Colonialism and the Rise of Cacao

If you ask someone why chocolate is such a huge part of our culture today, you may get responses referring to its universally adored taste, or perhaps the marketing that large multinational corporations undertake to make their products viral. To put forward a different viewpoint, this blog post will examine the history of cacao and show how decisions by European voyagers were crucial to the rise of chocolate to its current status.

Early Beginnings

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An Aztec couple drinking a foamy cacao drink on their wedding day. Cacao was important in the Aztec culture and would become very important across the globe. Image obtained here.

We begin our story in 15th century Mesoamerica, where the Aztecs (or People of the Fifth Sun) were dominant in what is now Mexico. Cacao did not start with the Aztecs – evidence traces cacao back to the Olmecs, who where Mayan ancestors. That said, cacao was still a huge part of Aztec culture. It was treated as an elite food, and used extensively for medicinal purposes. Cacao beans were even used as currency by Motecuhzoma II! Though cacao was a very important part of the Aztec lifestyle, it still largely existed only in Mesoamerica, very far from the global presence that chocolate has today.

Things became interesting when the Europeans stumbled upon Mesoamerica. Alphonse de Richelieu is thought to be the first to bring cacao to France, and the first evidence of chocolate appearing in Spain comes from King Philip bringing it back  from an encounter with the Kekchi Mayans. When we get to the 17th century, cacao and chocolate had become a significant part of English culture. The Europeans added their own adaptations to chocolate consumption, using their own ceremonial vessels to serve chocolate, and adding sugar to the manufacturing process to sweeten its taste. Adding this sweetness was crucial to the popularity that chocolate attained, which is another reason that the Europeans contributed highly to the spread of cacao (in chocolate form).

Shortly after its introduction, chocolate became wildly popular in Europe. As a result of this demand, the Europeans needed to increase the supply of chocolate. To this end, they looked to their colonies. In the late 17th century, French, English, and Dutch looked to the West Indies colonies to establish their colonies and increase the supply of cocoa. They also spread to Asia, with the Dutch bringing cacao plantationsin the late 16th century to what is present-day Indonesia and Sri Lanka, and the Spaniards bringing them to the Philippines around 1670. Here, the Europeans’ actions drove the future of cacao and chocolate. By spreading these cacao plantations to other areas, they brought about the participation of other countries in the cacao industry, as it experienced its continued growth.

Rapid Growth

One game changer for the future of cacao was the invention of the cacao press by Conrad J. van Houten, a Dutch chemist, in 1828. The cacao press extracted cacao powder from cacao butter, which in turn allowed the first chocolate bar to be created in the mid-19th century. As a result, chocolate became affordable for the mass market, allowing demand for chocolate and cacao to skyrocket. Thus, suppliers of cacao needed to expand their ability to produce.

A graph showing the contributions of various countries to the global cocoa supply. Image obtained from [3]
In the late 19th century, the first large scale production of cacao in Africa began in the Portuguese plantations found on the islands of Sao Tome and Principe. Perhaps more importantly was the start of cocoa cultivation in the forest regions of the Ivory Coast, which would later become one of the powerhouses of African (and world) cacao production. Although not without its obstacles, cocoa production in Africa grew and grew until they became a very major contributor to the global cacao supply. In the year 2001, the Ivory Coast accounted for over 1/3rd of the global cacao supply, becoming the largest cacao producer in the world, as is illustrated in the graph above.

Final Thoughts

As we can see, looking at history gives us another reason for chocolate’s prevalence in modern culture. Because the Europeans voyaged to Mesoamerica, found cacao, and introduced cacao plantations to other regions of the world, the supply of chocolate was able to keep up with the growing demand for it. This then allows it to spread to people from all walks of life and gain the iconic status it now enjoys.

A map detailing net exports for cocoa beans for various countries in the world. Note how Africa and South America are responsible for much of the world’s chocolate production. Image obtained from [4]
There are many ways to see why this alternative perspective on chocolate’s popularity is historically significant. We can talk about how chocolate might never have become significant if the Europeans never voyaged to Mesoamerica and found cacao. We can talk about how the spread of cacao brought about a massive industry contributed to by countries from several continents, as indicated by the map above. Personally, I think the most significant about it is the way it portrays globalization. Many see globalization as synonymous with the destruction of cultural traditions. While it is true that the Europeans heavily hybridized the consumption of chocolate, it will always retain its Olmec heritage. And as long as chocolate remains a mainstay in popular culture, there will always be this story to tell about how an ancient civilization in Mesoamerica laid the roots for one of the most popular consumer trends today.


[1] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. Print.

[2] The Economics of Chocolate. N.p.: Oxford Univ Pr, 2016. Print.

[3] The Cocoa Industry in West Africa: A History of Exploitation. Rep. N.p.: Anti-Slavery International, 2004. Print.

[4] “Home.” Chocolate 2010 –. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2016.


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