Over a Cup of Cocoa: Chocolate’s Rise and Political Relevance in English and European History

Although the impact of the introduction of a single good such as chocolate to European culture may seem trivial, a deeper dive into the luxury item’s history reveals that it has had lasting effects on the political and social development of European nations. It is important to bear in mind that, as asserted by Mintz, food is fundamentally social – meals can serve as stimuli for important conversations, and the presence of a luxury good like chocolate ensured in 17th-19th century Europe that the parties to those discussions were of particular economic background and influence.

In order to more thoroughly explicate the good’s historical significance, it is critical to first explain its origin in Europe. Colonists in the Americas had had previous exposure to chocolate, but had often found it to be less than satisfactory; Italian historian Girolamo Benzoni noted that he “never wanted to taste it,” finding it so repulsive that he described it as a “drink for pigs” (Coe and Coe 110). Ev  en the English shared this opinion at first, with John Gerard writing in 1633 that cacao as “an astringent and ungrateful taste” (Coe and Coe 165). However, these early opinions quickly became unpopular as contact between Spanish conquistadors and the Aztecs was sustained and exports back to Europe began to flow.

Mintz notes that “during the period when sugar was first becoming widely known, most people in England and elsewhere were struggling to stabilize their diets around adequate quantities of starch” (Mintz 13). The rapid and simultaneous introduction of cacao and sugar naturally led to methods of sweetening cacao during processing; Presilla even describes how “one former option [became] a requirement: adding a sweetener. It was the Spanish who first married chocolate and sugar” (Presilla 25). However, at that point in time, chocolate and sugar were still decidedly luxury goods. Coe and Coe recount how at Louis XIV’s palace, full of the upper echelon of French nobility, “chocolate was regularly served at all public functions, levees, and the like” (Coe and Coe 160).

Perhaps the most notable example of chocolate’s effect on class development and European politics stems from the prevalence of English coffeehouses during the late 1600s and 1700s. Coe and Coe describe the flow of cacao beans into England from 1655 onwards after Oliver Cromwell’s forces annexed Jamaica from Spain. No more than two years after, it was being advertised in an English newspaper as a substance that “cures and preserves the body of many diseases,” aside from its excellent flavor and uniqueness (Coe and Coe 169).

The interior of a London coffeehouse in which chocolate would likely have been served, c. 1705 – from “The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse” by Dr. Matthew Green

Interestingly, due to the ease of acquiring cocoa in England, it was not strictly a noble drink as it was in France at the time; rather, it was more widely available in public coffee-shops, although certainly expensive enough to be considered a luxury. In this way, we learn quite a lot about English elite social life during that time – goods were not limited to those with authority, but simply to those with the means to buy them. This led to a very different social structure in which successful merchants could assemble and discuss politics with a level of influence similar to actual nobility in France. Given the unstable political climate resulting from the competition between the Whigs and Tories during that period, these coffee-house discussions between the rich and the aristocratic became vessels for voicing political dissent over a cup of chocolate. So revolutionary were these types of forums for political discussion that “Charles II… tried to suppress these establishments which he considered hotbeds of sedition” (Coe and Coe 171). Ultimately, these discussions in the 1660s-1680s that occurred over chocolate may have sowed the seeds of political dissent that culminated in the 1688 Glorious Revolution to overthrow the monarchy.

Lloyd’s Coffee House in the 18th century – from “The Top 10 Coffee Houses of Early Modern England”

In this way, not only did chocolate become an increasingly accepted and widespread social product, but it played an important role in the political direction of 17th century England and beyond. The importance of these coffeehouses did not fade for some time, with examples such as Lloyd’s Coffee House being well-known as a forum for conducting shipping deals in the late 1600s (Lloyd’s 2013). White’s Chocolate House, established in 1693 as a hot cocoa emporium, was later converted to England’s first and most reputable gentlemen’s club, which comes with its own set of social implications that sprung from the humble origins of a chocolate servery. The effects of chocolate’s origins in England are societally ubiquitous in today’s era, and continue to diffuse more through each element of culture.

“In the club at White’s Coffee House” – from “The Surprising History of London’s Lost Chocolate Houses” by Dr. Matthew Green

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Green, Matthew. “The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse.” The Public Domain Review. Open Knowledge Foundation. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://publicdomainreview.org/2013/08/07/the-lost-world-of-the-london-coffeehouse/&gt;.

Green, Matthew. “The Surprising History of London’s Lost Chocolate Houses.” The Telegraph 13 Dec. 2013. Web. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/uk/london/10515620/The-surprising-history-of-Londons-lost-chocolate-houses.html&gt;.

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, N.Y.: Viking, 1985. Print.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.

“Lloyd’s at 325: The Story of Edward Lloyd.” Lloyd’s. 15 Feb. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://www.lloyds.com/news-and-insight/news-and-features/lloyds-news/lloyds-news-2013/lloyds-at-325-the-story-of-edward-lloyd&gt;.

“Top 10 Coffee Houses of Early Modern England.” Early Modern England: From the Tudors to the Victorians. 20 Dec. 2014. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://www.earlymodernengland.com/2014/12/top-10-coffee-houses-of-early-modern-england/&gt;.


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