Les Îles Chocolat: Past & Present Impact of Cacao on São Tomé and Príncipe

It would almost appear too simplistic to suggest that the tiny cacao bean could have significantly shaped and impacted a nation’s history. However, in large part, that is exactly what cacao did in São Tomé and Príncipe (São Tomé or STP).[1] Although these tiny islands sometimes bear the sobriquet Les Îles Chocolat––the Chocolate Islands, its dark past is far from tasteful. Today, however, São Tomé is once again part of the chocolate world, but this time as both a grower of cacao and an exporter of fine chocolate.

São Tomé and Príncipe’s location played a vital role in the Portuguese supply chain of sugar, cacao, and coffee as well as Portuguese empire-building stratagem as it was part of the chain of ports that skirted Africa on their way to the East Indies.(source: www.ontheworldmap.com).

Though initially it was the demand for sugar that intrinsically linked São Tomé to the “European centers of commercial and technical power,”[2] it was cacao that ultimately transformed its politics, topography and demographic. São Tomé was a part of a chain of Portuguese ports skirting west Africa, allowing the Europeans to maintain and secure their highly profitable ties to the spice market of the East Indies.[3] However, the ever-increasing demand for sugar in Europe during the early 1400s precipitated European expansion of sugar production to Atlantic islands, which included São Tomé.[4] By 1485, even before the discovery of the Americas, Portugal forced indentured Jews to both settle and grow sugar cane on the islands.[5] It would not be until 1822, however, that José Ferreira Gomes introduced cacao from Brazil.[6] Twenty years later, approximately 1.5 metric tons of cacao beans were exported, subsequently replacing sugar cane as the primary crop.[7] This led the way for São Tomé to become Africa’s first and largest cacao grower by the early 1900s, significantly increasing its export yield to 36,000 metric tons by 1910, and securing trading contracts with international chocolate giants, including Hershey’s and Cadbury.[8]

As a result of the ever-increasing global demand for cacao, a massive labor force was required to sustain such high levels of production, ultimately transforming São Tomé. Given that these islands were uninhabited prior to European arrival, the Portuguese were heavily reliant on an imported labor force, which was readily supplied by slaves from their west African colonies of Benin, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, and Angola.[9]

By the early 1900s, the journalistic reporting of Henry Nevinson and others began to influence public opinion in Europe regarding the use of slavery in African cacao growing.[10] Nevinson’s contribution vastly impacted both the general reader and other journalists:

Perhaps the most wonderful achievement of this great-hearted man was his exposure of the Portuguese slave trade in Angola and the Cocoa Islands [São Tomé and Príncipe]… He made a lonely journey through the dense forests of Central Africa following the dolorous way by which the slaves were taken to captivity as horrible as any recorded in human history.[11]

Nevinson’s works were collected and published in his book, A Modern Slavery (1906), “which aroused the conscience of this [UK] and other countries and brought him the only reward he sought––the abolition of the system within a few years”.[12] Cadbury’s procurement of STP cacao was exposed, sparking public outcry, forcing Cadbury and the other major European companies to divest from São Tomé.[13] Shockingly, Hershey’s, however, not only continued its procurement of São Tomé cacao without any demands for change, they furthermore took over all of Cadburby’s prior accounts, thus consolidating their cacao supply in the islands.[14] Though it has been suggest by Sydney Mintz that the demand for sugar was the main force driving the need of slavery during the colonial era,[15] it was the demand for cacao, however, that was the primary cause that prolonged slavery well into the 1960s, over 100 years after the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.[16]

This photo depicts an Angolan slave awaiting transport to São Tomé. They were often left for days before being collected by plantation owners (source: www.chocoalateclass.wordpress.com).

Today, São Tomé is home to one of the world’s finest producers of chocolate. After STP’s independence in 1975, cacao plantations were virtually abandoned. And the 1997 discovery of oil was made cacao growing even less relevant to its economy. However, as result of the civil wars in Zaire––present day Democratic Republic of the Congo, an Italian agronomist by the name of Claudio Corallo relocates to São Tomé in the 1990s, initially to grow coffee.[17] Yet, it was cacao that captured his imagination, sparking his dream to restore São Tomé’s cacao growing heritage.[18] After two decades, and the restoration of two plantations, São Tomé is now not only once again growing cacao, but it is furthermore producing some of the world’s finest chocolate, allowing São Tomé to proudly don one of its more endearing names––the Chocolate Islands. (The below video from the BBCTWO’s Full on Food features Claudio Corallo’s cacao growing and fine chocolate making in São Tomé).

Today São Tomé cacao growers are now part of the finished product. This photo captures how the local work force is now part of the fine chocolate-making (source: www.stpauls.it).

The significance of the cacao as a high demand food drug played a large part in shaping the history, economy and politics of many former European colonies, arguably São Tomé’s most of all. Human settlement was initiated on the islands for the production of another food drug, sugar, then perpetuated by the establishment of cacao plantations to further satiate the global consumption of stimulant foods. It is a bitter truth that unfree labor persists today in cacao growing nations, and thus a closer examination must be given to the social issues surrounding the labor rights and treatment of cacao growers, not only in African nations such as São Tomé, but the world over. We must learn from the good practices of conscientious chocolate makers such as Claudio Corallo who have brought a massive turnaround to the Chocolate Islands’ cacao and chocolate heritage if we  wish to support a truly fair and sweet tasting industry.

[1] The official name is the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe; its official UN ISO3 abbreviation is STP, see “Country Codes/Names,” United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, (2016), http://www.fao.org/countryprofiles/iso3list/en/#.
[2] Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 31.
[3] Bamber Gascoigne, “HISTORY OF SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA,” History World, accessed March 11, 2016, http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?gtrack=pthc&ParagraphID=gprb#gprb.
[4] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 31.
[5] Leonard John Schwarz, Cocoa in São Tomé and Príncipe, Trade Promotion Series 138 (US Government Printing Office, 1932), 1.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[10] Carla D Martin, “Lecture 6: Slavery Abolition and Forced Labor” (Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, Harvard University, March 9, 2016).
[11] Howard J Whitehouse, “Henry Nevinson,” The Contemporary Review 161, no. 44 (January 1, 1942): 2, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1294586004?rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo.
[12] Ibid., 1.
[13] Martin, “Lecture 6: Slavery Abolition and Forced Labor.”
[14] Ibid.
[15] Mintz, Sweetness and Power.
[16] Martin, “Lecture 6: Slavery Abolition and Forced Labor.”
[17] “About Us,” Claudio Corallo Cacao & Coffee, accessed March 12, 2016, http://www.claudiocorallo.com/index.php?lang=en&Itemid=831.
[18] Ibid.

Work Cited

“About Us.” Claudio Corallo Cacao & Coffee. Accessed March 12, 2016. http://www.claudiocorallo.com/index.php?lang=en&Itemid=831.
“African Slaves Sail for São Tomé.” Blog. Chocolate Class. Accessed March 12, 2016. https://chocolateclass.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/screen-shot-2015-03-12-at-7-11-13-pm.png.
Batista de Sousa, Izequiel. Sao Tomé et Principe de 1485 à 1755, Une Société Coloniale: du Blanc au Noir. Mondes Lusophones. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2008.
BBC TWO. Claudio Corallo Chocolate. Full on Food. BBC TWO, 2004. https://youtu.be
Butcher, Tim. “Cocoa Passion on Oil-Rich Island.” News. BBC News, July 24, 2004. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/3920167.stm.
Chern, C. J., and E. Beutler. “Biochemical and Electrophoretic Studies of Erythrocyte Pyridoxine Kinase in White and Black Americans.” American Journal of Human Genetics 28, no. 1 (January 1976): 9–17.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third edition. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.
“Country Codes/Names.” United Nations. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016. http://www.fao.org/countryprofiles/iso3list/en/#.
Gascoigne, Bamber. “HISTORY OF SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA.” History World. Accessed March 11, 2016. http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?gtrack=pthc&ParagraphID=gprb#gprb.
Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 6: Slavery Abolition and Forced Labor.” presented at the Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, Harvard University, March 9, 2016.
Melik, James. “Slave Island Ignites Chocolate Passion.” BBC News. Accessed March 11, 2016. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/3935769.stm.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
Ponting, Clive. World History: A New Perspective. Pimlico 486. London: Pimlico, 2001.
“Sao Tome and Principe | Chocolate Class.” Accessed March 11, 2016. https://chocolateclass.wordpress.com/tag/sao-tome-and-principe/.
“Sao Tome and Principe Location on the Africa Map.” Maps. On The World Map. Accessed March 11, 2016. http://ontheworldmap.com/sao-tome-and-principe/sao-tome-and-principe-location-on-the-africa-map.jpg.
Schwarz, Leonard John. Cocoa in São Tomé and Príncipe. Trade Promotion Series 138. US Government Printing Office, 1932.

“The Influence of Public Scrutiny on Cadbury Business Ethics.” Accessed March 11, 2016. https://chocolateclass.wordpress.com/2016/03/09/the-influence-of-public-scrutiny-on-cadbury-business-ethics/.

Whitehouse, Howard J. “Henry Nevinson.” The Contemporary Review 161, no. 44 (January 1, 1942): 4. http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1294586004?rfr_id=info%3Axri%2Fsid%3Aprimo.


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