was also the most profitable: Jesuit priests had such a degree of control over labor that they “rang a bell every night to tell the [Native] men it was time to perform their marital duties.”[9] In sum, the cacao and sugar trade allowed European elites to fatten their coffers, as European consumers gorged on chocolate and sugar, and Africans and Natives toiled and died.

[1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0033701/

[2] Mintz 19.

[3] Coe and Coe 197.

[4] Mintz 25.

[5] Mintz 32.

[6] Coe and Coe 186 and Mintz 43.

[7] Coe and Coe 186.

[8] Coe and Coe 178.

[9] Coe and Coe 189.


Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. Print.

“How does our sense of taste work?” PubMed Health. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Jan. 6, 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0033701/


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