From Drink for Humanity to Drink for Pigs: The Colonization of Mesoamerican Cacao by European Powers

For ancient Mesoamericans, cacao was used as in cultural practices, as currency, and as beverage.[1] Cacao would be used by Maya nobles to demonstrate wealth and power and to signify political and economic agreements, and throughout the Maya people for rituals, such as holidays, life celebrations, and death ceremonies.[2] For these early Mesoamerican peoples, it was also cash, used as a payment to workers and as a unit of wealth for the elite, “money [that] literally grew on trees,” as writes Sampeck and Thayn. [3],[4] As a beverage, cacao was combined with many different indigenous ingredients—honey, flowers, herbs, vanilla, achiote—to satisfy the Mesoamerican tongue.[5] However, through 17th century colonialism, cacao as a beverage would undergo significant changes in taste as it was violently reconstructed for the European palette. In fact, using the words of Kathryn Sampeck and Jonathan Thayn, “Taste offered a way to create distinction between colonizers and colonized and between colonial powers.”[6]

In the Yucatan, Spanish colonizers were initially intrigued by cacao for its economic purpose as currency, but as for its taste, felt that it was “more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity,” in the words of conquistador Girolamo Benzoni in 1575.[7] When wine ran low, Benzoni turned to drinking the Natives’ chocolate beverage as an additional source of liquid nourishment besides water, developing an affinity for its bitter flavor and “refesh[ing]” effect on the body.[8] However, such an enticing flavor could not square with colonizers’ preconception of Native culture as savage and inferior. Therefore, through Spanish colonization of Native Mesoamericans, Aztec cacao recipes were made warmer, sweeter, and spicier through imposed European tastes.[9] Europeans preferred their chocolate beverages heated (as appropriated from Maya chocolate preparation), sweetened with cane sugar (supplied by slave labor), and flavored with European spices such as cinnamon and Black Pepper as opposed to the Natives’ achiote, honey, and agave.[10],[11] Furthermore, to make more efficient the commodification of creolized cacao, Europeans also appropriated a Native Mesoamerican production technique of making ground cacao into tablets that could be stored and simply added to water and sweetened with sugar when

a beverage was instantly needed, such as was employed during Aztec wartime.[12]



Pilipino tableya, tablets made from 100% cacao nibs with no additives which can be added to hot water in order to create a chocolate beverage, may be a similar product to the tablets that Spaniards appropriated from Aztec war practices.[13] The Philippines were also historically colonized by Spaniards, resulting in the introduction of cacao from Mesoamerica.[14]

Even the word chocolate itself is a creole product of the colonizing process; while there is an incommensurable number of theories around the production of the word chocolate, Mexican language expert Ignacio Dávila Garibi makes a compelling argument that Spaniards combined the Mayan chocol (meaning “hot”) with Aztec atl (meaning “water”) to create the word chocolatl for their creolized cacao beverage.[15] Before colonization, Mayans described their chocolate beverage as chacau haa (meaning “hot water”) and Aztecs described theirs as cacahuatl (meaning “cacao water”).[16] Over time, in the context of adapting to globalized communication, Spaniards’ chocolatl has become chocolate.[17] In discussing this colonization of cacao foods’ indigenous naming, Sampeck and Thayn poignantly write:

The utterance of a word, a symbol—in this case, the word “chocolate”—rarely correlates with the thing it refers to because words (symbols) in any language are vastly more complex and sophisticated than icons…Europeans created concoctions, recipes that had a pattern that referred to the pre-Columbian preparation but were not that thing itself exactly.[18]

While extracting Native cacao and its cultural practices for the production of chocolate as a food, colonizers also appropriated the medical dimensions of cacao. Coe and Coe write that while Europeans believed in the humoral system—defined by the bodies expression of hotness, coldness, wetness, and dryness—Natives had an expansive knowledge of healing property of plant life, including cacao, consuming it as an energizing supplement before entering war or engaging in heavy labor, for example.[19] The ignorant humoral system of the Europeans could not compare to the effective plant-based practices innovated by the Natives.

Nonetheless, the Spaniard’s creolized chocolate beverage gained popularity among elites in their home country in the early 17th century as more and more cacao was imported by clergy, traveling colonizers, and later commerce.[20] Insofar, this new demand for cacao by the Spanish included forcing Mesoamerican farmers to harvest it.[21] Thus, as the taste of indigenous cacao beverage was itself being perverted through colonization, Leissle writes that “now its trade supplanted [cacao]’s Mesoamerican sociocultural embeddedness, and [cacao] took the first steps toward becoming a global commodity. This shift destabilized and, in some cases, severed cocoa’s links to its Mesoamerican roots.”[22] Originally taking the chocolate beverage from Mesoamerican jícaras made from gourd or clay, Spanish elites eventually replaced the Native devices with their own mancerina, described by Coe and Coe as a porcelain “plate or saucer with a collarlike ring in the middle, into which a small cup would sit without being able to slip” so that it would appeal more to European aesthetics and pose less of a risk of spilling on their fancy apparel.[23] Eventually chocolate made its way throughout European nobility in the 17th century—into Italy, France, and England, for example—where it continued to be transformed by colonizing cultures and tastes.[24]



Painting by Felix Lorente Valencia (1712-1787) of a European woman pouring a chocolate beverage into a mancerina.

Chocolate, along with coffee and tea, became a key component of English life in the 17th century, amidst religious and political tensions, and significant advancement in arts and sciences from the likes of Isaac Newton.[25] After taking over the Spanish colony of Jamaica from Spain in 1655, the island became England’s main provider of cacao, which was described in a newspaper two years later as “cur[ing] and preserv[ing] the body of many diseases.” (165) Unlike France wherein chocolate was only available to nobles, England began commodifying chocolate as a product available for purchase to those who could afford to do so, particularly middle-class Englishmen (described by Leissle as “intelligentsia”) who frequented coffee shops where the chocolate beverages were sold, for business dealings and political discourse.[26], [27]



Englishmen in a 17th century coffee house.

As demand for sweet taste grew, England and France sought and competed for access to sugar markets in the Global South at this time to sweeten their chocolate beverages, made possible by chattel slavery and coerced labor.[28] Ironically, as writes Mintz, while the British homogenized coffee, tea, and chocolate to taste sweet through the addition of sugar supplied by enslaved people, all of these products had distinct, bitter flavors in their native forms.[29] According to Sampeck and Thayn, sugar was “the most important colonial addition to cacao beverages on both sides of the Atlantic” towards perverting cacao’s original Mesoamerican taste.[30] As part of the colonizing process, sugar assisted in turning indigenous cacao into European chocolate which, unlike the original ritualized, wealthy bean, was “intimately familiar but incompletely known”— characteristic of the alienating effect of colonization needed to sustain that project itself.[31] Mesoamericans and Africans meanwhile suffered the brute of enslavement, the spread of European diseases, cultural erasure and perversion, rape, economic denigration, and other forms of violence to meet their colonizers’ newly developed taste for sweetened cacao.[32] Thus, one might reiterate Sampeck and Thayn’s question: “How was it possible to subsume others (their lives, their labor, their substances, their objects) while at the same time hold them apart, as separate entities and tastes?”[33] In this context, it may be fair to co-opt and apply Benzoni’s view that Europe’s chocolate beverage became “more a drink for pigs [the colonizers], than a drink for humanity [the colonized].”[34]



Enslaved persons harvesting sugarcane, overseen by European managers of the colonial project.



[1] Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. (New York City, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2013), 30

[2] Coe and Coe, The True History, 30-31.

[3] Kathryn E. Sampeck and Jonathan Thayn, “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism” from Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, first ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017), 76

[4] Coe and Coe, The True History, 32.

[5] Sampeck and Thayn, “Translating Tastes,” 81-82.

[6] Sampeck and Thayn, “Translating Tastes,” 73.

[7] Coe and Coe, The True History, 110.

[8] Coe and Coe, The True History, 110.

[9] Coe and Coe, The True History, 114-115.

[10] Sampeck and Thayn, “Translating Tastes,” 81-82.

[11] Coe and Coe, The True History, 112-115.

[12] Coe and Coe, The True History, 115.

[13] “Tablea,” About Filipino Food: Get to Know the Cuisine of the Philippines, January 08, 2018, accessed April 22, 2019,

[14] Leissle, Cocoa, 37.

[15] Coe and Coe, The True History, 117-119.

[16] Coe and Coe, The True History, 117-118.

[17] Coe and Coe, The True History, 119.

[18] Sampeck and Thayn, “Translating Tastes,” 91.

[19] Coe and Coe, The True History, 121-123.

[20] Coe and Coe, The True History, 130-131, 135.

[21] Kristy Leissle, Cocoa (Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018), 34.

[22] Leissle, Cocoa, 34.

[23] Coe and Coe, The True History, 134-135.

[24] Coe and Coe, The True History, 147, 150-157, 161.

[25] Coe and Coe, The True History, 161-162.

[26] Leissle, Cocoa, 36.

[27] Coe and Coe, The True History, 164-168.

[28] Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power (New York, NY: Viking, 1985), 39, 44.

[29] Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 109.

[30] Sampeck and Thayn, “Translating Tastes,” 84.

[31] Sampeck and Thayn, “Translating Tastes,” 92-94.

[32] Leissle, Cocoa, 36.

[33] Sampeck and Thayn, “Translating Tastes,” 93.

[34] Coe and Coe, The True History, 110.


“Tablea.” About Filipino Food: Get to Know the Cuisine of the Philippines. January 08, 2018. Accessed April 22, 2019.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York City, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York, NY: Viking, 1985.

Sampeck, Kathryn E. and Jonathan Thayn. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism” from Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. First ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017.


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