While theobroma cacao quite literally derives to mean “food of the gods,” cacao has always been created by the labor of the people. Thus, the spread and continued production of cacao from its Mesoamerican origins is somewhat surprising and perhaps very telling. Mintz, when examining the closely related food sugar, remarked that examining these products demonstrate “how the world changes from what it was to what it may become, and how it manages at the same time to stay in certain regards very much the same” (Mintz, 1985; xxix). This is remarkably true when looking at the production of cacao. Comparing the difference and similarities of cacao in the Pre-Columbia era, era of colonization and industrialization reveals much about chocolate’s importance as a foodstuff.
First, examine the differences between the eras, as the differences reflect how production changed to reflect societies’ preferences and roles for cacao. Perhaps the most obvious difference between Pre-Columbian and the later eras of cacao production is the scale and location of the farms. Early cacao was grown in modest garden-style farms, planted near forests or streams (Coe & Coe, 1996). It is likely that while cacao beans were used as money, natives during this era were more focused on sustenance farming. And it was natives doing the farming – importantly – for their own family or city, not on any grand scale.
At first, it might be tempting to argue that they simply lacked the farming knowledge of the later eras, but Pre-Columbian peoples had the knowledge and ability to breed the cacao trees to produce bigger, higher yielding pods (Presilla, 2009; 23). Thus, one must consider that natives were limited by some other factor. One possibility may be that the geographic region for cacao was rather small (see map) and cacao required extensive labor to expand; thus, efforts were expended in areas outside of cacao.
The early encounters of the Old World with chocolate did not initially push the production of chocolate. The Spanish claimed it was “a bitter drink for pigs” (Fiegl, 2008; Smithsonian) and as such, it was eaten sparingly in the 1500-1600s. After the addition of sugar made chocolate more palatable, however, the demand for chocolate exploded. Chocolate became more than a foods stuff (Mintz, 1985; 108-111); it became a status symbol that rich across Europe would use to demonstrate their wealth and importance. This lead to the creation of large, neatly manicures plantation style farms for cacao (Coe & Coe, 1996). This timeline corresponds with the decline of Mesoamerican farming and, as such, the farming was pushed towards South America (Presilla, 2009; 28), which was in control of the Spanish and Portuguese.
Unfortunately, not only was there a decline in Mesoamerican farming, but there was a decline in native people as well. During early colonization, natives died out in massive quantities due to Old World diseases – at the same time demand for chocolate skyrocketed in Europe (Presilla, 2009; 33). This, as well as the desire for sugar, created the demand for massive numbers of slaves from Africa. They were imported by the millions as a “false commodity” and did the both back breaking and highly skilled labor required by these plantations. This, as well as the location of the cacao, is a departure from the Pre-Columbian era. Whereas natives would have tended to their own trees and paid taxes in their products, now slaves from Africa were producing the bulk of the world’s cacao. Chocolate, once a Mesoamerican product, had become an expensive European desire.
This dynamic between chocolate and slavery, perhaps surprisingly, continues will into the 1900s. Even after slavery was abolished in much of the New World between 1834-1888, it was left to thrive in other regions of the world. During the era of industrialization, chocolate gained a new world capital – Africa. As production costs rose in South America, cacao production was transferred to the cheaper Africa as a means of keeping up with demands in Europe. Lest anyone think otherwise, slave owning “was common” on cacao plantations and even owners of chocolate companies were aware of its existence (Satre, 2005; 4). Men and women were beaten and flogged, set upon by dogs, and likely to work until they died on the plantations (Satre, 2005; 7-11). In this way, the location of the plantations changed from the previous era, but not the people who worked them and produced the cacao.
However, it is important to note that people were outraged when they discovered the chocolate had been produced illegally. In Britain, people protested due to the slow action taken by the chocolate companies (Satre, 2005; 14). Higgs (2012) notes that there was great backlash against slave chocolate. This reflects a second change in society with regards to chocolate. It no longer was the food of the rich and powerful and social mistreatment and injustice to get it were not ok; chocolate was a food of the people. Tracing this history of cacao location mimics something Mintz said about sugar quite strongly, and indeed applies here: at first chocolate (and sugar) was a rarity from afar, then it was an expensive commodity from overseas, and finally became an inexpensive everyday commodity bought and sold in a world-wide free market (Mintz, 1985, 196-197).
There is one glaring similarity in this narrative of cacao from the Pre-Columbian to Industrial era – cacao has always been produced in much the same exact way. Modern technology has allowed for minor changes, like a continual harvest, but the plant remains as temperamental as it ever was (Coe & Coe, 1996). No matter the new technology, however, the steps for harvest have always been the same: fermentation, drying, roasting, and winnowing (Coe & Coe, 1996). It even looks the same – it is largely done by hand with many of the same tools. So cacao is a relatively stable product that has changed location and type of labor over time. In this way, it is uniquely able to highlight parts of society while remaining a constant itself.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2007. The True History of Chocolate. pp. 1-105
Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate. pp. 1-160
Mintz, Sidney W. 1986. Sweetness and Power. pp. xv-200
Satre, Lowell. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. pp. 1- 32, 73-99
Higgs, Catherine. 2012. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. pp. 133- 165
Goody, Jack. 2013. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” pp. 72-88