Tag Archives: democratization

The History of Chocolate: A Story of Mass Democracy or Mass Exploitation?


A traditional view of the history of chocolate focuses on the growth in mass consumption of chocolate as a byproduct of democratization and the industrial revolution. With time, consumption of chocolate spread from Aztec elites to the European nobility to the common citizens of the Western world. However, I contend that the history of chocolate is not simply one of expanded access fueled by increased political and economic inclusiveness, but rather one of shifting patterns of exploitation. The expansion of chocolate consumption has tracked the political enfranchisement and growth in economic power of white Westerners, but has simultaneously resulted in the brutal exploitation of poor brown and black people, first in Latin America, and now in Africa.

The Elite Origins of Chocolate

In ancient Aztec society, the consumption of chocolate was confined to the elites, which included members of the royal house, lords and nobility, long-distance merchants and warriors. Consumed after dinner at royal banquets, it was considered an exotic delicacy and a gift from the gods, a precious treasure not to be wasted on commoners (Coe and Coe, pg. 95). It was also used in religious ceremonies, including marriage rites, to symbolize the sacred nature of matrimonial covenants (Coe and Coe, pgs. 97-101). When the Conquistadors brought chocolate back to the Old World from Mesoamerica, it quickly spread through Europe, becoming a delicious treat for European nobles. Through the displays and pageants of Spain’s Habsburg rulers, the drink quickly gained fame, with powerful oligarchs such as Cosimo de’ Medici becoming “chocoholics” (Coe and Coe, pg. 135). Curiously, chocolate came to be seen as more feminine, as it was popularized with ladies of the royal courts in Europe. It retained its association with marriage, as women intermarried among royal families and brought their love of chocolate with them (Coe and Coe, pgs. 136-137).

The image below displays the status of chocolate drink as both an elite status symbol and a beverage uniquely associated with the idealized image of the noble lady and her well-ordered household:

18th century French noblewomen drink chocolate with their afternoon meal

Chocolate Comes to the Masses

Despite chocolate’s elite origins, a different narrative took form around chocolate as production methods were refined and it became more broadly available to the masses. By the late 17th century in England, chocolate became associated with the intellectual movement towards democratic governance during the Enlightenment era. Chocolate houses and coffee houses became centers of democratic thought, prompting Charles II to issue an ultimately futile decree to close them down in 1675 (Coe and Coe, pg. 168). Chocolate was truly democratized in the mid-19th century, as technological innovation during the Industrial Revolution made chocolate far more accessible to ordinary people. In 1828, Coenraad Johannes Van Houten invented the alkalizing process which gave chocolate its familiar dark color and made it milder in flavor. In 1849, Joseph Fry invented the modern chocolate bar, using cocoa butter to transform chocolate into a solid confection (Coe and Coe, pgs. 234 – 241). Simultaneously, sugar, which had come into common usage as both a preservative and an ingredient to supplement the caloric needs of working and middle class citizens in the West, came to be one of the most important components of both chocolate drink and the newly invented bars (Schartzkopf and Sampeck). As the narrative goes, the physical transformation of chocolate represented a revolution in accessibility, carried on a wave of political democratization and the industrialization-fueled growth in mass consumption.

The picture below displays three different styles of modern, mass-produced chocolate bar, complete with sugar for extra flavoring and the familiar dark coloring introduced by Van Houten’s method:

Modern, mass-produced chocolate bars complete with unique design elements

The Thin Veneer of Democracy

Though the history of the spread of chocolate is often portrayed as a triumph of mass democracy, in truth chocolate has been and continues to be a product of extremely unequal, hierarchical systems of racial and class-based oppression, in which poor brown and black people produce chocolate as a luxury good to be enjoyed by better off, mostly white Westerners. The oppressive hierarchies of Western chocolate production trace their origins to the encomienda system of the early 16th century, in which Spanish colonizers virtually enslaved the Native people of their American colonies, forcing them to harvest cash crops such as chocolate beans, often at the expense of their own lives (Yeager). Eventually, the encomienda system came to an end, and chocolate production in the New World gradually became the domain of newly enslaved Africans. As globalization increased, and outright slavery fell out of favor, production shifted from Latin America to Africa, with (technically illegal) slave labor still being used to produce chocolate in places such as Sao Tome as late as the early 20th century (Satre). In the modern era, the exploitation of African labor continues. 74% of chocolate was produced in Africa during the 2016-2017 season, but Africans only consumed a tiny percentage of the chocolate they produced, and received a comparatively small cut of the profits (Leissle, pgs. 4-7, 36-46). In the words of Ghanian farmer Mercy Asabea, when asked about the local scarcity of chocolate, “Ghana made Europe what it is…We have every resource here, yet Ghanians are not progressing at all” (Leissle, pg. 57).

The following chart shows a harrowing picture of the relationship between modern chocolate production and consumption, with the orange dots representing main exporters and the red dots representing export destinations:

Modern chocolate production and consumption patterns (April 2010 to March 2011)

Accusations of highly exploitative labor practices, including forced child labor, continue to this day. This video from the Stolen Lives Project details just a few of the abuses allegedly committed by the modern day chocolate production industry:


Ultimately, it is important for us to develop a realistic perspective on chocolate and its origins. One can both appreciate the expansion of access to this delicious treat, especially in the Western world, yet simultaneously reject purely Western-centered narratives which exclude the experiences of disadvantaged black and brown people in the developing world as they relate to chocolate production and consumption

Works Cited

“Bars of Black Swiss Chocolate.” Wikimedia Commons, 8 Oct. 2015, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dark_chocolate_bar.jpg.

Boucher, Francois. “The Afternoon Meal.” Wikimedia Commons, 10 Aug. 2017, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fran%C3%A7ois_Boucher_002.jpg.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Satre, Lowell Joseph. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Ohio Univ. Press, 2006.

Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, by Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn E. Sampeck, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 73–99.

Stolen Lives Project. Chocolate Slaves. Vimeo, 2 Aug. 2015, vimeo.com/135172005.

Wade, Kristine. “The Production of Chocolate.” Flickr, 3 Feb. 2017, http://www.flickr.com/photos/147998004@N06/32640931946.

Yeager, Timothy J. “Encomienda or Slavery? The Spanish Crown’s Choice of Labor Organization in Sixteenth-Century Spanish America.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 55, no. 04, 1995, pp. 842–859., doi:10.1017/s0022050700042182.

A Worldwide Treat: The Increasing Popularity of Chocolate

In Baroque Europe, chocolate was linked with notions of status and class. The elite of Spain, Italy, France, and Britain consumed chocolate in the form of beverages and foods to flaunt their wealth. They used extravagant serving pots, cups, and saucers (like the one below) which demonstrate the importance of material culture during this time period. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, chocolate was popularized across many parts of the world as well as across various socioeconomic groups. The spread of chocolate can be linked to the role chocolate played in social interactions, to the democratization and industrialization of sugar, and to the inventions that made it possible to expand its production and the forms it took.

Silver chocolate pot used for hot chocolate, France, 1779.

When chocolate was first introduced as a medicine around 1100 CE, it was primarily used to cure bodily ailments, to stimulate the nervous system, and to aid in digestion (Dillinger et al., 2000). In the mid-1500s, chocolate became popular among the aristocracy and the wealthy in Europe. The breadwinner in the family was first entitled to meat the family could afford, but women and children consumed chocolate to supplement their scarce portions in order to obtain enough calories. The use of chocolate evolved from a luxury to a commodity as it became tied to social life. The first Chocolate House opened in London in 1657 (Loveman, 29). “Food and drink, not surprisingly, reflected [the] economic, social, and religious cleavages…chocolate was [characterized] as southern and Catholic and aristocratic…” (Coe and Coe, 200). Chocolate acquired new meaning in European countries as its consumption became highly social and symbolic of wealth. As people used chocolate to connect and interact with one another, its consumption took on new meaning, and its previous status as an indulgent good transitioned into a good that became worthy of the expense. Chocolate became more popular, and transitioned from a symbolic form of power to a democratizer as it became more widely available (Mintz, 91).

This photo was taken in 1777, and was likely the oldest surviving pub of Wavertree (which is located in Liverpool).

According to Mintz, “by no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity – albeit a costly and rare one – in the diet of every English person; by 1900, it was supplying nearly one-fifth of calories in the English diet” (6). Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the democratization of sugar occurred. Sugar decreased in cost and became easier for commoners to acquire through the use of cheap and brutal skilled labor of enslaved people. While there was opposition to slave labor, it allowed for the price of chocolate to fall. Its production thus expanded, and more commoners were granted access to this commodity. Liverpool and Manchester turned into gigantic cities as a result of “the exchange of their produce with that raised by the American slaves” (Merivale, Lecture 6).

During the nineteenth century, a number of inventions allowed for the further spread of the popularity of chocolate. The series of innovations began with the hydraulic press, invented by Coenraad Johannes Van Houten in 1828, which relieved the labor that was previously needed for grinding cacao. In 1847, Joseph Fry invented the first chocolate bar. A few decades later, Henri Nestle and Daniel Peter created milk chocolate (in 1867 and 1879, respectively). Finally, Rudolphe Lindt implemented the conching process in 1879, which allowed for chocolate to be blended and smoothed (Lecture 5). Through the implementation of these new machines and inventions, the mass production of chocolate became possible, as the taste and consistency of chocolate could be streamlined and managed in large quantities by its producers.

1950 hydraulic press, Wikimedia Commons.

While chocolate was once restricted to the elite in Europe, as it was expensive and inaccessible, it became popular around the world throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. First, chocolate became more widely consumed as a result of its social implications. Later, as consumers demanded chocolate as a necessity (rather than as a luxury good), people were enslaved to increase its production possibilities. Finally, new processes enabled its mass production as it could be streamlined and involved less human and manual labor. As chocolate became less expensive, technologies allowed for its popularity in the form of cakes and chocolate bars. Most recently, chocolate companies have turned to advertising to encourage its further consumption, often overemphasizing its nutritious value in the process.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie Dobzhansky, and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Vol. 29. London: Thames and Hudson, 2007.

Dillinger T.L., Barriga P., Escarcega S., Jimenez M., Salazar Lowe D., Grivetti L.E. Food of the gods: Cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate. J. Nutr.2000;130:2057–2072.

Loveman, Kate. “The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640–1730.” Journal of Social History (2013): sht050.

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and power. New York: Viking, 1985.


Chocolate pot: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chocolatepot.jpg

Coffee House Pub: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Coffee_House_pub,_Wavertree.JPG

Hydraulic press: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prensa_hidr%C3%A1ulica-Villajoyosa_(chocolate).jpg