Church, Chocolate & Chattel

The Catholic church has a long history connected to chocolate, as it was introduced to courts in Spain by clergy,  prepared by new world nuns, and settled questions about chocolate’s role in diet and medicine. While the church had no direct involvement in slavery in the chocolate and sugar industry, its indirect involvement, and even forbidding of enslaving Mesoamericans lead directly to African chattel slavery. It is at the intersection of chocolate and church that a church-avoidant industry promoted chocolate as a medicinal; growing its demand that prompted African chattel slavery that was out of the reach of the church.

Chocolate in Europe


chocolate prepared hot with cinnamon and vanilla. Modification of the traditional Mesoamerican drink with spices and sugar made it very pleasing to the European palate when it reached the old world


The earliest documented evidence of cacao reaching Europe was in 1544 when Dominican friars brought Kekchi Mayan nobles from Guatemala with new world gifts such as animals, plants, spices, etc., and of course, a frothy drink made of cacao to Prince Philip of Spain (Coe & Coe, 2013). Unlike cacao’s earlier consumers, Spanish invaders found it unpalatable. It was described by Girolamo Benzoni as a drink “more for pigs than for humanity…(Coe & Coe. 2013)” in his 1575 History of the New World, but this was changing, and Europeans understood its value in the new world as Jose De Acosta writes in his treatise Natural and Moral History published in 1590:

“The main benefit of this cacao is a beverage which they make called Chocolate, which is a crazy thing valued in that country. It disgusts those who are not used to it, for it has a foam on top, or a scum like bubbling… it is a valued drink which the Indians offer to the lords who come or pass through their land. And the Spanish men even more the Spanish women-are addicted to the black chocolate (Coe & Coe, 2013).”

Eventually Europeans adapted the chocolate drink to be more palatable by warming it,adding spices such as cinnamon and vanilla, and most importantly, sugar (Mintz, 1985).

Chocolate as Medicine

There are many reasons Spanish settlers in New Spain adapted the chocolate drink to be

11th century Spanish diagram of Humors and their characteristics inside the body. chocolate was disputed to have many different characteristics making it appealing for all Europeans.

more pleasing, among them were shortage of wine, the aristocratic status bestowed upon drinkers by native culture, and finally, medicinal reasons. Europeans in New Spain had witnessed the use cacao and the chocolate drink among the indigenous population for a variety of healing purposes. Bernadino De Sahagun, a Spanish monk who traveled to New Spain in 1529 wrote extensively on the indigenous flora and of the native people’s knowledge of plants for medicinal purposes including the chocolate drink made from cacao (Lippi, 2013). European medicine was still following the traditions of the Classical Greeks Hippocrates who theorized that the imbalance of humors, blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile, caused disease, and Galen who expanded the theory to include characteristics of hot, cold, dry, and moist to humors, diseases, and their cures. It is within this framework that the chocolate drink became popular medicinally in Europe to keep the humors balanced and diseases at bay (Coe &Coe, 2013).

The Church

While the Catholic church traded in chocolate and even participated in innovating chocolate recipes as Guatemalan nuns had made chocolate in tablet form that could easily be dissolved in hot water (Coe & Coe, 2013) , the church was not always so accepting of the drink, prompting it’s promotion as a medicinal. Pilar Zazueta, a lecturer in the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin states,

 “The Catholic Church worked to eradicate local indigenous beliefs, but it was not entirely successful. The records of the Inquisition authorities in Central America contain numerous stories of indigenous or mestizo women accused of using enchanted chocolate beverages to control men. Women and men of all walks of life visited these “witches” or healers and asked them to prepare chocolate drinks to attract lovers, break up marriages or improve sexual performance. The Church tried to ban chocolate but people in the Americas were too attached to it (2013)”

In her paper “Chocolate in History; Food, Medicine,” Medi-Food, Donnatella Lippi asserts that chocolate’s euphoriant effects invalidated its use during a religious fast. To counter the suspicious nature of the church Lippi states, “doctors hastened to assert that chocolate was a healthy substance and used this argument to promote its pleasurable effects, consequently boosting the lucrative trade in this exotic import (Lippi, 2013). While the church had little to do with the morality of chocolate outside of this question, its suspicious nature was indirectly involved with the increase in popularity in a health obsessed Europe.

The Intersection

While one would not think of the church or chocolate as prompting slavery, African slavery in the Americas was a direct result of their interaction. With Europe’s medical community promoting the health benefits of the chocolate drink, to ease suspicions of Europeans and the clergy, chocolate was becoming popular all over Western Europe as a medicinal drink. Because the European palate found the cacao drink in its original form repugnant, it had been hybridized to be taken hot, with spices and a critical ingredient- sugar. Because of the high demand for sweetened chocolate inspired by a church-avoidant industry, massive labor was needed to meet the new demand for cacao and sugar cane, and with the indigenous populations dwindling from foreign disease and abuse, plantation owners looked to Africa to solve their labor problem.

Chattel Slavery


Pope Benedict XIV issued the “Immensa Pastorum Principis” in 1741 condemning slavery of native people prompting plantation owners to seek free labor in Africa outside of the churches prohibitions.


By the end of the 17th century the Mesoamerican population had been decimated and labor was scarce. Only 10% of the native population survived old-world diseases and abusive labor practices of plantation owners. In their book The True History of Chocolate, Coe & Coe describe it as, “the greatest demographic catastrophe the planet has ever known (2013). After the church condemned slavery of the Mesoamerican population, to avoid the church, the industry looked to where the church had no say – Africa. The Middle Passage across the Atlantic to Africa was out of the grasp of anti-slavery decrees where the majority of western European countries were more than happy to pluck free labor. The labor crisis was over as Coe & Coe state, “it has been estimated that in the period 1650 to 1750, 20,000 slaves arrived annually in Curacas, and after 1750, sometimes up to a 100,000 a year (2013).” Native labor was replaced with imported Africans that I am sure the Catholic church could have never foreseen, it is nevertheless a product of the church and chocolate intersecting.

Works Cited

 Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The True History of Chocolate (3rd ed.) London, ENG. Thames    & Hudson Ltd.

De Montour, A. (Artist). n.d. Pope Benedict XIV [Digital Image]. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons Website

De Osma, B. (Artist). 11th C. Humors [Digital Image]. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons Website,_Burgos_de_Osma).jpg

Handorf Chocolates (Owner) 2006. Hot Chocolate [Digital Image]. Hot Chocolate Retreived from Wikimedia Commons Website

Lippi, D. (2013). Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food. Nutrients, 5(5), 1573–        1584.

Mintz, S.W. (1986) Sweetness and Power. NY, NY. Penguin Books 1986

Zazueta, P. (Feb. 2013) You Can Thank the Ancient North Americans For Your Valentine’s   Chocolate. Dallas News. Retrieved from 


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