From the Amazon basin to the modern day, chocolate has come a long way to get to us. Chocolate as we know it today, however, is very different from what it used to be in the 16th century. Though we celebrate its sweet taste and how it positively affects our brains, not everything about chocolate is sweet, including its history:
It all started in Latin America
When Europeans arrived in the New World, they found a hundred or more cultigens – the most important beverage source being the cacao tree. The cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, originated in South America, where the Olmec were the first to turn the cacao plant into chocolate (Coe & Coe, 2013). Chocolate was consumed during rituals and used as medicine. Centuries later, the Mayans praised chocolate as the drink of the gods.
Chocolate arrives in Spain
In 1528, Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés introduced Cacao to Spain (Coe & Coe, 2013). After the addition of sugar, the drink quickly became popular among the rich and wealthy. Chocolate was even loved by Catholic monks who drank it to aid religious practices.
Due to its rising popularity, Spain set up cacao plantations in its West Indies colonies to meet demand. As cacao drinking began to spread across Europe in the late 17th century, French, English, and Dutch plantations were also established in the West Indies and South America. As with other colonial plantations in the New World, the production in these plantations used slaves from West Africa (Mintz, 1986).
When the cocoa press was invented in 1828 by J. van Houten, it enabled the extraction of cacao powder from cacao butter, thus the first chocolate bar was created in the mid-19th century (Coe & Coe, 2013). Those developments resulted in the affordability of chocolate for the mass market, which further increased the demand for cacao.
In Africa, it was only in the late 19th century that production began on any significant scale, with the first large scale production from Portuguese plantations on the island of São Tomé & Príncipe. Despite slavery having been officially abolished in 1875, these plantations became notorious for using workers who were slaves in all but name.
Cacao and Colonialism
Back in the 15th century, when the Portuguese discovered the Azores, Madeiras, Cape Verde Islands, and São Tomé & Príncipe, they were all uninhabited. After discovery, the Portuguese soon began cultivating the islands for sugar; however, the sugar plantations required a large labor force. With the Portuguese population being too small to provide a large number of colonists, it was ultimately the slaves that filled that demand – and so began the African habitation of the islands.
Between 1888 and 1908, over 67,000 people from the African mainland were shipped to the two islands, mostly from Angola. It was the early 1900s, and Portuguese colonizers in the small country were reveling in the fact that they had turned the island into the world’s largest producer of cacao.
During the coffee boom of the 1850s the Portuguese began cultivating both crops intensely off the back of slave labor. Portuguese colonies abolished slavery in 1858, yet the laborers continued to be exploited. Many were “contracted” from the Portuguese colony of Angola where recruiters followed the old slave routes deep into the interior and the recruiting process was rumored to be forced (Nevinson, 1906). Workers were paid for their work on the islands, but wages were low and the death rates (as much as 20%) were high. Alcoholism was widespread as a result of soulless work, depression, and cheap imported Portuguese wine.
Laborers signed 5-year contracts, which were automatically renewed, and no workers ever returned to their homeland. In the early 1900s, the English challenged Portuguese policy implying that workers were not allowed to leave freely, making them slaves on the islands. Its suspicious labor practices had already made São Tomé & Príncipe one of the world’s biggest producers of cacao.
Cadbury Brothers began importing cacao beans from São Tomé and in 1901, William Cadbury heard that the island’s cacao was produced by slave labor, after coming across an advertisement for the sale of a São Tomé plantation. Included in the sale were the plantation laborers, indicating that the workers themselves were considered property. Cadburry joined with Frys, Rowntrees and the Stollwerck chocolate firm of Cologne, and together sent Dr. Joseph Burtt to investigate conditions on the islands and in Angola (Kiesow, 2017). Burtt reported that Angolan people were taken to the islands “against their will, and often under conditions of great cruelty”, and that it was almost unknown for them to return to their homeland (Higgs, 2013).
The dark and cruel reality of chocolate was, however, soon revealed to the rest of the world. In Harper’s Magazine, Nevinson (1906) described the São Tomé of 1904 as, “a hot-house climate of burning heat and torrents of rain.’ The type of conditions that, ‘kills men and makes the cocoa tree flourish.” Nevinson (2015) later said the death rates were highest among child slaves, with most dying within a few years because, “it was very difficult to convince them to live through the misery and homesickness” (Nevinson, 2015).
As Western consumers reacted with shock and disgust to those news, much of the production moved from São Tomé to the plantations of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, which did not make use of slave labor. As Ghana and the Ivory Coast had increased their cacao production to meet demand, many of the plantations were unable to sustain themselves and the once glorious plantations fell into disrepair across the islands.
Independence from Portugal finally came about in 1975, making São Tomé & Príncipe one of the last few African countries to throw off the shackles of colonial rule.
São Tomé & Príncipe remains one of the world’s poorest countries. However, despite the islands’ reputation for quality cacao, one would not find chocolate for sale at the local Mercado Municipal. To associate cacao purely with pleasure would do an injustice to the island’s history. If one were to savor a rich piece of chocolate while reflecting on the trials of slavery and those who once worked on cacao fields, chocolate would surely take on a bitter taste.
The good thing is that the island nation’s cacao industry has moved on from its dark history. Organic cacao farming, today, is a sustainable type of farming, both for farmer’s incomes and for the environment. The growing demand for organic cacao (cacao beans that are not treated with synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides) has presented a whole new opportunity to São Tomé & Príncipe.
One interesting fact to note is that none of the primary crops grown by slaves, such as cacao, coffee, sugar, and tobacco, were necessary to sustain human life. Can we therefore argue, that slavery is a very early byproduct of a consumer culture that revolves around the purchase of goods that bring us pleasure but not sustenance?
Coe, S. & Coe, M. (2013). The true history of chocolate. London, UK: Thames & Hudson.
Higgs, C. (2013). Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, slavery, and colonialism. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Kiesow, S. (2017). Cocoa culture on São Tomé and Príncipe: The rise and fall of cocoa on the islands in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Agricultural History, 91(1), 55-77.
Mintz, S. (1986). Sweetness and power. London, UK: Penguin Books.
Nevinson, H. (1906, February). The slave-trade of to-day. Conclusion. The islands of doom. Harper’s Magazine, Retrieved from https://harpers.org/archive/1906/02/the-slave-trade-of-to-day-conclusion-the-islands-of-doom/
Nevinson, H. (2015). A modern slavery – Scholar’s choice edition. Wolcott, NY: Scholar’s Choice.