Tag Archives: Conquistadors

The Role of the Spanish Encomienda, The Pope, and Cacao in the Enslavement of Civilizations Across The Americas

In the sixteenth century, Spain and Portugal conquered the majority of the continental territory of the Americas. Civilizations that inhabited present-day Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, and other countries were conquered by Spanish conquistadors. The Spanish initially adopted traditional slavery as it had been practiced in the West Indies. But the encomienda was introduced in the early 1500s as an alternate form of forced labor as a response to a mandate emitted by Pope Paul III Farnese.  

While scholars often refer to the Spanish encomienda as a system of labor, it should be highlighted that it was a form of slavery. The encomienda was forced labor with unrealistic and abusive expectations from workers. The Spanish encomienda was a type of slavery because the encomenderos controlled the work and lifestyle of workers native to the Americas. By calling the Spanish encomienda a “system,” scholars have suggested a dangerous separation from our idea of slavery. This separation is rooted in the rhetoric used by the Spanish monarchy to justify the implementation of the encomienda.

An encomienda was an organization by which Spaniards (encomenderos) managed property rights over the land and labor of natives from the Americas. Spaniards demanded a quota or percentage of the output from the labor of natives. This could be in the form of goods, metals, currency, or other types of services. Encomenderos would provide instruction in the Catholic faith, pay taxes to the Spanish Crown, and provide military protection over the land. The encomienda was established after “Pope Paul III Farnese published the bull Sublima Deus, excommunicating any Christian who enslaved [natives to the Americas]” in 1537.

“The Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Nation” by Diego Rivera

This image above is a mural painted by Diego Rivera in Mexico’s National Palace. We see a clear depiction of the abuses that the Aztecs suffered when working to produce the output that the Spaniards demanded. There is a member of the high Spanish aristocracy in the middle of this mural receiving payment from another Spaniard, with an individual between them recording the transaction. This is probably a depiction of an encomendero paying a representative of the Spanish Crown his due taxes. The atrocities in this mural happen around this transaction and clear depictions of the involvement of Catholic instruction. Spaniards exploited and mistreated natives, as depicted in the strenuous work of Aztecs of chopping and carrying tree trunks while a friar raises the Holy Cross, with the justification of a need to spread Catholicism.

Although the rhetoric around the encomienda in the sixteenth century was that of a less brutal system to slavery, rules of the encomienda could make it even more brutal work than the slavery form of labor practiced when the conquistadores initially settled in New Spain. Encomenderos were forbidden inheritance rights. Encomiendas did not automatically transfer to future generations. They would revert to the Crown upon the death of the second-generation encomendero

Inheritance prohibition, combined with the abolition of slave ownership, lead to incentives for encomenderos to destroy human capital more quickly than before. Second-generation encomenderos had no assurance that their family members would enjoy the fruits generated by their management and their workers after their deaths. Natives were not legally owned by Spaniards. Encomenderos, therefore, had no reason to watch for the health of Aztecs, Mayans, and other people native to the Americas. The encomienda prohibited the relocation of workers by the encomenderos. While this proved beneficial for keeping families together, the inability to trade and rent people forced to work under the encomienda to other Spaniards reduced economies of scale and incentivized Spaniards to demand higher productivity—even if that meant forcing working painfully long shifts in arduous conditions.

The encomienda prevailed for a couple of centuries and was especially popular in Soconusco and its neighboring fertile regions. Soconusco—home to the world’s premier cacao in the sixteenth century—is part of a large, Pacific lowland plain which runs all the way from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec down to the border country of Guatemala and El Salvador. 

Fertile lands suited for cacao’s growth where the encomienda prevailed

“So rich was this piedmont zone in this product that highland Maya kingdoms had vied for control of these lands, and the Aztecs had made their most profitable conquest by taking over Soconusco. Lured by the cacao, the Spaniards were here soon after the Conquest.”

Soconusco was an incredibly important region for the Spaniards not only because they needed to satisfy the growing popularity and demand for cacao in Europe, but also because cacao seeds were used as currency in parts of New Spain. The Spanish conquistadores therefore filled these regions with encomiendas that grew cacao in lands rich in conditions suited for the growth of Theobroma cacao.

The Spanish continued using the encomienda extensively in conquered lands, even by the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Sublima Deus emitted by Pope Paul III Farnese set up a path for Spanish Crown to justify the encomienda. The transition from slavery to the encomienda was surrounded by the rhetoric of a divine intervention and action. The narrative was that of a transition from brutality to a Pope-approved form of labor—even if cruelty did not cease. The Sublima Deus set up the encomienda, not because the Pope suggested such “system,” but because he affirmed that “the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it.” The Spanish Crown therefore justified this form of forced labor by offering Catholic instruction, even if thousands of natives to the Americas fought to preserve their cultures and religions.

The Sublimis Deus emitted by Pope Paul III Farnese on June 2, 1537

The Spanish Crown also justified the encomienda with the provision of “protection.” Yet the presence of Spaniards did the opposite. Spaniards brought diseases from Europe in their bodies, vessels, and cargos. The testimony of Bernal del Castillo evidenced the impact of the Spanish presence in the population of Soconusco:

“Let us turn to the province of Soconusco… it used to be peopled by more than 15,000 [heads of households]… and the whole province was a garden of cacao trees and was very pleasant, and now… it is so desolate and abandoned that there are no more than twelve hundred inhabitants in it.”

The Spanish brought diseases to the Americas to which the immune systems of the natives to the Americas had never been exposed. These diseases wiped out the vast majority of populations across New Spain, including Soconusco’s. The Spanish promised protection, but their proximity to those natives working under the encomienda proved more deadly than any war or famine these civilizations had endured.

Overall, there is no question that the encomienda was a form of slavery, even if scholars repeatedly dismiss this fact by constantly focusing on the organization of this “system” rather than its brutality. The Spanish used the spread of Catholicism to justify this form of slavery, mainly as a response to the Sublima Deus. The protection that Spaniards provided to those working under the encomienda was actually an attack on the safety and health of entire civilizations. Spaniards robbed natives to the Americas their ability to practice and pass on their culture, legacy, tradition, and religion by forcing them to work under the encomienda. And the production of cacao incentivized the spread of such form of slavery.

Works Cited

Coe, S. (2019). The True History of Chocolate.

Kaplan, Jonathan. “Cacao Heartland in the Southern Maya Region.” Research Gate.

McAlister, L. (1984). Spain and Portugal in the New World, 1492-1700 (Europe and the world in the Age of Expansion ; v. 3). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pope Paul III Farnese. “Sublimis Deus.” Historia De México, Funación Carlos Slim, 1537.

Rivera, Diego. La Conquista Española De La Nación Azteca.

Yeager, T. (1995). Encomienda or Slavery? The Spanish Crown’s Choice of Labor Organization in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America. The Journal of Economic History, 55(4), 842-859. Retrieved March 22, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2123819

There is No Pleasure in Guilty Chocolate!

Why do you love chocolate? Because it is good! It tastes good and makes you happy. It is all that is good in the world wrapped in a beautiful candy bar. What if you learned that your delicious candy bar is a by-product of something bad, the output of someone else’s suffering?  A child’s suffering? Would you enjoy it just the same? Eating is not just a means to satisfy hunger; it is also an emotional and psychological experience.  We like to eat, and we like to eat good food without any negative connotations. Chocolate does not taste as good when it is served with a side of guilt. Chocolate tastes better when you wholeheartedly know that it came from a good place and produced in an ethical and social responsible manner.

Did you know that the global chocolate industry is nearly $100 billion dollars a year? The United States alone spends a little over 18 billion dollars in chocolate (2015), and that the average American consumes approximately 4.3 kilograms / 9.5 pounds of chocolate a year (2015). In comparison, beating the Americans at chocolate consumption are the Swiss who consume approximately a little over 9 kilograms / 20 pounds per person, then tied for second place are the Germans and the Austrians who approximately consume 3.6 kilograms / 7.4 pounds per person (Satioquia-Tan). Chocolate can be found anywhere around the world and is affordable to the masses especially to those who live in the developed world. Chocolate can be found in candy bars, truffles, fudge, cakes, muffins, biscuits, breakfast cereals, pancakes, health bars, sauces, drinks, in your café mocha, and anywhere you can sprinkle chocolate syrup. You can buy it in a specialty shop, supermarket, mini-market, drugstore, or any corner street gas station.

The majority of chocolate eaters are rather naïve in knowing the history and the current nature of the chocolate-making business. They simply eat it because they love chocolate without really knowing what it is, where it comes from, who makes and how; or any related social issues. For those consumers who are more aware of the social and economic impacts of the chocolate industry are a little more selective in choosing and enjoying their chocolate. To fully appreciate food is to experience it through all the possible senses, the physiological and psychological (Stuckey 13). Only twenty percent of what we physiologically taste happens in our mouths, the rest of the tasting experience happens through our remaining senses of sight, smell, touch, and sound. We, also, want to psychologically feel good about what we are eating. We want to know about the origins, the farming practices, and the ethics of what we are tasting (Stuckey 14). We want to know the context, the beautiful story, of what we are eating so we can enjoy it fully. The other option is to choose to remain a little ignorant of the subject as not to sour our chocolate taste, however this pleasure would be more superficial and would not represent the fullest appreciation of what we are eating. To fully appreciate today’s chocolate, we will have to fully experience it with the body and mind in full awareness of its origins, present journey and social impacts.

  1. What is Chocolate?

Cocoa is the main ingredient for all chocolate recipes.  Cocoa derives from cacao seeds, or more commonly referred to as cacao beans, which grow on the Theobroma Cacao tree.  Cacao trees are finicky trees that can only bear fruit in hot and humid tropical climates,twenty degrees from the equator at a specific altitude. These trees are highly dependent on midges, an insect, for its flowers to pollinate and bear fruit (Coe and Coe 19-21, 27). Cacao beans grow inside a fruity, pulp filled pod, approximately 30-40 beans grow inside one pod. Unlike most trees, where fruit grow dangling down from branches, cacao pods sprout directly from the tree trunk. In raw form, cacao beans constitute half its size in fat, cocoa butter. When cocoa butter is extracted from the cacao bean, what remains is the cocoa (or cocoa powder), the main ingredient of all chocolate (Coe and Coe 27). Before cacao beans turn into chocolate, cacao fruit is first farmed.  Upon harvest, fruit pods are removed from trees and cracked open to extract its beans with machetes. Cacao beans are then fermented, dried, sorted, roasted, transported, winnowed (deshelled), ground to a liquor, pressed (to remove the cacao butter), conched, and then what remains is added to chocolate-making recipes. Chocolate is the result of a labor intensive and highly processed food.

  1. Where Does Cacao Come From?

Cacao is native to the New World, the South American’s amazon basin region (Coe and Coe 25), and the Mesoamerican native cultures of the Mayans and Aztecs and predecessors were the first peoples to ever make chocolate dating back as far as 1500 BCE (Coe and Coe 33). Cacao was precious and a sacred food reserved for the elite, special occasions, and sacred rituals. Mayan and Aztecs Gods often appear alongside or in the form of cacao trees in their native hieroglyphs and surviving art (Coe and Coe 42). So precious, cacao beans were even used as a means of monetary currency. In 1545, documented is the commodity price of a tamale: one tamale equals one cacao bean (Coe and Coe 98-99). Upon colonizing Mesoamerica, the Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to discover and spread the taste of chocolate to Europe starting in the 1500’s (Coe and Coe 108). At the beginning of the chocolate history in Europe, chocolate was rare, expensive, and for the upper class.  Then as time passed and soon after the industrial revolution, chocolate became relatively common and affordable to the masses.

Amazon Basin
Amazon basin (based on Wikipedia, Amazon basin article, by Kmusser, using Digital Chart of the Word and GTOPO data)

After the end of the American colonial period, in the late 1800’s, the Spanish and the Portuguese introduced cacao to West Africa. Due to favorable climate conditions, cacao flourished in West Africa.  Today, approximately seventy percent of the world’s cacao comes from West Africa (Wessel and Quist-Wessel 1). The Ivory Coast and Ghana are the two major countries that supply cacao.  There are 2 million, small (3 hectares acres in size), independent farms (Ryan 52) in West Africa that supply three million metric tons of cacao per year (World Cocoa Foundation).

West Africa, Ivory Coast depicted in orange and Ghana  depicted in green (based on Wikipedia, Ghana-Ivory Coast Relations article)

  1. What Are the Social Issues Involving the Chocolate Industry?

Since the first Europeans, the Spanish conquistadors, landed in the New World, the cacao industry has been tainted with slavery and forced labor since 1650’s (Berlan 1092). Upon colonizing Mesoamerica, the Spanish forced the natives to pay tribute in labor and cacao to their new Spanish Crown.  After millions of natives died of diseases, the Spanish, like other colonists in the Americas, resorted to using chattel slavery from Africa to extract New World resources (Presilla 24, 33). Chattel slavery officially ended in 1884, however it continued in disguise in Portuguese West Africa well into the 1900’s in the cacao industry and some reports state that it persisted until 1962 (Berlan 1092).

Today, cacao farmer incomes are very volatile for it depends on operating profits, and since cacao is a commodity, the market price.  Farmers need to sell their cacao at a high enough price in order to pay off their operation expenses which includes labor, a major expense, just like most businesses. Unexpected operating expenses and / or a fall in market price can be devastating on farmer revenues/incomes. Cacao farmers, per capita, constantly live without the security of a reliable living wage. In 2015, cacao farmers earned 50 to 84 cents on the American dollar a day (Cocoabarometer). As it is, cacao farmers barely break even, and there is little economic incentive for them to stay in the cacao farming business.  Due to local poverty and lack of other options, farmers continue to grow cacao under pressure to lower operating costs and often resort to desperate means to make a profit, break even, or just enough to pay for rice and cooking oil (Off 5).

In more recent history in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, a wave of newspaper stories and documentary films exposed the existence of child labor, trafficking, and slaves in West African cacao farms which caused much consumer outrage. The media graphically showed the world the extreme poverty and hard lives of cacao farmers in West Africa and the desperate measures farmers take to lower operating costs by using child slave labor (Berlan 1089).

The documentary, Slavery: A Global Investigation (2000), especially shocked viewers by showing how easy it was to find child slaves working on cacao farms and how the local people seem to accept the practice as a way of life. On camera, journalists were able, with relative ease, to overtly interview real child slaves and get first-hand testimony about their hardships, a farm owner who openly admitted to having slaves and in how to get them, and a local official who confirmed as matter of fact that at least 90% of the Ivory Coast farms use child slave labor.  Ninety percent implies the existence of hundreds of thousands of slaves (Ryan 118). A 2000 US State Department report estimated that 15,000 Malian children worked on Ivory Coast cacao farms and that many of were under 12 years old and sold into indentured service (Off 133). Two of the local documentary crew even demonstrated how easy it was to buy slaves, posing as buyers, they went to the marketplace and were able to purchase two boys for the total of forty British pounds (approximately $40) within thirty minutes. Economics, low cacao market price, was credited as being the main reason why these farmers resorted to using slavery.  With such low cacao market prices, farmers cannot afford to pay employee wages and still make a profit, and they have no other income options. In contrast, in a free and mature economy, if a business is not profitable it goes out of business, and one can start a new business or find a new job, this is not the case for the West African cacao farmers.

Since the West African child labor scandals, there has an increased awareness and legislation attempts to eradicate forced and most hazardous child labor. Child labor in general is so embedded into the West African culture, not all children who work on farms are slaves or working with hazards. Most children work as part of the family on their family farms. It was deemed impossible and impractical to create a law that would abolish all form of child labor, however a voluntary agreement, The Harking-Engel Protocol, was signed among the Ivory Coast and the International Chocolate and Cocoa Industry in accordance with the International Labor Organization to end the worst forms of child labor in 2001 (Ryan 44, 47). Because of extreme poverty and lack of options, there are children who are better off working for they will at least have access to some food. Today, consumers are more aware, corporations have put efforts in demonstrating social responsibility in self-certifications, and nonprofit/advocacy organizations, have emerged and increased advocacy. There is still much poverty among cacao farmers, and many children  are still working on farms and some are still suspected of being forced to work against their will.  The child labor problems still exist today.  We, the world, hoped for that the state of child labor in West Africa would be better, however it could be worse.

It is natural that corporations would seek to do business with a poorer and less mature economies so to benefit from cheaper labor costs, but there should be limits when business practices violate human rights and the ability for workers to make a livable wage. It is evident that cacao farmers need more money so can they afford to hire farm workers to help cultivate their labor intensive cacao farms. In the least, the cacao market price needs to go up. It may mean that consumers would have to pay a little more for their chocolate treats. Would you be willing to pay a little more for your candy bar if it would end child and forced labor?

I realize that blindly throwing more money at the problem will not necessarily fix it if local corrupt governments and other stakeholders are still there to scheme away the extra money intended for the cacao farmers. This is a complex issue which requires multi-approach solution. We, the consumers, the governments, NGOs, the corporations, the media (or lack of media), the farmers, are all part of the problem, and we could also all be part of the solution. West African farmers and their children need special consideration for they are the most powerless demographic group in the chocolate food chain. The ones with the most power in the chocolate food chain by default have the most ability, and therefore the greater responsibility, to effect change. Wealthy companies and consumers are in the best position to invest and apply influence in the solution. We, the consumers, should expect that our chocolate companies to conduct business in an ethical and social responsible manner or make better consumer choices if they do not.

Here, in the first world, we would not accept the practice of child labor or slavery in our backyard, and we should not accept it elsewhere and in the products that we use and the foods we eat.  The West African modern-day slave issue is especially heartbreaking for it involves children in producing sweets that we all so enjoy so much. If we all knew that children were being kidnapped and forced to cultivate cacao, we would all enjoy the taste of our chocolate a little less. As consumers, we need to be more conscious about what we eat and learn as much as possible so we can make better consumer choices, maybe write a customer complaint to your chocolate provider or your congressman to influence change in law.  There is no better tasting chocolate than the one that is free from social guilt. In the end, we should all have the right to enjoy good and good-tasting chocolate.

Works Cited

Berlan, Amanda. “Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on Child Labour in Cocoa Production in Ghana. The Journal of Development Studies, vol. 49, no. 8, 2013, pp. 1088-1100. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00220388.2013.78004.

Cocoa Barometer 2015 report, USA Ed. Cocoabarometer.org. http://www.cocoabarometer.org/International_files/Cocoa%20Barometer%202015%20USA.pdf

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

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. The New Press, 2008.

Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Ryan, Orla. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. Zed Books, 2011.

Satioquia-Tan, Janine. Americans East How Much Chocolate? CNBC.com, 23 Jul. 2015, 7:41 PM ET.  http://www.cnbc.com/2015/07/23/americans-eat-how-much-chocolate.html

Stuckey, Barb. Taste What You Are Missing: The  Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good. Free Press, 2012.

Slavery: A Global Investigation. Produced and directed by Brian Woods and Kate Blanchet.  A True Vision Production in Association with HBO, 2000. TopDocumentaryFilms, topdocumentaryfilms.com/slavery-a-global-investigation.

Wessel, Marius, and Foluke Quist-Wessel. Cocoa Production in West Africa, a Review and Analysis of Recent Developments. NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences., vol. 74-74, pp. 1-7, 12-2015. doi.org/10.1016/j.njas.2015.09.001.

World Cocoa Foundation, http://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/category/program-region/africa.