A traditional view of the history of chocolate focuses on the growth in mass consumption of chocolate as a byproduct of democratization and the industrial revolution. With time, consumption of chocolate spread from Aztec elites to the European nobility to the common citizens of the Western world. However, I contend that the history of chocolate is not simply one of expanded access fueled by increased political and economic inclusiveness, but rather one of shifting patterns of exploitation. The expansion of chocolate consumption has tracked the political enfranchisement and growth in economic power of white Westerners, but has simultaneously resulted in the brutal exploitation of poor brown and black people, first in Latin America, and now in Africa.
The Elite Origins of Chocolate
In ancient Aztec society, the consumption of chocolate was confined to the elites, which included members of the royal house, lords and nobility, long-distance merchants and warriors. Consumed after dinner at royal banquets, it was considered an exotic delicacy and a gift from the gods, a precious treasure not to be wasted on commoners (Coe and Coe, pg. 95). It was also used in religious ceremonies, including marriage rites, to symbolize the sacred nature of matrimonial covenants (Coe and Coe, pgs. 97-101). When the Conquistadors brought chocolate back to the Old World from Mesoamerica, it quickly spread through Europe, becoming a delicious treat for European nobles. Through the displays and pageants of Spain’s Habsburg rulers, the drink quickly gained fame, with powerful oligarchs such as Cosimo de’ Medici becoming “chocoholics” (Coe and Coe, pg. 135). Curiously, chocolate came to be seen as more feminine, as it was popularized with ladies of the royal courts in Europe. It retained its association with marriage, as women intermarried among royal families and brought their love of chocolate with them (Coe and Coe, pgs. 136-137).
The image below displays the status of chocolate drink as both an elite status symbol and a beverage uniquely associated with the idealized image of the noble lady and her well-ordered household:
Chocolate Comes to the Masses
Despite chocolate’s elite origins, a different narrative took form around chocolate as production methods were refined and it became more broadly available to the masses. By the late 17th century in England, chocolate became associated with the intellectual movement towards democratic governance during the Enlightenment era. Chocolate houses and coffee houses became centers of democratic thought, prompting Charles II to issue an ultimately futile decree to close them down in 1675 (Coe and Coe, pg. 168). Chocolate was truly democratized in the mid-19th century, as technological innovation during the Industrial Revolution made chocolate far more accessible to ordinary people. In 1828, Coenraad Johannes Van Houten invented the alkalizing process which gave chocolate its familiar dark color and made it milder in flavor. In 1849, Joseph Fry invented the modern chocolate bar, using cocoa butter to transform chocolate into a solid confection (Coe and Coe, pgs. 234 – 241). Simultaneously, sugar, which had come into common usage as both a preservative and an ingredient to supplement the caloric needs of working and middle class citizens in the West, came to be one of the most important components of both chocolate drink and the newly invented bars (Schartzkopf and Sampeck). As the narrative goes, the physical transformation of chocolate represented a revolution in accessibility, carried on a wave of political democratization and the industrialization-fueled growth in mass consumption.
The picture below displays three different styles of modern, mass-produced chocolate bar, complete with sugar for extra flavoring and the familiar dark coloring introduced by Van Houten’s method:
The Thin Veneer of Democracy
Though the history of the spread of chocolate is often portrayed as a triumph of mass democracy, in truth chocolate has been and continues to be a product of extremely unequal, hierarchical systems of racial and class-based oppression, in which poor brown and black people produce chocolate as a luxury good to be enjoyed by better off, mostly white Westerners. The oppressive hierarchies of Western chocolate production trace their origins to the encomienda system of the early 16th century, in which Spanish colonizers virtually enslaved the Native people of their American colonies, forcing them to harvest cash crops such as chocolate beans, often at the expense of their own lives (Yeager). Eventually, the encomienda system came to an end, and chocolate production in the New World gradually became the domain of newly enslaved Africans. As globalization increased, and outright slavery fell out of favor, production shifted from Latin America to Africa, with (technically illegal) slave labor still being used to produce chocolate in places such as Sao Tome as late as the early 20th century (Satre). In the modern era, the exploitation of African labor continues. 74% of chocolate was produced in Africa during the 2016-2017 season, but Africans only consumed a tiny percentage of the chocolate they produced, and received a comparatively small cut of the profits (Leissle, pgs. 4-7, 36-46). In the words of Ghanian farmer Mercy Asabea, when asked about the local scarcity of chocolate, “Ghana made Europe what it is…We have every resource here, yet Ghanians are not progressing at all” (Leissle, pg. 57).
The following chart shows a harrowing picture of the relationship between modern chocolate production and consumption, with the orange dots representing main exporters and the red dots representing export destinations:
Accusations of highly exploitative labor practices, including forced child labor, continue to this day. This video from the Stolen Lives Project details just a few of the abuses allegedly committed by the modern day chocolate production industry:
Ultimately, it is important for us to develop a realistic perspective on chocolate and its origins. One can both appreciate the expansion of access to this delicious treat, especially in the Western world, yet simultaneously reject purely Western-centered narratives which exclude the experiences of disadvantaged black and brown people in the developing world as they relate to chocolate production and consumption
“Bars of Black Swiss Chocolate.” Wikimedia Commons, 8 Oct. 2015, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dark_chocolate_bar.jpg.
Boucher, Francois. “The Afternoon Meal.” Wikimedia Commons, 10 Aug. 2017, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fran%C3%A7ois_Boucher_002.jpg.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2013.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.
Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio Univ. Press, 2006.
Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, by Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn E. Sampeck, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 73–99.
Stolen Lives Project. Chocolate Slaves. Vimeo, 2 Aug. 2015, vimeo.com/135172005.
Wade, Kristine. “The Production of Chocolate.” Flickr, 3 Feb. 2017, http://www.flickr.com/photos/147998004@N06/32640931946.
Yeager, Timothy J. “Encomienda or Slavery? The Spanish Crown’s Choice of Labor Organization in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 55, no. 04, 1995, pp. 842–859., doi:10.1017/s0022050700042182.