Popularization of Chocolate through Slavery and Mechanization

Chocolate has had fascinating history ever since Ferdinand Columbus unknowingly referred to cacao beans as “almonds which, in New Spain [Mexico], are used for money.” On one of the many voyages he took in the name of Spanish conquest, he noticed that the indigenous people “seemed to hold these almonds at a great price…” and that “when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen.” (Coe & Coe, 109)

(The painting above depicts Europeans interacting with indigenous people about chocolate.)

 As it turns out, these “almonds” soon made their way to Europe, marking the birth of one the largest and controversial food industries in world history. Historians have taken several different stances in telling the story of how the cacao bean evolved all the way from Ferdinand Columbus’ mysterious “almond,” to the chocolate being mass-produced today. The evolution of chocolate has proved to be as profitable as it is controversial. The following essay asserts that the popularization and subsequent mass production of chocolate was a product of: a.) slave labor and b.) the mechanization of chocolate.

As late as the 1900s, long after slavery had been abolished in the U.S. and other developed nations, Joseph Burtt wrote a report alluding to inhumane working conditions faced by the Portuguese laborers in Angola. In the description of his journey to Angola, he writes, “it was not long before we found evidence of the disregard of humanity and freedom, as in a few hours we saw skeletons and shackles.” (Chocolate Islands, p. 136) Throughout their existence, large companies like Cadbury made a considerable effort to hide the fact that slavery was an essential part of the cultivation process that produced their cacao beans. Eventually, though, reports like this added to a growing body of irrefutable evidence that proved slave labor in the cacao industry existed far longer than most people thought possible.

Undoubtedly, cultivating cacao was and still is a very delicate and therefore expensive process. Back when chocolate was first introduced to Europe, it was also extremely costly at the time for the beans to be shipped from there from the Americas. As a result, chocolate prices remained relatively high long after cacao was introduced to Europe, and was really only popular among the European elite. However, high potential profit margins achieved through enslaving Africans and indigenous Americans incentivized rich Europeans to enter the industry and the overall supply of cacao increased. Inexpensive slave labor eventually allowed the members of the growing chocolate industry to cut down prices, increasing demand from the middle and lower class, and promoting the mass production of chocolate

(Cacao seeds)

So, although slave labor was incredibly important to the chocolate-manufacturing process, the mass-popularization of chocolate still may not have been possible without the industrialization of the chocolate-manufacturing process, a phenomenon that greatly enhanced the product’s appeal to the masses and changed chocolate forever. One of the early and most important industrial advancements involved in the production of chocolate was the hydraulic press invented by a Dutch chocolate maker named Coenraad van Houten in 1828. This machine allowed for cacao nibs to be turned into cocoa powder, a material that serves as the base for most chocolate products to this day. This powder made it far easier to make chocolate drinks and to add sugar to the product, a transformative step in the evolution of chocolate. Later on, thanks to the discovery of a process called tempering, which allowed chocolate to be stored at room temperature, Joseph Fry manufactured the first chocolate bars for eating in 1847, inciting arguably the most revolutionary change in the way that people consumed and perceived chocolate. (Lecture 5) Turning to bar-form made chocolate much easier to consume and greatly encouraged the popularization of the product.

Rudolph Lindt’s invention of the conche further improved and changed chocolate production, as conching changed the texture and flavor of chocolate, providing a smooth texture and taste that was far more appealing to the masses than its chalky predecessor. Another essential enhancement to the chocolate-manufacturing process was the creation of powdered milk by Henri Nestle in 1867, which ultimately led to the advent of the first milk chocolate bar being produced in 1879 by Daniel Peter. Milk chocolate was immediately popular and remains so today, as it is the most commonly consumed type of chocolate in places like Europe and America.

(This is a picture of what Lindt’s conching machine looked like.)

In summary, the mechanization of chocolate manufacturing process made the product more efficient to make, more appealing, or more easily consumed. It also largely increased the supply of chocolate and offered a way for it to reach populations of every socioeconomic background. Sadly, though, the chocolate industry that improved so greatly with this industrialization period is also largely to blame for the long-term exploitation of slaves, and chocolate moguls will always have to push on knowing that their entire industry, its popularization and mass-production, as well as the empires it created, were partially built on the backs of slaves.


Works Cited:

Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Ohio University Press, 2012.

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on trial: Slavery, politics, and the ethics of business. Ohio University Press, 2005.




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