It is a researched and documented fact that the cacao plant was first domesticated in South America, in the Amazon basin area (Zarrillo et al.). It is also well known that cacao had a deeply spiritual and religious status for the Aztecs and Mayans of Mesoamerica, and that the Europeans’ first major interactions with cacao occurred with the Spanish conquests of Mesoamerica in the 1500s (Coe and Coe). After that, early European colonizers profited off slave labor for their cacao farms in South America and the Caribbean (Leissle 37). Therefore, for most of documented history, the cacao plant was exclusively grown in Central and South America. Why, then, is 70% of the world’s cacao today grown across the ocean in Africa?
The first major location shift for the growth of the cacao plant was the movement to South America from the Mesoamerica region. After devastating the indigenous population in Mesoamerica thanks to European diseases and the overall violence of their colonization efforts, European colonizers from Spain and Portugal in particular chose to import slave labor from Africa to the Americas in order to work on the cacao farms. Areas like Venezuela and Brazil were easily accessible to ships from Africa as well as environmentally suited to the growth of the cacao crop, so the shift to planting cacao southward was, for the colonizers, easily justified. Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago were among the early primary suppliers for the European demand for chocolate (Leissle 36-37).
It was over the course of the 19th century that the cacao farms spread to Africa, and by 1900, the small island off the west coast of Central Africa called São Tomé and Principe supplied a third of the world’s cocoa (Leissle 40) and half of the cocoa purchased by the chocolate giant Cadbury (Satre 19). So the shift from using South America as the primary source of the cacao plant to Africa was fairly slow, but evidently worthwhile, considering that Africa maintains its cacao dominance today. I would argue that, though the shift to planting cacao in Africa was partially practical (due to Central Africa’s cacao-friendly climate), the main impetus for relocating cacao farms was easy access to cheap labor coupled with imperial pressures from Europe.
Important to note about the cacao crop is that it is very particular about where it is planted. As Satre notes in Chocolate on Trial, “[cacao] trees require a hot climate, sufficient rainfall, and a relatively low altitude, ensuring warm evenings,” so that cacao is best grown near the equator (13-14). Most of today’s top cacao growing countries in Africa lie very close to the equator, and in particular, São Tomé is almost on top of the equator. As a result, Central and Western Africa have productive environments for growing cacao, but so do Central and South America. Therefore climate is not a sufficient justification for the transplantation of the cacao plant to Africa, although it was a necessary prerequisite.
Another, perhaps more significant, factor in the shift of cacao growth location had to do with South America’s inability to keep up with the rising demand for chocolate. Firstly, improvements in the development of edible chocolate products resulted in an upsurge of demand for chocolate; chocolate was less bitter and less culturally exclusive to the elite class, so more and more Europeans desired it. Secondly, cacao plants in South America, especially in Ecuador, were falling prey to witches’ broom, a disease which inhibits the cacao trees’ ability to produce healthy pods. The third and arguably largest factor in South America’s inability to match demand for chocolate was that, over the course of the 19th century, South American countries were becoming independent from their European colonizers and abolishing slavery in the region (Leissle 38-39). Without the imperial holds over their colonies and without the free labor ensured by the use of slaves, no more did Europe have guaranteed, cheap access to cacao from the Americas.
With the Americas gaining independence, European imperialism turned its eye toward Africa in what Leissle referred to as the “scramble for Africa” (39). One of the first instances of cacao reaching Africa occurred in 1822, when cacao seeds arrived in São Tomé from Brazil – both Portuguese colonies (though, in Brazil’s case, not for much longer). As previously mentioned, São Tomé sold a third of the world’s cacao by 1900, despite its tiny size; Leissle notes that “Slave labor made such tremendous output possible” (40). Officially, Portugal outlawed slavery in its colonies in the 1870s, but that did not stop São Tomé from capitalizing on essentially free laborers from Angola, even though those laborers were technically “contract laborers” (Satre 2). Eventually, São Tomé came under heavy scrutiny for its unsubtle slave labor use, but this did not stop other imperial European efforts to farm cacao out of Africa.
While the Portuguese colonies exploited laborers from Angola, the British began to farm cacao in Ghana – then known as the Gold Coast – with the “free laborers” there. Similarly exercising their imperial authority, the French relied on brute force methods in their African holdings to ensure optimal cacao growth, and they established heavy taxes in the Ivory Coast which essentially forced those farmers to grow cacao as an export crop in order to raise enough money to pay those taxes (Leissle 41-42). Over time, the shady labor practices dwindled, but the Ivory Coast and Ghana are left as two of the largest cacao producers (see the graph at top).
Possibly a major reason for the switch to farming cacao in Africa was the availability of “cheap” labor, i.e. slaves. Europeans were already exporting slaves from Western Africa to the Americas to work on the plantations there, once the indigenous population was sufficiently culled. This was part of the “triangle trade route”, with the other two legs consisting of produce transported to Europe and manufactured goods traded to Africa; see the visualization above. Once Europe began colonizing Africa and relocated the cacao crop there, an entire corner of the triangular trade route was removed. Now, European colonists could get their abundance of cheap or free labor essentially onsite, and harvested cacao could be exported directly to Europe. This saved the time and money it would take to transport slaves across the Atlantic to the Americas, and even more time and money it took to move cocoa back across the Atlantic to Europe. To the imperialists craving their chocolate and wanting to pad their pockets, this move was surely very rational.
Coe and Coe observe, “It seems supremely ironic that West Africa, from which so many hundreds of thousands had been torn against their will to work as slaves in the white man’s cacao plantations, should now be by far the world’s leading producer of cacao” (location 2860 in eBook edition). Perhaps it is less ironic that Africa should become such a key producer of cacao when one considers that cacao’s relocation to Africa brought the plant to the laborers, rather than bringing the laborers to the plant. That being said, cacao’s troubling past and present with poor labor practices should not be excused or forgotten, and the fact that early imperialists used slave labor to farm cacao in the past does not excuse modern exploitation of laborers in Africa.
That, however, is a topic for another time. We now see that the reasons for Africa’s early dominance as cacao producers are clear: firstly, Central/Western Africa’s climate, well-suited for the picky cacao crop; secondly, the interests and demands of imperial Europe; and, thirdly, the access to an abundance of cheap labor.
“A CONCISE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE.” Edited by Mark Christian, C-Spot, www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/. Accessed 22 Mar. 2020. (Multimedia source)
Coe, Sophie and Coe, Michael. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.
Satre, Lowell. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio University Press, 2005.
Shahbandeh, M. “World Cocoa Production by Country from 2012/2013 to 2018/2019.” Statista. 16 July 2020, www.statista.com/statistics/263855/cocoa-bean-production-worldwide-by-region/. Accessed 24 Mar. 2020. (Multimedia source)
Wikipedia contributors. “Triangular trade.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 21 Mar. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangular_trade. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020. (Multimedia source)
Zarrillo, Sonia, et al. “The Use and Domestication of Theobroma Cacao during the Mid-Holocene in the Upper Amazon.” Nature Ecology & Evolution, vol. 2, no. 12, 29 Oct. 2018, pp. 1879–1888., doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0697-x.