The Humble Origins of Chocolate: Conquest and Complicity

What images does the word “chocolate” call up for you? Many would imagine a perfectly portioned bar of milk chocolate in the fashion of Hershey or Cadbury, other a mousse, yet others a steaming cup of hot cocoa– “chocolate” is absolutely an overdetermined word. It describes a flavor, various pastries and food goods, a scent, sometimes colors, and even specific products, like chocolate bonbons or bars. English borrows the word from Spanish, and Spanish borrows the word from either Maya (chokola’j) and, supposedly, Nahuatl (the mysterious xocoatl)—its exact origins are unclear. (Martin, Lecture, 6 February 2019; Lara, pp. 238; Coe & Coe, pp. 33, 118-19) The etymological history of chocolate, the very first thing one might look at when glancing at a dictionary entry for the word, is from the beginning inextricable from its bloody cultural roots in the conquest of the “New” World by the Spaniards and, later, slavery and colonization in South America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

Figure 1. The history of chocolate
Deanna Pucciarelli
sponsored by TED Ed

This transfiguration of indigenous words for cacao was instigated by a series of early encounters between indigenous peoples in Latin America and European colonizers. Cultural exchanges of this kind occurred in the arenas of trade, food, and religion. Because of the language barrier, many things were based on observations and experiences of, at first, Spaniards, then other Europeans, leading to many misunderstandings that go beyond the confusion of the origins of the word “chocolate.” Europeans did not initially understand the appeal of the bean, finding it bitter, strange, and even “obnoxious.” (Coe & Coe, pp. 109-10).

As more settlers came from Spain to the Americas, creolization1 – occurred not only in terms of race and language, but also in terms of chocolate. The Spaniards acquired a taste for cacao only after sweetening it, heating it, and adding flavors such as cinnamon and anise. This was a departure from the Maya and Aztec ways of consuming cacao, as a cold, frothy, and usually unsweetened beverage commonly flavored with corn, chili peppers, or achiote. (Coe & Coe, pp. 115) While creolization created the rich blend of cultures still present today in Latin America, the more the Spanish desired cacao the further it was distanced from its original cultural position in the area, until it became the commodity it is today.

Cacao was deeply entrenched in the sociocultural fabric of Mayan society, specifically, and, through trade and agriculture, became important to other Mesoamerican societies, like the Aztecs, as well. The plant is thought to have been cultivated by Mesoamerican peoples as early as 1400 BCE. (Leissle, pp. 30) Its consumption indicated high social and political status, and was often a feature of important negotiations and ceremonies. The beans were also used as currency— the money that grew on trees. The cacao tree had strong ties to the Underworld and to death, showing up in both funeral rites and sacrifices.

Figure 2. Map of Mesoamerica

Early European interactions with the indigenous peoples of the Americas resulted in the exotification of indigenous peoples and cultures which extends in many ways to modern, Western perceptions of chocolate. As cacao made it to Europe, Catholics questioned whether the drink made by the Mesoamericans would be a “violation of pre-Communion or Lenten fasts.” (Leissle, pp. 35) It was also consumed in coffee and chocolate houses, important sites for the dissemination of Enlightenment ideas in the 17th century. Then came bar chocolate, a massively popular commodity even today. And, now, with megacorporations controlling chocolate production, the origins of cacao as a revered plant in Mesoamerica could not seem further away. Yet, the Western attraction to the mysterious “other” persists.

Though the modern consumer may not even recognize chocolate as is was originally consumed by Mesoamericans, the way that the industry sells chocolate inadvertently perpetuates the legacy of colonialism. This occurs not only in terms of continued exploitation of the peoples in previously colonized regions through labor practices and control of the market, but also in terms of the language we use to sell and describe chocolate.

Figure 3. Screenshot of Godiva Chocolatiers website
Figure 4. Mayan glyph for cacao – kakaw or kakau

Here, Godiva, a Belgian chocolate company puts its spin on the origins of chocolate. “The Mayans of Central America are believed to be the first to discover cocoa as early as 900 AD,” they say. Note the use of the word cocoa, an Anglicization of cacao which comes from the Mayan kakau. (see Figure 3) There is no mention of the Olmecs, thought to be the first to cultivate cacao, or other Mesoamerican cultures to whom the cacao tree was so important. “They learned that the beans inside the cocoa pods could be harvested and made into a liquid that would become a treasured Mayan treat,” it continues— all of the uses of cacao in Mayan society and its associations with life, death, and the gods, glossed over as consumers are introduced to cacao as a “treasured Mayan treat.”

Godiva is only one of many companies which capitalize on the exotification of the indigeneity of chocolate. These misrepresentations are dangerous to extant cultures in Latin America as well as being caricatures of the ancient Aztec and Maya peoples. While it would be difficult if not impossible to imagine a world without chocolate as we know it today, in all its pre-packaged and artisan forms, complicity with the systems of domination that gave the modern consumer access to it as a product is, however easy a trap to fall into, inexcusable.

1 an effect of colonization involving the cultural mixture of people of Indigenous American, West African and European descent

Works Cited

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