Tag Archives: colonialism

The Mancerina and Chocolate Consumption in 17th-Century Spain

In 1544, Kekchi Maya nobles traveled to Spain and presented Prince Philip with a variety of gifts from Mesoamerica (Coe, 1996). Among these gifts were quetzal feathers, chillis, maize, and chocolate. Scholars believe this interaction between Kekchi and Spanish nobility is the first example of chocolate in Europe (Coe, 1996). Following this exchange, Spain began importing cacao from Mesoamerica. By 1600, the Spanish royal court was regularly consuming chocolate in the form of a hot beverage (Coe, 1996). The introduction of chocolate to Europe spurred the development of a unique, European culture of chocolate production and consumption. This culture included the invention of special materials used to consume chocolate, including the Spanish mancerina (Coe, 1996).

A mancerina is a small plate with a raised ring in the center. The raised ring holds a small chocolate-filled cup in place and prevents it from sliding off of the plate (Moore, 2003). The mancerina was developed to prevent Spanish nobles from spilling chocolate beverages on themselves. In the 17th century, chocolate in Spain was associated with royalty and indulgence. Wealthy, high-ranking members of society consumed the exotic and decadent drink at parties, often while dancing (Coe, 1996). The mancerina thus allowed people to consume their beverage while they danced, without fear of spilling it. The mancerina, therefore, was integral to the culture of chocolate consumption in Spain, marked by nobility and excess.

Although the mancerina is a symbol of 17th-century Spanish chocolate consumption, it was not invented in Spain. Rather, it was invented by Don Pedro Alvarez de Toledo, the Marquis of Mancera, in Peru (Coe, 1996). Don Alvarez was serving as the Spanish Viceroy of Peru when he witnessed a woman at a royal gathering spill chocolate on herself (Coe, 1996). As a result, he commissioned a silversmith in Lima to craft a saucer with a raised center capable of balancing a cup to prevent spills: the mancerina (Coe, 1996). The mancerina was eventually brought to Europe and crafted using porcelain instead of silver (Coe, 1996).

Likewise, despite the mancerina’s association with Spanish nobility and chocolate consumption, the cup that the mancerina holds, called a jicara, is modeled off of pre-Columbian drinking vessels (Moore, 2003). The design of the jicara is based off of bowl-like cups made of gourds used in Mesoamerica before the Spanish arrival (Moore, 2003). As such, the mancerina, central to Spanish chocolate consumption culture, was heavily influenced by pre-Columbian Mesoamerican traditions and inventions.  

The invention of the mancerina reinforced chocolate’s association with royalty and indulgence in Spain. Not only was the mancerina used to serve chocolate, a beverage that was considered exotic and luxurious, but the mancerina itself was made of porcelain, another exotic and luxurious material. Additionally, it was invented in order to facilitate the consumption of chocolate at royal parties. “The mancerina lent a certain protocol to the act of taking chocolate and heightened the status of those who could afford the product and all of its accoutrements” (Forrest and Najjaj, 2007). In addition to symbolizing the lavishness of chocolate, the mancerina was itself a lavish item that contributed to the indulgent culture of chocolate consumption in 17th-century Spain.

Furthermore, the invention of materials like the mancerina contributed to the Europeanization of chocolate and the development of a culture of chocolate consumption marked by wealth, indulgence, and colonial power. The mancerina was created to accommodate a mode of chocolate consumption that Europeans considered unique from and superior to chocolate consumption in Mesoamerica (Forrest and Najjaj, 2007). In order to remake chocolate in their own image, Europeans forwent the chillis and maize that indigenous people often added to their chocolate beverages, and instead added sugar, bread, and other materials they considered their own. In the same way, Europeans developed their own drinking vessels, like the mancerina, in order to enjoy chocolate in a uniquely European way. The appropriation of chocolate and modes of chocolate consumption in Europe represented feelings of “nationalism and cultural superiority” (Forrest and Najjaj, 2007). The mancerina served to reinforce the notion that chocolate belonged to Europe. In addition to the invention of new chocolate beverage recipes, the development of materials like the mancerina, designed specifically for chocolate consumption in Europe, contributed to the appropriation of chocolate and the development of a European culture of chocolate consumption denoted by wealth, indulgence, and colonial power.

Following the introduction of chocolate to Europe by Kekchi Maya nobles in 1544, a culture of chocolate consumption developed in Spain. Chocolate came to be identified with royalty, decadence, and power. Central to the development of this culture was the invention of materials designed to accommodate modes of chocolate consumption specific to royal European society. One such material was the mancerina, a porcelain saucer designed to securely balance a chocolate-filled cup, which exemplified and contributed to the lavish culture surrounding chocolate in 17th-century Spain.

A drawing of 17th-century Spanish nobles sipping chocolate from mancerinas (Coe, 1996).

A porcelain mancerina, crafted sometime between 1735 and 1760 (Torrecid).

A porcelain mancerina, crafted sometime between 1770 and 1798, designed to look like a dove (Torrecid).


“Ceramic Art Collection.” Torrecid, http://www.torrecid.com/museum/index.php/ceramic-art-collection/.

Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Forrest, Beth Marie, and April L Najjaj. “Is Sipping Sin Breaking Fast? The Catholic Chocolate Controversy and the Changing World of Early Modern Spain.” Food and Foodways: Chocolate: Case Studies in History and Culture, vol. 15, no. 1-2, 2007, pp. 31–52.

Moore, Janet H. “Culture and Thought—Arts: Peking on the Rio Grande—An Art Form that Mixes Cranes, Cacti and Cultures.” Asian Wall Street Journal, Feb 07, 2003, ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/315498543?accountid=11311.

The Development of Chocolate as a Mass Commodity Over Time

I will be discussing the development of chocolate as an industrialized food in the modern world. We take the existence of chocolate a mass commodity — and that is as a easy to find and massively consumed commodity — for granted. However chocolate was not always this way. Chocolate originated in the Americas that is that is where the cacao plant from which chocolate is created was initially a grown. That is where it is native and it had been used by the peoples in those areas to our knowledge for thousands of years and it had been used for various purposes. But initially well it is difficult to it is difficult to know exactly all the ways in which chocolate has been used and exactly when it have been using these ways throughout all of history due to birth inherent limitations in looking back at history but also the unfortunate reality that much of mesoamerica History has been obscured and erase do to colonialism. 

But none the less the information that we do have indicates that chocolate largely had spiritual purposes in these Mesoamerican societies and was seen as something of the elite. So in other words it was not a massively consumed food. Cacao products there were massively used for non culinary purposes for example they were used as a means of exchange, as a currency. This is the way in which cacao products and chocolate were being used and the way they were distributed throughout Mesoamerican societies when the Spanish first came to these Societies in the late 1400s and early 1500s. 

Initially the Spanish did not Produce chocolate for culinary purposes because they did not like the taste of chocolate. It was very bitter at that time and was usually consumed as a drink and this did not fit the Spanish is liking for Taste. However overall overtime they began to see more and more the potential for the use of chocolate is food and part is this coincided with their introduction of sugar into chocolate products to make it sweeter. Once they’ve found a combination of ingredients that made chocolate palpable to them they decided to mass produce it. In order to mass produce chocolate and other ingredients in chocolate products especially sugar they turn to slavery to a master juice cacao and chocolate on plantations. Initially they use the native peoples of mesoamerica for these purposes but after while when these people started to unfortunately die off due to diseases imported by Europeans and also just the harshness of slave life the Spanish began to use slaves from Africa. They would import people from Africa and use them as slaves to grow chocolate in the Americas cacao and sugar. 

Eventually other European powers such as Britain starting to do the same thing to the point where it became mass-produced and discontinued into the twentieth century even after the abolition of official slavery. What also began to happen is that cacao began to be grown in Africa and in other regions of the world that had been colonized by the European powers. Slowly the location of cattle growth shifted sister today most Cacao is grown outside of its native regions. That is Cacao a genetically we know probably began in South America but then was I move to mesoamerica and was largely use there and then from there imported to Africa in other regions. 

Cacao is now mostly grown in those after mentioned other regions. Even though in modern times cacao and sugar, which are highly linked in terms of their production, to one another are not a generally not grown using official slavery they are however still unfortunately grown using coerced labor. Brown and Black people  are paid peanuts for their work and work under very harsh conditions and actually suffer disease and early death as a result of what they do. And that has coincided of course with chocolate being massively consumed all over the world by by many different people. And even though chocolate is consumed worldwide, it is consumed more in the West in industrialized nations. So in other words the people who bear the brunt of chocolate production, the production of cacao, the production of sugar, and the refinement of those raw materials into chocolate actually consume chocolate the least whereas the people who profit most off of of the production of chocolate consume it the most. So chocolate is tasty and massively consumed but also over time has become a blood-stained commodity, and that is the unfortunate reality of our culinary world.

Works Cited

“Consequences of Violence.” Violence, 2019, pp. 161–181., doi:10.1002/9781119240716.ch9.

Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. University of Texas Press, 2017.

Sloan, Kealy, et al. “One Size Does Not Fit All: Private-Sector Perspectives on Climate Change, Agriculture and Adaptation.” The Climate-Smart Agriculture Papers, 2018, pp. 227–233., doi:10.1007/978-3-319-92798-5_19.

Multimedia Sources


Loo, John. “Chocolate.” Flickr, Yahoo!, 24 June 2007, http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnloo/606739059.

Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Slaves_cutting_the_sugar_cane_-_Ten_Views_in_the_Island_of_Antigua_(1823),_plate_IV_-_BL.jpg.

The Real Impurities of Chocolate, Past and Present

For the regular consumer, chocolate does not mean much beyond the divine sensation it’s given to the human tongue for generations. Short of the socio-political significance it held in the ancient Maya and Aztec civilizations, chocolate was merely a tasty foreign cuisine to the European elite of the modern period, and a classically popular dessert now in the age of industrial commerce. However, as chocolate grew from a beloved local staple to a worldwide commodity—backed by household names such as Hershey and Nestle—it became more relevant to discussions of society and politics than ever, tucked under the veil of pleasantly inconspicuous packaging, like so:

A picture containing text, book

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World War II advertisement for Whitman’s Chocolates

The joyous American WWII ad embedded here captures the hidden nature of modern chocolate politics (“‘Chocolate is a Fighting Food!’ – Chocolate bars in the Second World War”). As a commodity broadly supplied by poorer nations but consumed by wealthy ones, chocolate has served as a reflection of global inequality and exploitation since its popularization in the 18th century. Although media conception works to mask this truth, the means of chocolate supply remains harsh and problematic, owing to its history as a source of inexcusably exploitative labor.

Cocoa agriculture shares a long-standing history with slavery. Traces of forced, unpaid labor in collecting and preparing raw cocoa stretch back far, and contemporary observers detail appalling conditions. Although it  mostly occurred elsewhere, the slavery associated with cocoa farming has involved horrors similar to the traditional American canon. In his book Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business, Youngstown State University Professor of History Lowell Satre writes:

“Human bones littered the sides of the trail, so many that it ‘would take an army of sextons to bury all the poor bones which consecrate that path.’ The bones in the dust were those of slaves who could no longer march, who were too weak to walk. Some captives were simply left to die; many others were killed by a blow to the head…the slavers, whoever they were, had little need to worry about runaways surviving to tell their brutal tale—there was no place for the slaves to run to in the Hungry Country.”

Describing the reports of an English journalist observing 19th century Portuguese West Africa, Satre’s excerpt seems to depict a “brutal tale” indeed (Satre 2005 p. 1). Those workers in African colonies that harvested and prepared cocoa were nothing more than human media through which to meet foreign demand, meant to be cast away and/or brutalized whenever they tried to take on a different role. The violence of such practice was clear, and it combined with a racial component that strikes a note reminiscent of American slavery. Such imagery appears not only in the history of African colonialism, but also in that of other nations with widespread cocoa farming, likely with the accompanying realities. The West Indies were no exception:

A vintage photo of a group of people posing for the camera

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Depiction of cocoa plantation in Trinidad, 1897

The image above was taken in 1890s Trinidad, but the practice of white overseers exploiting darker-skinned laborers continued for decades after, despite worldwide movements to abolish slavery (“Rowntree & its Cocoa Plantations”). When parts of the world began to agree on the depravity of slavery, like practices such as indentured servitude or contract labor came in its place. This meant that, on paper, cocoa farmers were not enslaved, but in reality, they still faced similar issues of little-to-no pay, quiet physical abuse, and “voluntary” lifelong labor commitments, as Satre describes later in his piece (Satre 2005 p. 92). Scrutiny by journalists, researchers, and the like drove these practices further into the underground throughout the 20th century, but it failed to eradicate them completely. And how could it? There seems no better way to optimize business than to extract raw material for almost no cost, process and sell its derivatives at a competitive price, and present to consumers as though nothing questionable is going on. Cocoa farming slavery took on a new form, but in some places, it retained its explicit nature. In others, it was found to exploit those with the lowest capability of resistance—namely, children:

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Infographic on child slave labor in West Africa, designed by Katie Patrick

This facet of cocoa politics persisted through to the 21st century, a time where people across the globe feel that humanity had moved past such barbaric systems of labor (“2 Million Child Slaves on Cocoa Plantations in West Africa”). In Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa, author Catherine Higgs writes:

“In 2000 and 2001, newspaper editorials and a television documentary alleged that Cadbury and the French firm Nestle were knowingly buying cocoa harvested by child laborers enslaved on Cote d’Ivoire’s cocoa plantations…In 2002 the London-based Anti-Slavery International estimated that approximately 284,000 children worked in the cocoa fields of West Africa…Less clear was whether the employers considered those young workers slaves…Identifying the specific factors (including hunger and poverty at home) that force children to labor on Cote d’Ivoire’s plantations has proved as difficult as it was…in 1905…Today, despite anecdotal evidence collected by a new generation of crusading journalists, African workers remain largely anonymous—and the meaning of slavery and freedom in an African context sometimes unfathomable—to the predominantly Western consumers of chocolate.”

Therein lies both the long-standing narrative of chocolate labor and its clear relevance to consumers today (Higgs 2012 p. 164). Despite being so far removed from the conception of chocolate eaters today, exploitation and inequality still reside at the heart of chocolate commerce and have done so beyond this past century. As much as current media may glamorize chocolate products, as exemplified by the modern ad below,

21st century ad for Panda Dark Chocolate

chocolate is hardly a fix for the world’s issues, and more accurately seen as another form of its problems (“This Panda Dark Chocolate Ad Proves Chocolate Can Fix It All”). As the late British economist Michael Barratt Brown explains in his article “‘Fair Trade’ with Africa” in the Review of African Political Economy, the exploitation that characterizes cocoa agriculture is a systemic issue (Brown 2007 pp. 268-269). Because Western nations have the advantage in industrial processing and manufacture, and cocoa prices were made to remain low starting in the 1970s, countries such as Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire are relegated to being long-term exporters of cheap raw material, rather than highly lucrative product manufacturers. To remedy these issues in chocolate supply denotes a tall task, but it begins with the spread of awareness. Empirical research by the likes of Brown, Higgs, Satre, and others shows the importance and relevance of chocolate beyond its food consumption, what with their broad implications about human nature and commerce. With proper study, analysis, and action, perhaps the world of chocolate consumers can one day bring a similar sweetness to the reality of chocolate politics. Equally dark as the complexion of cocoa product is that of its profit-seeking process, but if we continue to see beyond the packaging, we just might learn how to rid the content of all its hidden impurities.

Picture Sources

WWII ad: https://americanhistory.si.edu/sites/default/files/styles/blog_image/public/Image%206_LIFE%20Magazine%2010-9-1944.jpg?itok=YR11Dq8B

Trinidad plantation: https://www.york.ac.uk/media/borthwick/images/projects/equalityinthearchives/doc2_rowntree_cocoa_sorting_1897_full.jpg

Child labor infographic: https://thumbnails-visually.netdna-ssl.com/2-million-child-slaves-on-cocoa-plantations_51f41f941a684_w1500.jpg

Modern-day ad: https://cdn.trendhunterstatic.com/phpthumbnails/248/248954/248954_1_800.jpeg

Works Cited

Brown, Michael Barratt. “’Fair Trade’ with Africa.” Review of African Political Economy, vol. 34, no. 112, 2007, pp. 267–277. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20406397. Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Ohio University Press, 2012.

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio Univ. Press, 2005.

Trinitario and Terroir: the Tale of How Cacao Circumnavigated the Globe

It is ironic indeed that West Africa, the land from which innumerable people were stolen from, enslaved, and eventually forced to work on foreign cacao plantations, would one day become the world’s leading producer of cacao (1). The reasons for this shift are myriad and complex, but one piece of the puzzle, at least, is clear. The various subtle differences in chocolate breeds around the world played a significant role in the shift from Mexico to Africa when it came to cacao production. The fact that West Africa is geographically closer to Europe than South America no doubt also had an impact because of the steep cost of transporting goods across the Atlantic Ocean, as likely did the massacre of and widespread death in indigenous South American populations—which of course affected the amount of local free labor and the ease of acquiring it. However, it seems that it is the diversity of cacao breeds themselves that is often underestimated (1, 2).

It is crucial to first firmly establish that this change was brought about by European colonization. In the first half of the 18th century, Portuguese colonizers transplanted forastero (“foreign”) cuttings from Brazil to São Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea in Central Africa. That cacao soon became one of the island’s principal exports, up until the end of the following century (1). Then, in the 1850s, cacao cuttings were taken from São Tomé to Bioko, an island off the west coast of Equatorial Guinea. Bioko soon began exporting forastero, which was by that point quite pervasive (1). From these Portuguese colonies in Africa, Theobroma cacao spread to Ghana (the Gold Coast); then to Nigeria; and then, in 1905, to the Ivory Coast (1). And Portugal was not alone; near the end of the century, German colonizers began planting cacao in the Cameroons (1).

Still, it was not mere colonial pressure in West Africa that brought about the massive rise in cocoa production outside Mexico. Driven by the preferences of the elite, European colonizers brought specific chocolate breeds to their African colonies. When forastero seedlings were brought to Trinidad, they hybridized with what remained of the local criollo trees, producing the new variety trinitario. The quality of criollo is arguably superior to all other varieties; the flavor and aroma of forastero, which is hardier and more fruitful, cannot compare. Indeed, criollo was the “prerogative of the rulers and warriors of ancient Mesoamerica” and “seduced” the European aristocracies of the 17th and 18th centuries (1). Trinitario combined the unique taste qualities of criollo with the “vigor, hardiness, and high yields” of forastero (1). Thus, when trinitario—with its wonderful blend of attributes—was born, the strain soon came to dominate the cacao trade, fueling cultivation around the globe. Today, there are at least eleven commercial varieties of trinitario grown in Trinidad alone (7).

The role of the elite in these happenings cannot be underestimated. It was the aristocracy of old that defined refinement, and in the extremely stratified socioeconomic pyramids of many pre-19th century European nations, there was a marked desire by the common people to imitate the nobility. As chocolate addition swept their ranks, European elites ushered in the spread of cocoa “downward…to the urban working classes, then outward to the countryside” (1). 

As cacao spread from Mesoamerica to the Caribbean to sub-Saharan Africa to Asia (2), unavoidable differences in breeds led to differences in preference. At least ten genetically distinct cacao varieties have been recognized (4), some of which were rediscovered as recently as 2011. Though the cacao breeds grown in colonies might have originally been genetically identical, growing method and environment play a significant role in taste and texture. Terroir is defined as “the unique flavours and quality associated with the manner of production and almost ineffable qualities of genetics, climate, soil, and place” (3). In other words, terroir is “the sense of a place” (3). 

Above: components of terroir (8)

Ancient Mayan royal scribes recorded recipes that included particular types of cacao from particular regions (3), making it clear that that even genetically identical cacao grown in adjoining territories can be differentiated by taste and other attributes. It follows that such a trend would be mirrored in the aristocracy of Europe, with nobles determining and declaring their favorite cacao (ostensibly from the appropriate colony) in order to boast not only their wealth but their sophistication. Indeed, as Martin and Sampeck assert, “Europeans truly embraced cacao as a way to define distinct tastes” (3).

Above: terroir map showing the overall taste descriptions of cacao around the world (8)

This phenomenon is further supported by the contemporary chocolate market, the direct descendant of late 18th, 19th, and early 20th century trends. A simple internet search reveals a vast array of sampler chocolate collections available for purchase—the majority of which contain confections produced with cacao grown in different countries. Bar & Cocoa, for example, sells a “Chocolate Bars of the World” gift box. The accompanying description differentiates cocoa from Madagascar, Vietnam, and Venezuela by aroma, richness, flavor notes, and even “spice” (5). Another company, Tabal Chocolate, offers an assortment of Costa Rican,  Bolivian, and Peruvian chocolate (6). 

Above: Bar & Cacao’s “Chocolate Bars of the World” gift box (5)

It is perhaps wrong, then, to state that cacao circumnavigated the globe. Cacao conquered it.

Works Cited

  1. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames and Hudson, 2013.
  2. Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. 1st ed., Polity Press, 2018.
  3. Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37–60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.
  4. Motamayor, Juan C., et al. “Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree (Theobroma Cacao L).” PLoS ONE, vol. 3, no. 10, 1 Oct. 2008, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003311.
  5. “Chocolate Bars of the World Gift Box.” Bar & Cocoa, Bar & Cocoa, barandcocoa.com/products/chocolate-bars-of-the-world-gift-box?variant=19094053879862&utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=google&utm_campaign=Google Shopping&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIrtmF4p-26AIVwx-tBh1Ydg4iEAQYASABEgJcvvD_BwE.
  6. “Three Bar World Sampler.” Tabal Chocolate, Tabal Chocolate, tabalchocolate.com/world-samplers/three-bar-world-sampler.
  7. “What Is Trinitario Chocolate?” Cocoa Republic, Cocoa Republic, 18 July 2016, http://www.cocoa-republic.com/2016/06/29/what-is-trinitario-chocolate/.
  8. Giller, Megan. Bean-to-Bar Chocolate: Americas Craft Chocolate Revolution: the Origins, the Makers, the Mind-Blowing Flavors. Storey Publishing, 2017.

Chocolate Estranged; Mesoamerica and Mars, Inc.


Being allergic to chocolate is more socially isolating than one would immediately assume. So many birthday cake slices go uneaten, Valentine’s Day candies shamefully chucked into the trashcan when no one is looking, so much time spent wistfully staring at the chocolate-lined shelves of Walgreens and CVS check-out line. Being excluded from such a significant aspect of consumption and food culture affects one’s life in small, unexpected, and sometimes frustrating ways, such as discovering your chocolate allergy at a birthday party and going home with hives. I was four when that happened. That was not, however, the last time I ate chocolate. I have braved the storm of hives induced by my allergies more than a few times simply because I really wanted to partake in the experience of eating chocolate and trying out different brands, such as Twix or Mars Bars. And that is the power of marketing. The question of how European companies, such as Cadbury, Lindt, and Hershey, became the guiding hand in framing chocolate as a product in the west involves historical questions of ownership, appropriation, and colonization. By controlling the historical narrative of chocolate and redefining food culture, the mass-marketing practices of industrial-era European companies continue to influence how chocolate is perceived and consumed today. 

History of Cocoa

Cacao trees produce pods, and those pods contain small almond-shaped seeds that go on to be processed into what we recognize as chocolate. Cacao trees are native to the Amazon basin and they were first domesticated and commodified by Central American natives, namely the Mayans and Aztecs as early as 900 AD. In Mesoamerican culture, chocolate was the frothy beverage of the gods, embodying strength, divinity, and denoting wealth. In other words, if you were not a priest, an elite, or a warrior, you were not getting your hands on any sacred “xocolatl”, one of the many words for chocolate in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs (Coe and Coe 96). The seeds encased in cacao pods were not only the drink of the gods and their few human favorites, they also functioned as currency and demarcated sites of intense geopolitical warfare in the competition for control over fertile cacao-producing lands, such as the Soconusco in present-day Mexico, amongst native Mesoamerican populations (Coe and Coe 97). Whether obtained through means of trading, conflict, or planting, cacao seeds inevitably went into the stockpile of royals and the elite or the production of chocolate.

How Chocolate is Made

Mesoamerican xocolatl— the original chocolate– was produced through a lengthy process that transformed harvested cacao pods into a foamy drink. Cacao seeds were dried, roasted, removed from their shells, and ground into a paste (Coe and 25). A metate stone, a tool that functions as a giant mortar and pestle, was used to grind the beans into a paste. The resulting bitter-tasting paste, which looked like melted chocolate, was often flavored with spicy chili peppers, vanilla, and other natural flavors found in the region (Coe and Coe 90). The chocolate paste resulting from grinding cacao beans on the metate stone, however, was not the end goal. Drinkable chocolate, or xocolatl, meaning ”bitter water” in Mayan, was what many Mesoamerican natives made.

A video detailing the chocolate-making process used by Mayans and other Mesoamericans

Making xocolatl involved the additional step of pouring a mixture of cacao bean paste and water back and forth between two jars to produce the chocolatey foam that was so prized by the Maya, Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican groups. Little has changed in the process of chocolate-making since 900 AD, but the face of chocolate was forever changed by colonization. 

Takalik Abaj metate 1.jpg
Traditional metate stone used to grind cacao beans into paste by Mesoamericans

Chocolate Colonized

When European colonization began in Central and South America in the 1500s, everything was swept up into the current of goods being stolen and extracted from the New World and sold in Europe. Under this economic climate, indigenous Mesoamericans were enslaved and the artifacts of their world and culture erased and rewritten. A pillar in the architecture of European colonialism was the demonization of indigenous identity and customs. Oftentimes, such demonization was achieved by positioning indigeneity as monstrous and anti-Christian. Thus, it is unsurprising that 16th-century conquistadors, colonists, and priests opposed chocolate in the Spanish colonies of Central and South America. Voyager Girolmo Benzoni, for example, claimed that chocolate “seemed more a drink for pigs” (Coe and Coe 109). Such demonization of Mesoamerican cultures was common throughout European colonial rule and presence in the region. Whether classified as a food, drink, or medicine, the xocolatl brought to Europe by conquistadors quickly gained popularity throughout the continent, giving way to a new industry. Despite their enthusiastic conquest of foreign lands and populations, the European attitude towards the products brought from these regions was ironically cautious and skeptical. 

Many European elites who were among the first to receive items from the New World, scrutinized those very goods because of their proximity to indigeneity. European attitudes towards the New World goods “supplanting more familiar items” were not immediately welcoming despite the excitement surrounding their novelty (Mintz 151). Pseudoscientific theories cautioning against chocolate were widespread. For instance, Doctor Giovanni Batista Felici, physician to the Tuscan court, held that chocolate caused “palpitations, thickened blood, lack of appetite, and so on” (Coe and Coe 209). Convincing Europe’s elite to embrace cacao as a delicacy and, later, a staple and medical phenomenon was key to establishing chocolate as an industry in Europe. Spanish colonists’ usage of quick-dissolving tablets to make instant hot chocolate “mixed with spices” in the 1600s, for example, reveals the early chocolate craze that swept Europe’s colonial elite and nobles (Coe and Coe 184). The chocolate-drinking craze which later began to “spread through all classes” of Baroque Europe further demonstrates how the delicacy of the aristocracy became a socioeconomic phenomenon that crossed class lines (Coe and Coe 181). Ultimately, the technological advances and increased production rates of the Industrial era allowed chocolate to become a household staple. In other words, the repackaging of Mesoamerican cacao into a sweet, everyday dessert and medicinal commodity amongst the elite helped set the stage for an expanded market that would eventually reach the general public– the larger and more reliable engine of industry.

How Chocolate was Changed by European Enterprise

The startups of the Industrial period are the tycoons of today, and their marketing influence is historically rooted in the industrial revolution and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. While chocolate had been primarily consumed as a beverage or dessert for the elite, the 1800s industrial boom saw chocolate become accessible to the general public (Coe and Coe 211). Chocolate-making companies, such as Cadbury, Lindt, and Hershey, were launched during the industrial revolution of the 1800s. Continuing the precedents set by Europe’s elite consumers, such as Cosimo III de Medici, these companies departed from the original Mesoamerican chocolate recipes (Coe and Coe 145). Chili peppers were replaced with sugar, vanilla replaced with milk and cream (Coe and Coe 115). Joël Glenn Brenner’s observation notes the westernization of chocolate-making in “The Emperors of Chocolate”:

“Each process produced it’s own unique chocolate flavor, and over time, these differences translated into distinct national tastes. The British, for example, prefer their milk chocolate very sweet and caramel-like, while Americans identify with the harsher, grittier flavor popularized by Hershey. German chocolate generally ranks as the richest because of it’s traditionally high fat content, while Italian chocolate is drier, more bittersweet. Swiss chocolate, considered the finest by connoisseurs, is characterized by a strong, aromatic, almost perfumey flavor and the smoothest, silkiest texture.” (Brenner)

Industrial era companies, such as Nestle, created products that contained little to no actual cacao. Milk Chocolate, a mixture of powdered milk and cacao butter that uses little to no actual cacao, and other similarly faux chocolate products, like nougat, relied more on sweetness and chocolate coating than authentic cacao (Coe and Coe 250). Products from the Western Hemisphere, like cacao and sugar, flowed into Europe through Trans-Atlantic colonialism while the later Industrial Revolution allowed for production on a massive scale. This allowed for a fusion of Mesoamerican cacao with imported goods from the New World brought from Europe (Mintz 151).

Chocolate Moves to the Factory

Industrial-era companies focused heavily on marketing chocolate which had previously been reserved for the elite to the general public– “everything had to be faster, cheaper, bigger, better” (Brenner 8). Milton Hershey, for instance, constructed a town-sized complex to house and facilitate workers in his chocolate factory (D’Antonio 108). This was a sharp contrast to the way chocolate was hoarded in royal courts, like that of Cosimo III, in the seventeenth-century. Given the new technology of the era, the philosophy of chocolate companies transitioned to massive operation and marketing.

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The original Hershey factory built in 1894, photographed in 1976

The history of chocolate was rewritten with a new origin story that began in Europe, demonstrated by the marketing campaign of companies, like Rowntree which owned one of the largest newspapers in London and used full-page advertisements and billboards to promote their chocolate (Brenner 65). Such marketing campaigns all but erased the Mesoamerican roots of cacao and chocolate consumption by westernizing chocolate’s history and redefining the good as quintessentially European in post-colonial consumer and popular culture. The development of factories allowed for shortened production time and increased volume. Further, the expansion of colonial plantation economies into West Africa and other regions supplied the factory economy developing in Europe. By controlling the historical narrative of chocolate, and redefining food culture, the mass-marketing practices of industrial-era European companies made chocolate a western good. Bolstered by a history of Trans-Atlantic slavery and colonialism, the Industrial Revolution allowed for powerful marketing campaigns that are largely the reason why companies, like Mars, Hershey, Lindt, and others, are among the most popular chocolate-makers today.

Works Cited

Brenner, Joel Glenn. “Chapter Five: To the Milky Way and Beyond.” The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, Broadway Books, 2000, pp. 49–69.

Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition, London, Thames & Hudson, 2013.

D’Antonio, M. (2006). Hershey. New York, NY. (pp. 121).

File:Hershey Factory.jpg. (2016, November 29). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 20:19, March 25, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Hershey_Factory.jpg&oldid=223766892.

File:Takalik Abaj metate 1.jpg. (2019, March 20). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 20:20, March 25, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Takalik_Abaj_metate_1.jpg&oldid=343320395.

Khan, Gulnaz. “Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making.” National Geographic, September 11, 2017. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/guatemala/anitgua-maya-chocolate-making/
Mintz, S. W. (1985). Sweetness and power: the place of sugar in modern history. New York.

The Inextricable Nature of Slavery and Chocolate Production

The role of slavery in contributing to the rise of a global capitalist system cannot be understated. Early European colonialism in the Americas and Africa introduced a new crop into European society: cacao. While initially many colonizers were hesitant to consume a project central to many indigenous cultures, they soon saw the benefits of cacao. They sought to export the crop in large quantities to Europe, generating massive profits as they met the rapidly growing demand (Martin lecture 2/12). Slavery was a crucial component in meeting this demand for this new, popular crop. The growth of a world capitalist system dependent on slavery and forced labor was vital to the expansion of chocolate beyond cacao growing regions and the rapid increases in production and consumption that have been seen since the 1800s. Despite the abolition of slavery and boycotts of plantations that rely on slave labor from major chocolatiers in the early twentieth century, forced labor, especially of children, continues to undergird the global chocolate industry. 

In understanding the linkages between slavery and capitalism, it is helpful to start at the plantation. While some scholars see the rise of modern capitalism beginning in the 1800s, cacao plantations and plantations of other crops are remarkably capitalistic in their organization, albeit not at the level observed today. As Desmond argues, “the owner supervised a top lawyer, who supervised another lawyer, who supervised an overseer, who supervised three bookkeepers, who supervised 16 enslaved head drivers and specialists (like bricklayers), who supervised hundreds of enslaved workers. Everyone was accountable to someone else. This organizational form was very advanced for its time, displaying a level of hierarchal complexity equaled only by large government structures, like that of the British Royal Navy” (2019). Plantations, at the most basic level, operated as a capitalist firm where workers alienated from the outputs of their labor were forced to make products for the profiting of the firm’s owner. Critical to these firms was a constant supply of labor, which Europeans found through enslaving Africans and forcing them to work on plantations for crops like cacao and sugar, cultivating these commodities that were later sent to Europe.

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The figure above shows how millions of Africans were transported to various locations in the Americas to sustain the massive demand for labor on plantations. Without this forced relocation plantations would have been unable to operate, and the commodities generated by them would not have come to fruition. The inhospitable living conditions on plantations, especially Caribbean plantations where slaves had an average life expectancy of seven years (Carrington and Noel 1982), required a steady supply of expendable labor.

While some argue that the plantation represents a proto-capitalism or even primitive version of capitalism (Desmond 2019), Mintz highlights how important the profits generated from chattel slavery on plantations was to the economic growth of Europe as it underwent a capitalist revolution. “The development of new forms of slave-based production in the New World, using imported slaves—perhaps Europe’s biggest single external contribution to its own economic growth. The Caribbean plantations were a vital part of this process, embodying all of these features, and providing both important commodities for European consumption and important markets for European production” (55). The profits generated from these plantations and the commodities they produced were necessary for financing the industrial revolution in Europe (Williams 1994), thus providing the foundation for modern capitalism.

Throughout the 19th century, European nations abolished slavery. Despite this, the burgeoning chocolate industry continued to rely on slave labor in many cacao growing regions. Many chocolatiers, such as Cadbury, discovered that the plantations they sourced their cacao from was dependent on slavery and forced labor to meet the massive demand for the product. Abhorred by the living conditions and the mistreatment of those working on cacao farms, Cadbury called for a boycott on plantations that utilized slave labor to produce cacao (Higgs 2012). Despite how well-intentioned these boycotts may have been, the explosion of the chocolate market into what is now a billion-dollar industry would not have been able to reach the heights it has without a significant amount of forced labor, especially child slavery.

Under the current capitalist system, ethical labor practices are antithetical to profit generation. This extends to all major multinational industries and businesses, and the chocolate industry is no exception.

This video from CNN highlights the dependence of modern cacao plantations has on child slaves in the Ivory Coast. Similar to the plantation model, these young children are alienated from their outputs, often having never tasted the end product. CNN’s reported traveled to the Ivory Coast to find out how the Harkin-Engel Protocol—an international agreement aimed at eradicating forced child labor in cacao production—has changed the state of child slavery on cacao farms. Their investigation uncovered a massive human trafficking network where many children are trafficked across borders to work on farms. Despite the passage of the Protocol, many farmers say that it has changed nothing for those enduring the worst forms of child slavery as the majority of them have not been contacted by anyone regarding child labor on cacao farms.

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This graphic from the WSJ highlights the growing demand for cacao over recent years. As the demand has grown, cacao farmers in the Ivory Coast, and other cacao-growing regions—turn to child labor as a cheap form of labor necessary, in their eyes, to make ends meet. Just as the chocolate industry in colonial times relied on expendable labor, so does the modern chocolate industry.

First-hand accounts of former child slaves on cacao farms provide a window into the cruel conditions children are forced to live in. Aly Diabate was 11 when he was tricked into working on a cacao farm by a trader. He described being unable to carry the large loads required of him, often falling from the weight. When this would happen, he would be beaten by the farmer until he got up again. He was forced to live in a single room with 18 other slave workers, where the only opening was a hole in the wall so that air could enter. They had to each share a can as a bathroom. Aly described an immense fear that came from living on the farm, which often kept him from attempting to escape. Luckily for him, authorities were alerted to the farm’s slave conditions, and he was rescued (Chanthavong 2002). Aly’s case of being rescued, however, is an outlier for child slaves on cacao farms, not the norm. Many are not so lucky.

From the onset of the chocolate industry, slavery has been integral to its functioning. Despite the outlawing of chattel-slavery worldwide, many of the world’s most vulnerable are often forced into servitude to meet the global demand for chocolate. As companies express their opposition to cacao sourced from slave labor, the capitalist system prioritizes profits over ethics and is why despite the widespread recognition that the worst forms of child slavery exist on cacao farms, change has not occurred. If it was to, billions would be lost, which is evidently a worse outcome than this continued slavery.

Works Cited

Carrington and Noel, “Slaves and Tropical Commodities,” in Stephan Palmie Francisco Scarano, The Caribbean: A History of the Region and its Peoples, chapter 15

Chanthavong, S., 2002. Chocolate and slavery: Child labor in Cote d’Ivoire. TED Case Studies664.

“Chocolate’s Child Slaves – CNN Video.” CNN, Cable News Network, 26 May 2015, http://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2015/05/26/chocolate-child-slaves-ivory-coast-spc-cfp.cnn.

Desmond, Matthew. “American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Aug. 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/slavery-capitalism.html.

Higgs, Catherine. 2012. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. pp. 133-165

Mintz, Sidney W. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power.

Wernau, Julie. “Child Labor On The Rise in West Africa as Demand for Cocoa Grows.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 30 July 2015, blogs.wsj.com/frontiers/2015/07/30/child-labor-on-the-rise-in-west-africa-as-demand-for-cocoa-grows/.

Williams, E., 2014. Capitalism and slavery. UNC Press Books.

Chocolate, Religion and Hierarchy: Chocolate’s Religious Symbolism in Pre-Columbian Mayan Culture and its Evolution under Colonialism

The widespread availability of chocolate today hardly hints any relation to hierarchical systems. The mass production of it as a confection and how it readily available for consumption at different quality levels reveals little about its rich history. Long before the European settlement in the Americas, chocolate, or rather the fruit it is borne from, symbolized wealth, and social and religious status in Mesoamerica societies. Here, I will briefly discuss how its hierarchical symbolism with respect to religion evolved in Mayan societies before and during colonialism.

The hierarchical symbolism of chocolate in Mayan culture can be traced through an ethnographical study of Mayan celebratory rituals. In his essay “The Language of Chocolate”, David Stuarts writes about how such ethnographical studies from Central Mexico reveal that chocolate was enjoyed by the elites (Stuart 184). Feasting rites among the elite, in particular, in Mayan Yucatan were heavily documented in chocolate vessels, which describe chocolate’s involvement in extravagant gift-giving formalities in its cacao bean form (Reents-Budet 207). This was viewed as a method for forging sociopolitical alliances among the elite (Reents-Budet 209). In its drink form, cacao was consumed during “ceremonies to seal important social contracts and confirm the legitimacy of dynasties” (Martin et al. 39). Moreover, the use of cacao beverages did not only exist in worldly rituals. Mayan glyphs and art show that the Gods also used cacao beverages to honor guests in divine rituals such as seen in figure 1. Thus, it is apparent that the use of cacao in Mayan rituals reflects how chocolate itself was a symbol of extravagance and hierarchy. 

Figure 1: Mayan God L with Hero Twins, servant behind the God pouring a chocolate beverage.

However, cacao beans and chocolate also possessed religious symbolism that contributed to their hierarchical symbolism. Evidence from Mayan vessels reveal in their hieroglyphs that the Maize God is often embodied as a cacao tree (McNeil 155). Gods in the Mayan tradition are portrayed as trees to show a celestial cycle of death. The roots are in the underworld, the trunk in the middle world and the branches in the heavens. The Maize God is highly regarded in that maize is a staple Mayan crop, thus the association between the Maize God and the cacao tree shows a highly esteemed religious connection and divinity that is possessed by cacao. Beyond representation in religious glyphs, the religious symbolism of cacao can be extended to the notion of “court dwarfs” in Mayan culture. Christian Prager writes that dwarf figurines were placed in Mayan courts to symbolize social power and religious authority (Prager 279). This is rooted in the pre-Mayan Olmec belief that four dwarfs were tasked with propping up heaven. Moreover, dwarfs were seen as companions of the Sun and Maize Gods, thus further solidifying their divine symbolism. Hence, these dwarfs were placed in Mayan courts to further this symbolism. However, it is important to note that these dwarfs would sometimes be sculpted as carrying cacao pods, as seen in figure 2. This further displays that cacao possessed divine value and reflected a type of religious symbolism so that it can be manifested in Mayan society as a hierarchical instrument. 

Figure 2: A Mayan figurine of court dwarf bearing a cacao pod.

This religious symbolism of cacao did not end with colonialism but only transformed under it. The initial European interaction with cacao upon their settlement in Mesoamerica was through the introduction of the cacao bean as a form of currency (Martin et al. 40). However, with the spread of Catholicism by the European settlers in Mayan territory, specifically Mexico, cacao beans soon crossed over into the realm of religiosity. The conversion of indigenous Mexicans led them to create offerings to Jesus. These offerings were often in the form of cacao beans, as was done to indigenous God (Aguilar-Moreno 276). A prominent example is the statue of “Christ of the Cacao” in Mexico City as shown in figure 3. While these offerings were not consumed by Christ, but by the priests of the cathedral, they were converted into wealth, such as in the case of seventeenth century friar in Mexico and Guatemala Thomas Gage (Aguilar-Moreno 276). Here, we see that the symbolism of cacao is multifaceted: it showed a relationship to Jesus and also remained a symbol for wealth. 

Figure 3: Christ of the Cacao: A 16th century colonial Mexican sculpture in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Mexico City.

However, does the link between colonial Catholicism and symbolism in cacao extend beyond the borders of the colony? In 1577, Dominican friar in Chiapas did write to the Pope asking for some guidance as to whether chocolate could be appropriately consumed on days when oen is fasting. The Pope never offered a written reply but it is told that he simply laughed with his cardinals. The link to Catholicism in Europe extended beyond this lone interaction, the status of chocolate has long been debated by Catholic scholars in the 1620s and 1630s, with reservations appearing on how to incorporate this seemingly pagan product into the Catholic Church. While here there is a recognition of religious value, it is hard to determine whether or not this religious value was accepted by the Catholic Church in Europe. Nevertheless, the role of chocolate and cacao as a status symbol did cross over into the European continent: it is told that Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI were prescribed chocolate by their physician to consume daily during breakfast, seemingly due to chocolate’s energizing benefits. The heavy royal consumption of chocolate and its high regard within the royal court deemed it a luxury item, showing that it did remain a status symbol beyond the Mesoamerican realm. 

Nevertheless, it is important to note that beyond colonialism, Mesoamerican cultures still regarded chocolate highly. Their reverence of cacao beans and their products shifted and adapted to the colonial influences that were introduced into their territory. While it failed to have the same religious symbolism in Europe, chocolate did enter the continent as an item symbolizing social hierarchy. Thus, one can say that the evolution of chocolate as a religious symbol remained within Mesoamerica but its hierarchical symbolism was able to cross the Atlantic into the European continent. 


  1. “Dwarf Figurine.” Wikimedia Commons, Baltimore, MD, 25 Mar. 2012, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mayan_-_Dwarf_Figurine_-_Walters_20092036_-_Three_Quarter_Right.jpg.
  2. “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. 72-95.
  3. Anagoria. “ El Señor Del Cacao.” Wikimedia Commons, Mexico City, 22 Dec. 2013, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2013-12-22_El_Señor_del_cacao_anagoria.JPG.
  4. Lacambalam. “Tonsured Maize God and Spotted Hero Twin.” Wikimedia Commons, 25 Sept. 2014, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hero_Twins.JPG.
  5. Manuel, Aguilar-moreno. “The Good and Evil of Chocolate in Colonial Mexico.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 13.
  6. Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37-60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.
  7. Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 8.
  8. Prager, Christian. “Court Dwarfs – The Companions of Rulers and Envoys of the Underworld.” Maya: Divine Kings of the Rain Forest, by Nikolai Grube, Konemann, 2001, pp. 278–279.
  9. Reents-Budet, Dorie. “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking Among of the Ancient Maya.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 10.
  10. Robicsek, Francis. “God L with the Hero Twins.” Wikimedia Commons, Princeton, NJ, 31 Oct. 2009, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:God_L_with_the_Hero_Twins.jpg.
  11. Stuart, David. “The Language of Chocolate: References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels.”Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 9.

The Rise of Sugar: How Colonialism, Industrialization, and Price Made Sugar Central to the Western Diet

In our current day and age, we take sugar’s centrality to food as a given. Sugar permeates all aspects of the Western diet, from desserts, to drinks, to salad dressings, and it’s almost impossible to imagine a time where this wasn’t the case. However, not too long ago, global sugar consumption was minuscule compared with what it is today. Sugar experienced a massive upswing in consumption from the 1700s to the 1900s that propelled it from the halls of kings, queens and the elite, to a luxury on the table of the masses, and finally to an everyday staple. This post will focus on sugar’s rise in England specifically, as many of the developments in sugar’s story originated in or are particularly exemplified by England. 

Some questions we are faced with given the current ubiquity of sugar are: what factors propelled sugar to take on such a crucial role in the Western kitchen and diet? Was the rise of sugar inevitable? The most important drivers of sugar’s rise were the proliferation of colonialism and the resulting importation of bitter caffeinated beverages, the effect of industrialization on workers and their home lives, and the steady decline in the price of sugar. The rise of sugar in England was inevitable; however, the speed with which it came to the center of the Western diet was not inevitable and was a result of the confluence of many individual factors at the right time.  

Sugar’s rise occurred concurrently with the advent of colonialism, and this is no coincidence. Colonialism brought with it the triangle slave trade, a major portion of which was the trade of the bitter caffeinated beverages — chocolate, coffee, and tea. The raw materials for these beverages came from the tropics to Europe, where they were processed. They were then consumed with sugar that came from the same trade. In England, the most popular of these beverages was tea, largely because it could “be more successfully adulterated than either coffee or chocolate, apparently because it can be tolerated, even when very diluted, more readily than those other beverages” (Mintz 112). Tea soared in popularity among the poor, because they were able to dip their bread in it more cheaply than with milk.

Another key development that spurred sugar’s progress was the rise of industrialization in European economies. As workers moved to jobs in factories, their income began to rise. This coincided with a large decline in the price of sugar which “fell by 30 percent between 1840 and 1850, and by a further 25 percent in the next two decades, [thus] consumption increases [of sugar] reflect a decline in the price of sugar relative to other commodities, and not necessarily an improved life standard” (Mintz 144). Mintz is referring to the free-trade movement of the mid-19th century that caused a drop in sugar prices relative to the price of other imports. According to a book from the time examining the trade and price of various commodities with England, “the sugar revenue has augmented within the last few years, in consequence of lessened duty and increased importation” (Martin 69). With their increased purchasing power, English laborers had more choices available for what they could eat, yet spent their money on increasingly available and cheap sugar, thus reducing the nutritional value they received from their diets. 

Sugar, and to a certain extent tea, played a major role in the altered lifestyle of the masses. Tea was essentially a “bitter stimulant…capable of carrying large quantities of palatable sweet calories ” (Mintz 114) that when consumed gave these workers more energy to go about their jobs, filled them up with calories, and suppressed their appetites. 

Furthermore, during this time many women joined the workforce. As they were mainly responsible for preparing meals at home, they had less time to spend cooking, so the home diet skewed towards easily prepared foods such as white bread, tea, and jam — foods high in sugar. Sugar was touted as providing quick and cheap energy, which made it easy for families to switch to this type of diet, even with the more detrimental long term effects it may have had on them. The figure below illustrates sugar’s effect on blood sugar, causing an energy spike which, as soon as it subsides, leads to cravings for more sugar. 

There was also a distinct difference in the amounts of sugar consumption within the family unit. Fathers were considered to be the breadwinners and hard laborers, so any protein in the kitchen was often reserved for them, leaving the mother and kids with foods high in sucrose. Women “were never offered anything like equality with men within the family economy”, which meant that dietary nutrition was often worse for women and children than for men (Barker & Chalus 14). 

These factors driving sugar’s rise influenced the development known as the ‘ritualization and extensification’ of sugar in England, meaning sugar grew to become a staple and point of ritual. Tea became a point of culture for the English. The illustration below shows tea trading routes and countries sized according to their tea consumption in the early 20th century. Although China, which had more tea consumption at the time, is cut off from the map, the image still gives an indication of the perceived importance of tea to the English, and therefore the massive demand for sugar that existed. 

Sugar came into the whole public’s knowledge in England between 1750 and 1850, and upon its price drop around 1850 became an object of mass consumption. All told, these developments resulted in the caloric contribution of sugar to jump from just 2% of the diet at the beginning of the 19th century, to 14% of the diet only a century later. The increased availability of sugar meant that it was now consumed most by the masses rather than the rich, thus changing its status from that of a luxury to one of a daily commodity and kitchen necessity.

With so many driving factors responsible for sugar’s quick rise to the center of the Western diet, it may be tempting to call it a coincidence that these factors came together and made sugar so successful. However, any of these trends — whether colonialism or industrialization or price collapse — taken individually without all the others would have still hastened the rise of sugar. There likely would not have been as quick an adoption of sugar in England without the combination of all factors, but the fact that sugar as a chemical compound provides energy and calories make it nearly inevitable that sugar would have gained a similar status in the Western diet, but just at a slower pace.  

Works Cited 


Canter, Sheryl. “Real Sugar Prices and Consumption Per Capita in England, 1600-1850.” Normal Eating Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2015.

Brickey, Beth Manos. “The Blood Sugar Roller Coaster.” Tasty Yummies, Web. 2020.

Goodman, Jack. “Atlas Obscura.” Atlas Obscura, Web. 1 Aug. 2016.


Barker, Hannah, and Elaine Chalus. Gender in Eighteenth-Century England: Roles, Representations and Responsibilities. Routledge, 2014, Google Scholar.

Martin, Robert Montgomery. The Past and Present State of the Tea Trade of England, and of the Continents of Europe and America: And a Comparison Between the Consumption, Price Of, and Revenue Derived From, Tea, Coffee, Sugar, Wine, Tobacco, Spirits, &c. Parbury, Allen, & Company, 1832, Google Scholar.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, Penguin Books, 1986.

Chocolate, Sugar, and the Effects of The Transatlantic Slave Trade

Today, if I asked a room of people to describe chocolate, they would say it is a sweet, tasty candy that you usually eat. However, if I asked people from before 200 years ago, they would call it a bitter, spicy drink. In fact for the majority of chocolate’s history, the latter definition would fit better than the former. So what lead to this transformation of the taste of chocolate? The most important factor for this evolution in chocolate has to be its introduction to colonial Europeans and sugar. Interestingly, chocolate serves as a way to observe colonizers coming into contact with a strange, new substance and how their understanding and modification transformed our understandings as well. I argue that European taste for sugar and chocolate greatly impacted the modern world through the Transatlantic slave trade. 

First, it is important to examine the early history of chocolate. Before the Europeans arrived in the New World, ancient Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Olmecs, Maya, and Aztecs used cacao seeds for many different reasons including consumption as a beverage. “Cacao was one of the most unusual substances in Mesoamerican life because it was comestible but also a wealth item and given as tribute eventually becoming a token of currency”(Sampeck and Thayn, 75). Cacao was extremely important, believed to have divine properties and would become known to Europeans as the food of the Gods. The picture shows a Mayan representation of two Mayan gods exchanging cacao which provides a look at the divinity of chocolate in ancient Mesoamerica (Puiu 2017). 

The arrival of Europeans in Mesoamerica marked an important step in the development of chocolate. In the early 1500s, Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to be introduced to cacao and chocolate and import it back to Europe (Fiegl 2008). They quickly noted the love the natives had for chocolate but the Spanish themselves did not initially enjoy the drink themselves.  Girolamo Benzoni, a conquistador, even described chocolate as being “ more of a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity” (Fiegl 2008). Chocolate did not yet include sugar and European tastes were not accustomed to bitter tastes in food (Altaweel et al. 2018). This preference resulted in Europeans searching for ways to change the taste.  

Soon, Europeans found ways to make chocolate better fit their tastes by using sugar. By the 1590s, chocolate was mixed with honey or sugar to make it sweeter. It quickly became popular in Spain and spread to the rest of Europe (Fiegl 2008). With the conquest of South America and the beginning of sugarcane plantations, the production of sugar combined with chocolate revolutionized European tastes. Sugar consumption now increased in parallel with the importation of chocolate. The desire for chocolate and the need for sugar, in part because of chocolate, also pushed the demand for slavery in plantations during the 17th and 18th centuries (Altaweel et al. 2018). While native Latin Americans were enslaved, many of them had died due to European born diseases that they had no immunity to. As a result, there was an increase in demand for slave labor which resulted in the Transatlantic slave trade. The video below depicts how the slave trade worked and how it still affects the world today. It left a lasting impact that can be traced back to Europe’s taste for chocolate.

So how did the slave trade impact the world? The slave trade left a lasting impact on many parts of the world. In Africa, as stated in the video, a majority of the slaves taken were male which meant that much of the able-bodied population was gone and demographic issues arose in the future.  Also, the competition over the capturing of slaves by powerful African rulers set a dangerous precedent for the future. This competition also resulted in wars that negatively affected the political landscape of Africa to this day ( Hardy 2019).  

An image of slaves working a sugar plantation

The slave trade also played a huge role in the New World. African slaves were an integral part of the development of New World economies.  They were particularly important as the labor force for the plantation agriculture that became common in the New World doing much of the manual labor illustrated above. The economic exploitation of blacks left behind deep, social divides that are still being overcome today (Hardy 2019). As shown in the video above, Europeans justified their slavery through racist theories that blacks were biologically inferior to whites. These theories were passed down generation to generation as fact, therefore deepening the divide between blacks and other races(Hardy 2019). 

In conclusion, European tastes for chocolate and sugar had a great effect on the modern world.  It did so through the Transatlantic slave trade where slaves were taken from Africa to produce raw exports such as sugar and cacao. The repercussions of the slave trade can still be felt today because of its lasting social, political, and economic effects in Africa and the Americas. It is intriguing how so many of our lives are still deeply affected today due to the desire for commodities like chocolate and sugar. 

Works Cited

Altaweel, Mark, et al. “How Did Chocolate Become Popular?” How Did Chocolate Become Popular? – DailyHistory.org, Nov. 2018, dailyhistory.org/How_Did_Chocolate_Become_Popular%3F.

Fiegl, Amanda. “A Brief History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Mar. 2008, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/.

Hardy, William. “Riches & Misery: The Consequences Of The Atlantic Slave Trade.” OpenLearn, The Open University, 1 Mar. 2019, http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/riches-misery-the-consequences-the-atlantic-slave-trade.

Hazard, Anthony, director. He Atlantic Slave Trade: What Too Few Textbooks Told You. Youtube, Ted-Ed, 22 Dec. 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NXC4Q_4JVg.

National Geographic Society. “The Plantation System.” National Geographic Society, 20 June 2019, http://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/plantation-system/.

Puiu, Tibi. “Chocolate Files: from the Early Days to Today’s Dark Pleasure.” ZME Science, 13 Sept. 2017, www.zmescience.com/other/feature-post/chocolate-history-the-early-days-mesoamericans-culture-and-rituals/.

“Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, by Kathryn E. Sampeck and Johnathan Thayn, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 72–95.

Sugar, Cocoa, and Slavery in Portuguese Colonial Africa

Slave labor fueled the sugar industry ‒ and, later, the cocoa industry ‒ in Portugal’s island colonies in the Atlantic for centuries. Though slavery was officially abolished in Portugal’s colonies in the 1870s, it was quickly replaced with forced labor that left indentured São Toméans toiling on sugar plantations for little or no pay up until the early twentieth century. Slavery and forced labor played huge roles in the history of the chocolate industry, and their historical ties to Portuguese sugar cane and cocoa exports cannot be ignored.

Early Sugar Production in the Atlantic Colonies

A map of Portugal and its colonies, in red, alongside principal Portuguese trade routes, in green, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.1

Sugar consumption in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was starkly different than it is today. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, sugar was still largely only accessible to the wealthy, and was most commonly used as a spice or medicine.2

While sugar was still nowhere near being the commodity it is today, its production proved to be strategic for other reasons. The Portuguese realized that securing colonial territories in the Atlantic could be useful to the end of monopolizing essential trade routes, and so soon began establishing sugar cane plantations along their Atlantic island territories in order to safeguard these trade routes.3 Sugar plantations, or roças, were established on the islands of the Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde, and São Tomé and Príncipe, and later in the continental African colonies of Angola and Mozambique.

[Portugal’s island colonies in the Atlantic] were situated in strategic locations with respect to wind systems and ocean currents. Portugal’s control of the sea lanes in the Atlantic ‒ and later to Asia ‒ were to depend on her ability to secure the islands as bases.

Sidney M. Greenfield4

In Angola and Mozambique, these sugar cane plantations were powered by the unpaid labor of enslaved natives. Portugal’s  island colonies in the Atlantic had no native populations, however, and so the Portuguese imported enslaved people from its colonies on the African continent to toil on the island plantations in place of Portuguese settlers.5

The value of sugar skyrocketed over the next several hundred years, surpassing that of even tobacco.6 By 1900, sugar represented approximately “one-sixth of per-capita caloric intake” among Europeans.7 Sugar plantations became a vital part of the world economy as the global demand for sugar increased, and the Portuguese were willing to go to great lengths to protect the incredible wealth they had created in the Atlantic on the backs of slaves.

Cocoa Plantations and Forced Labor in São Tomé and Príncipe

Portugal abolished slavery in 1761, but ruled that this abolition should not be extended to its colonies abroad. The decision to end slavery in the colonies did not come until 1869, and was not actually implemented until the mid-1870s.9 The economies of the Portuguese colonies had been built entirely upon the unpaid labor of abducted African people; as such, the Portuguese government soon began looking for ways to lessen the economic blow that abolishing slavery in its colonies would undoubtedly cause. Eventually a new labor system was implemented in the colonies wherein former slaves could “sign contracts committing themselves to five years of labor at a set wage.”10

In reality, these so-called contracts were either coerced, forged, or simply never existed in the first place. These serviçais, as they were called ‒ the Portuguese word for servants ‒ were slaves whose lives, labor, and freedom were being stolen for the profit of the Portuguese empire.

An undated São Toméan postcard featuring a photograph of serviçais working at Roça Boa Entrada, one of the largest cocoa plantations in São Tomé and Príncipe.8

As the global demand for chocolate began to increase around the mid-1800s alongside the global demand for sugar, some of Portugal’s Atlantic colonies began producing cocoa on plantations nearly identical to the sugar cane roças. The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe soon became hubs of cheap, large-scale cocoa production powered by the new serviçal labor system.

The Cadbury and Fry chocolate companies, both located in England, were two of several buyers of cocoa from the roças of São Tomé and Príncipe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. English journalist Henry Nevinson published an exposé of the abhorrent labor conditions of serviçais in Portuguese colonial Africa in his 1906 novel A Modern Slavery, but neither Cadbury nor Fry made an effort to source their cocoa elsewhere once these revelations came to light. Instead, unconvinced ‒ or perhaps willfully ignorant ‒ William Cadbury sent Joseph Burtt to investigate labor conditions in São Tomé and Príncipe for himself in 1907.11

When Burtt’s report confirmed Nevinson’s findings, it was not well received. The British secretary of state urged Burtt to edit his report to be less damning of the Portuguese government, essentially watering down the atrocity of what was actually happening overseas in the name of diplomacy while simultaneously delaying the publication of the report.12 Nevinson saw Burtt’s report as a weak summary of his own work, and published articles in several newspapers advocating for the boycott of Cadbury and Fry chocolate companies until their cocoa was no longer associated with São Toméan slave labor.13 While said boycott never actually took place, the scandal was enough to push Cadbury and Fry to officially stop buying São Toméan cocoa in March of 1909.14

Modern Cocoa Production in Post-Colonial Africa

Following the Cadbury slave labor scandal, cocoa production in São Tomé and Príncipe began to dwindle. The chocolate companies that had once been loyal customers of São Toméan cocoa began sourcing their cocoa from countries like Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire instead. By the time São Tomé became independent in 1975, the cocoa industry there had fallen “into neglect,”15 and nearly one-quarter of all cocoa farmers in São Tomé were living below the poverty line.16

It wasn’t until 2009, when the United Nations’ International Fund for Agriculture began “working with farmers on the island to produce Fair Trade cocoa beans using a co-operative model,”17 that prospects for the cocoa industry in São Tomé and Príncipe slowly began to improve. Fair trade farmer’s co-operatives ensure that São Toméan cocoa farmers are finally appropriately compensated for their labor after centuries of being forced to provide this labor for free.

Fair trade chocolate practices ensure that African cocoa farmers are appropriately compensated for their labor.18

Works Cited

  1. Image from Biblioteca Escolar, https://docplayer.com.br/74086840-Portugal-sec-xv-e-xvi.html.
  2. Mintz, Sidney W.  Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1985, p. 30.
  3. Ibid, p. 30.
  4. Greenfield, Sidney M. “Plantations, Sugar Cane, and Slavery.” Historical Reflections,  vol. 6, no. 1 (1979), pp. 85119. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41330419, p. 87.
  5. Ibid, p. 103.
  6. Mintz, p. 36. [n 1]
  7. Ibid, p. 149.
  8. Image from Ansichtskartenpool historical postcards, https://www.akpool.co.uk/postcards/28291659-postcard-so-tom-und-prncipe-roca-boa-entrada-chegada-do-cacao.
  9. Satre, Lowell J. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005, p. 3.
  10. Ibid, p. 3.
  11. Ibid, p. 13.
  12. Higgs, Catherine. “Cadbury, Burtt, and Portuguese Africa.” Chapter in Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012, pp. 133154, p. 133.
  13. Ibid, p. 137.
  14. Ibid, p. 148.
  15. Constable, Harriet. “Cocoa industry returns to São Tomé.” Geographical. 30 August 2018, https://geographical.co.uk/people/development/item/2889-sao-tome, p. 5.
  16. Plaut, Martin. “Chocolate boost for São Tomé farmers.” BCC News. 7 March 2011, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-12261276, p. 11.
  17. Constable, p. 5. [n 15]
  18. Video from Equal Exchange, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnpsFRcsnE0.