Tag Archives: Portugal

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.

Who's to Blame: Cadbury's Involvement in Slave Labor

The Cadbury chocolate company is one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the world today.  Kraft/Cadbury and Mars each comprised 15% of the chocolate market in 2011, (approximately) tying for having the greatest share of the market (Statista Research Department). From its inception to now, Cadbury has presented itself as adherent to strong ethical values, having been founded as a Quaker-owned firm (Satre 14).

An advert posted by Cadbury’s YouTube channel in 2018 (Cadbury). The company appeals here to values of compassion and filial piety to market its chocolate.

But it would be gullible to believe that Cadbury has always been a perfect pillar of morality. Beneath Cadbury’s highly curated public image is a complex history of involvement in African slave labor. Although the blame for the perpetuation of this slave labor can be attributed in part to Cadbury’s business decisions, Cadbury is not alone in accountability, nor are the other chocolate companies of the era; a complex system of international relations and the situational consequences of renouncing slave labor place fault on the British and Portuguese governments and the underlying market dynamics of the time as well.    

Cadbury’s Actions

Servicais in Principe carrying cocoa to ferment (Bosspostcard).

Slave labor was commonplace in early 20th century Africa under the guise of servicais, “contract labor.” The English journalist Henry Nevinson was sent by a magazine company to investigate slavery in Portuguese West Africa in 1904, and in Angola he found child slaves and slave caravans, deceptively relabeled as “contract laborers” (Satre 2).

But even before this, William Cadbury of the Cadbury company was told in Trinidad in 1901 that slave labor was used in São Tomé (from which Cadbury had purchased over 45% of their cocoa beans in 1900), prompting the company to direct William to investigate further (Satre 18). However, William chose not to publish a bill of sale that “specifically identified human beings as property,” because he deemed its wording “not sufficiently clear to be taken as a statement of fact,” (Satre 19). Indeed, William saw much clear evidence of slave labor in the São Tomé plantations throughout his visit, yet chose to obscure the details, as he did not equate this slave labor to other forms of slavery in Africa, minimizing the nature of the labor abuse. Despite clear knowledge of the labor abuse, the Cadbury company ended up delaying seven years until 1908 to publish a report to the British public, having to hire another agent (Joseph Burtt) to investigate first (Satre 32). Only in 1909 did Cadbury formally stop buying cocoa from São Tomé’s slave plantations (Higgs 148).

A statement by William Cadbury sums up the company’s two-faced stance on slavery: “I should be sorry needlessly to injure a cultivation that as far as I can judge provides labour of the very best kind to be found in the topics: at the same time we should all like to clear our hands of any responsibility for slave traffic in any form,” (Satre 13).

Role of the British and Portuguese Governments

Cadbury is not alone in blame, however. Nevinson had written that the Portuguese government purposefully used the legal excuse of “contract labor” to smooth over the injustice so that they may profit economically, charging various duties for each slave, delivery, shipment, and so on (Satre 8). And the British were no better: Britain’s own government was just as complicit as the Portuguese in supporting African slave labor. While William Cadbury investigated the disguised slave labor in Africa, the British government was attempting to recruit the very same Portuguese-African slave labor to work in their South African mines. With these incentives, Britain was inclined to avoid antagonizing the Portuguese. This would lead Gosselin, the British minister to Lisbon, to recommend William to give the Portuguese a year before taking any action (Satre 24). Later, in 1907, when Burtt returned to Britain with a report detailing the slave labor in Africa, the British Foreign Office sought to minimize the report by not only attempting to negotiate a deal for suppressing the publication of the report, but also suggesting the publication of a modified version (Satre 74).

The inaction of the Cadbury firm doesn’t fall entirely on their own shoulders; the British government, acting on their motives to appease the Portuguese and mutually benefit from slave labor, became a voice that served to muddy the waters.

Game-Theoretic Complications in the Market Dynamics

Left: the classical Prisoner’s Dilemma, if T>R>P>S. Right: possible decision outcomes for deciding whether to boycott (C) or not (D) (Author of this blog post).

Boycotting the cocoa produced through slave labor seemed a natural solution, but initiating the boycott proved a difficult choice for any chocolate firm of the time. But why, if all companies boycotting could lead to everyone benefiting from establishing a stronger moral ground?

We can see why by examining what the decision may have looked like to Cadbury and other chocolate firms. From the perspective of a chocolate firm: if some other firms chose to boycott, one firm stood to gain huge profits by continuing to buy slave cocoa, as they could undercut prices and gain a greater share of the market (granted, they would lose moral standing, but this would only occur if a large enough proportion of other firms boycotted). This financially benefit would be greater than the small benefit of being morally in the right if all firms boycotted together. If no firms boycotted, likely nothing would change. But if a firm boycotted while any other firms did not, then that firm would lose sales to the firms that continued to buy slave cocoa, endangering the firm’s survivability and potentially rendering its own employees jobless.

These conditions fit the criteria of a Prisoner’s Dilemma (though to be precise, since there are multiple players, this is an NPD, n-person prisoner’s dilemma), for which the optimal strategy (in a single game) is to defect (D), as regardless of what the other player does, the better choice is to defect.

To the credit of cooperation (C), it is true that in repeated games of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, strategies that employ cooperation can begin to outperform always defecting (Nowak 91). However, the situation at hand isn’t exactly a repeated game. For context, Britain at the time was a big proponent of free trade capitalism, having one of the most permissive commercial laws in Europe (Booth 590). So there would certainly be no help from the government in bailing out a chocolate company if it opted for the boycott and consequently went out of business (and why would they? We just saw the British government’s own role in supporting slave labor). Going out of business certainly puts an end to the game for that company.

In this frame, Cadbury’s period of inaction can be seen as somewhat defensible. In fact, even after Cadbury, Fry, and Rowntree jointly agreed to boycott in 1909, American chocolate manufacturers began to purchase the Portuguese slave-labor cocoa (Higgs 150). The market conditions of the time simply conflated doing moral good with shooting oneself in the foot.

In summary, Cadbury’s moral facade belies a history of entanglement in early 20th century slave labor, though the blame lies not only on Cadbury and the other chocolate firms of the time alone, but also on the British and Portuguese governments and the market consequences of taking action at the time.

Works Cited

Author of this blog post. “A Payoff Matrix for Cadbury’s Decision to Boycott Slave Cocoa in early 1900s”. 24 Mar 2020.

Booth, A. (2012). Personal Capitalism and Corporate Governance: British Manufacturing in the First Half of the Twentieth Century. Twentieth Century British History, 23(4), 590-592.

Bosspostcard. “São Tomé e Princípe – Serviçais Caboverdianos Carregando Cacau Na Roça Nova Cuba – Ethnique – Ethnic – Costumes – Mœurs “: For Sale on Delcampe.’” Delcampe, 17 Mar. 2015, 11:40, http://www.delcampe.net/en_GB/collectables/postcards/sao-tome-and-principe/sao-tome-e-principe-servicais-caboverdianos-carregando-cacau-na-roca-nova-cuba-ethnique-ethnic-costumes-moeurs-305514274.html.

Cadbury. “Cadbury – Mum’s Birthday TV Advert – 2018 (60 secs).” YouTube, 12 Jan 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0eEqeizNCA.

Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Ohio University Press, 2013.

Nowak, M. A. Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

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

Statista Research Department. “Global Market Share of the Leading 5 Chocolate Producers in 2011.” Statista, Statista Research Department, 15 May 2012, http://www.statista.com/statistics/238294/market-share-of-the-leading-5-chocolate-producers-worldwide/.

Perspectives in the Sao Tome Slavery Scandal

Ethical problems often have many stakeholders who have distinct priorities and therefore have different perceptions of potential consequences. This, combined with human impulse to justify one’s actions and paint oneself in the best light, means that even afterwards it is often difficult to understand who did what for which reasons. Untangling the problem of slave labor in cacao plantations on the Portuguese colonies of Sao Tome & Principe in the early 1900s is no exception, but it can help to break down the situation into key players and their motivations.

Cadbury Bros.: Working to be Ethical

As a family-owned Quaker chocolate manufacturer, Cadbury Bros. prioritized being an ethical company that treated its workers well as well as making money. Conveniently, having an ethical reputation helped sell more chocolate. George Cadbury owned newspapers that promoted Quaker beliefs, including social reform against sweatshops and an opposition to slavery in South African mines.

Cadbury’s British factory town, Bourneville, was praised as a model Garden Village that raised the living conditions of its employees. (image source: thechocolatedictionary.wordpress.com)

So when William Cadbury began hearing reports of slave labor on plantations in Sao Tome & Principe in 1901, which supplied nearly half of Cadbury’s cacao in 1900, he grew concerned about the implications for the firm ethically (were they inadvertently supporting slavery?) and logistically (how can a chocolate manufacturer function without cacao?). The only evidence at that time was a bill of sale listing the workers of a plantation along with the rest of the property and the potentially biased claims of the Anti-Slavery Society. This felt insufficient evidence on which to spark a boycott, so Cadbury and the other chocolate companies decided an investigation was in order (Satre).

There were many inexplicable delays in the investigation process, and the decision to boycott did not come until early 1909, 8 years after they originally heard rumors of slavery. The Standard claimed this meant that Cadbury had “not tried to do anything” about the issue; Cadbury sued them for libel. At best, William Cadbury was naively hopeful that the Portuguese planters’ claims of the 1903 reforms would come true, in no rush to prove that unethical behavior was occurring, and hoping that the Foreign Office or the press might resolve the issue for him. At worst, he truly felt that the slavery practiced on Sao Tome wasn’t as bad as the forced labor in mines that his family spoke out against and hypocritically stalled until an alternative was available. While the firm was probably waiting for the Gold Coast colonies to become a viable affordable source of cacao before they would risk divesting from Sao Tome cacao, the Cadbury family ultimately won the libel case by pointing to a paper trail of investigations and attempts to work with Portuguese authorities to resolve the issue (Higgs).

The first of those attempts came in 1903, when William Cadbury personally visited Lisbon to speak to plantation owners.

Portuguese Planters: Justifying Slavery

Portuguese planters took advantage of Cadbury’s visit to reassure him that conveniently timed reforms to the treatment of the workers (called servicais, never slaves) would fix any alleged problems. Although workers would still be transported from Angola to Sao Tome & Principe, the 1903 regulations required voluntary entry into the 5-year labor contracts and a minimum wage, part of which would be set aside as a repatriation fund to help workers return home once their 5-year contract ended. The planters wanted to make clear that they did not engage in slavery and in fact treated their workers ethically, showing off the accounts where they were keeping servicais’ repatriation money safe for them and continuing to maintain that they had done nothing wrong, that all the workers were there of their own free will (Satre). Even after the boycott, they published a counter-report showing off their good treatment of their workers, featuring photos of the hospitals and other facilities they provided to support their workers (Higgs).

A postcard featuring a plantation (roca in Portuguese) hospital, similar to the ones featured in the counter-report. (image source: akpool.co.uk)

Joseph Burtt: Friendly Investigator

Joseph Burtt, described before his trip as “the youngest man of 43 that could live” by Henry Nevinson, a journalist who also worked to expose the abysmal conditions in Sao Tome (image source: UC Berkeley botany collection)

Despite their hope that the Portuguese reforms would prove successful, Cadbury Bros. also decided to send an agent to Western Africa to follow-up and confirm that the unethical treatment of laborers had ceased. The agent they finally chose in 1905 was Joseph Burtt, a man described as “thoroughly nice… even quite sweet as the Americans may say”. Some observers were concerned that Burtt would be too nice, unable to push hard enough to get to the bottom of the situation, especially if the Sao Tome planters tried to deliberately mislead him. Despite their concerns, Burtt spent June 1905- April 1907 in Africa, and came back convinced “beyond all doubt … the negro labourers in the Cocoa plantations of Sao Thome and Principe are in the condition of practical slavery, and that the methods by which this negro labour is obtained from the mainland of Africa is cruel and villainous” (Satre).

While he was very open in saying this to the chocolate companies in 1907, he did bow to pressure from Cadbury the British Foreign Office to soften his report before its delayed release to the British public in late 1908. Despite yielding to allow the delay, as someone who had seen the situation firsthand, he advocated in various ways to resolve the issue, meeting with the planters in late 1907 and later touring the US to convince American companies to boycott as well (Higgs). His advocacy justified his selection, even as a “nice”, “sweet” man, to investigate the issue.

British Foreign Office: Classified

Portuguese cynics believe that the Burtt report’s publication was a smear campaign to convince chocolate manufacturers to buy cacao from the British Gold Coast colony instead of Portugal’s Sao Tome and Principe (Weinberg). Supporters of this theory claim it is corroborated by the timing of the report’s publication, which conveniently coincided with British-controlled Gold Coast plantations becoming viable alternative sources of cacao in late 1908. It is unclear if steering demand towards British-owned cacao plantations was a motivation of the secretive British Foreign Office.

Regardless of their economic motivation, the British Foreign Office was certainly interested in maintaining control over the situation. They were concerned that too much public outrage would antagonize the planters and Portuguese government, making it difficult to come to a diplomatic resolution (Satre).

The ethical issue of Sao Tome cacao production is interesting because all parties thought they were doing the right thing, or at least doing nothing wrong. Yet it could be argued that they could have done more in order to stop slavery sooner: Cadbury could have started a boycott sooner, Burtt could have pushed to publish sooner, the British Foreign Office could have pushed harder against Portugal politically, or the Portuguese planters could have acknowledged that they were in the wrong. According to lecture on 3/6/2019, slavery continued in Sao Tome until the late 1950s, so even though Cadbury, Burtt, and the British Foreign Office all likely thought they had done all they could, it’s possible they could have done more.


Image Sources

Arab-Islamic Civilization and Sugar: Laying the Foundation of Modern Sweets and World Food Culture

The Arab-Islamic Civilization spread the cultivation and consumption of sugar, changing worldwide habits and trends in food culture and creations to the modern day.  Straddling three continents, Islamic empires in the medieval era allowed an intermingling of cultures and traditions, from East to West. “The Arab expansion westward marked a turning point in the European experience of sugar…the Arabs introduced sugar cane, its cultivation, the art of sugar making, and a taste for this different kind of sweetness.” (Mintz, 23) It would change the course of history and affect lands and peoples much far away; laying the foundations of large scale plantations that would eventually be established in the Americas and Caribbean Islands.

In a few centuries, sugar went from being a scarce spice and medicine, to a widely consumed, daily staple product of people of all economic standing, all over the world. The crystallization of sugar first started in India and was used in Persia by the sixth century. After the rise of Islam, the Arabs entered Persia and were introduced to the age-old process of sugar produced from cane, adopting and further developing these techniques.  They planted sugar-cane in plantations across their empires, in Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, North Africa, Al-Andalus (Spain and Portugal), and by the tenth century the Arabs were growing the crop in Sicily, all the while perfecting the process of refining it in sugar mills. (Salloum, 4)

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Picture 1: Map Showing Sugar Cultivation by Muslims

In the lands of the Mediterranean, Arabs developed agriculture and introduced new crops to the land, such as, orange, lemon, banana, saffron, fig, date trees, and most importantly, sugar cane. Wherever the Arabs went, they brought sugar, the product and technology of its production with them, to the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, Crete and Malta. (Mintz, 25) During the Muslim rule in Spain, there was numerous contributions of irrigation, soil management, and scholarly efforts in farming innovation. (Hughes, 68) These plants were used not only in agriculture, but for pharmacy, gardens, luxury trade, and arts.

For nearly eight centuries, under her (Muslim) rulers, Spain set to all of Europe a shining example of a civilized and enlightened State.  Her fertile provinces, rendered doubly prolific by the industry and engineering skill of her conquerors, bore fruit an hundredfold.  Cities innumerable sprang up in the rich valleys of the Guadalquivir and the Guadiana, whose names, and names only, still commemorate the vanished glories of their past. (Lane-Poole, vii)

Irrigation and agricultural practices established then has had a lasting impact. “The knowledge, handwork, commodities, and luxuries of the East were brought by caravans to the farther East, and came by shipping from the Levant to the Mediterranean ports of Spain.  Seeds and plants were thus transported; thus, came rice and cotton and the sugar-cane”.  (Coppee, 397) Sugar was cultivated as far north as Castellon, which is probably the most northerly point of its commercial cultivation. To the south, it was grown in Arabia Felix, Abyssinia, and the islands and the mainland of East Africa from the ninth century.  From Arabia Felix, or directly from Oman, the plant was brought to Zanzibar, where it was reported the finest sugar came.  From Zanzibar, the plant could have been taken to Madagascar.  (Watson, 30)

Sugar was at first regarded an important spice and medicinal component and was consumed in large quantities in the Middle East.  It was used by physicians from India to Spain, slowly entering European medical practice via Arab Pharmacology.  (Mintz, 80) As early as the eleventh century a treatise on sugar was written by a Baghdadi doctor. (Watson, 27) In addition to the medicinal component, Arabs had a rich development of recipes and cuisine that strongly featured sugar at the time of its movement to Europe. In the Medieval Islamic world, sugar enriched many dishes: sour foods, fish, meats, and stews. Of course, pastries and jams especially were a “paradise of sugar”, using syrups made of white sugar and crystals of colored sugar.  Specific sweets using sugar such as stuffed cannoli, squash jam, caramelized semolina, jelly, among others. In Europe, the names of a number of several medieval dishes reveal their Arab origin. (Zaouali, 44)

“The decades that followed the Moors’ conquest of the Iberian Peninsula brought in a dominant Arab influence—in culture, food, and drink, but especially in the introduction of sugarcane-based sweet treats… And there the foundation was laid for sugar-cane based sweet treats of the world as well…In the history of sweet treats, few “events” had the impact on Western civilizations as did the near-800-year occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by Muslim peoples.   Their main sweet treat legacy—sugarcane” (Roufs, 304)

There was a further East to West transmission of food culture as well.  Figures such as Ziryab, credited with the renewal of the culinary arts in Spain and Europe.  In the ninth century, he moved from Abbasid Baghdad to the ruler’s court in Cordoba.  He led a renewal of culinary understanding and elegance, introducing low tables, tablecloths, cups made from glass, and the succession of courses in a definite order, ending with a sweet dessert. (Zaouali, 41).

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Picture 2: Fourteenth century manuscript document from Ibn al-Bitar’s “Book of Simples” depicting sugar cane. 

The dispersal of Arab inspired sweets left a mark especially on Southern Europe, Spain, Portugal, and Sicily; also transmitted to the Americas with later conquests of the Spanish and Portuguese empires.  Sweet dishes found in Mexico and Latin America such Bunuelos, Alfajores, and Arroz con Leche, were inherited from the medieval Arab chefs in Damascus and Baghdad.  (Salloum, 8) The Arab legacy on sweet foods remains in modern day commodities, many deriving their name directly from the Arabic language. The word ‘Candy’ comes from the Arabic qandi, stemming from the Sanskrit khanda (piece of sugar).  Sherbet, Syrup and Sorbet derive from the Arabic word shariba or sharab (to drink).  The ubiquitous drinks Soda Suwwad (saltwort), Coffee (qahwa), and Alcohol are all derived from Arabic.  Other food term that originate from Arabic, include fruits and vegetables such as Lemon, Lime, Orange, Shaddock, Apricot, Artichoke, Spinach, as well as spices such as Sumac, Saffron, Carob, Caraway, and Tamarind. Rice and pasta were also transmitted to Europe via the Arabs (Watson, 23). Marzipan and sugar decorations were documented in the Middle East centuries before its appearance in Europe, especially in festive times such as Ramadan. (Mintz, 88).

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 11.19.40 PM.png Continue reading Arab-Islamic Civilization and Sugar: Laying the Foundation of Modern Sweets and World Food Culture

Cacao Moves Across the World

What catalyzed the relocation of the world’s cacao cultivation from Central America to the West African coast?


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(Source: Nicolas Rapp via Fortune, 2016)

Although cacao and chocolate are native to Central America, 70 percent of the world’s cacao is produced in Africa. According to a 2012 cacao market report, the majority of cacao is specifically produced in West Africa, with the Ivory Coast and Ghana as the leading producers of cacao, respectively (Presilla, 2009:123). The Ivory Coast and Ghana are followed by Indonesia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Brazil, and Ecuador, respectively (Coe and Coe, 2013:196-197). The relocation of the world’s cacao cultivation from Central America to the West African coast was catalyzed by 1) the transformation of cacao cultivation into a for-profit venture by European colonial powers and 2) the Portuguese transportation of Forastero cacao to West Africa.

Cacao’s Journey Across the Equator

(Source: Google Maps, 2017)
Cacao trees thrive in the climate conditions existing near the equator, between 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south (Presilla, 2009:44). Because the cacao trees need a hot climate, rainfall, and little fluctuation in temperature, only a select number of countries are capable of producing cacao.


Genetic origins of cacao:

Modern scientists locate the genetic origins of the cacao tree in South America, specifically in the Amazon River basin and in modern-day Venezuela (Presilla,2009:8).

Cultural origin of cacao cultivation:

By the second millennium BC, the seeds of cacao trees native to South America were brought northward to Mesoamerica, or the modern-day area between Mexico and Honduras, including Guatemala, Belize, and El Salvador (Presilla, 2009:8). From the Olmec to the Maya and the Aztecs, the chocolate mixtures were used to prepare hot and cold beverages (Presilla, 2009:8). Initially, natives had cultivated cacao trees to consume cacao as a fruit, but over time, natives discovered that the seeds could be dried, fermented, and ground to create chocolate mixtures.

Europeans encounter chocolate, and like it (A LOT):

Until Christopher Columbus arrived in Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century, no European had encountered cacao. Although Columbus returned to Spain from the New World with cacao beans, the Spanish would not taste chocolate until 1544 when the beverage was presented to the future Phillip II by a delegation of Kekchi Maya.

Upon taking up the drinking of chocolate, the Spanish made cacao cultivation a for-profit venture in its colonies. (Presilla, 2009:24). Hence, cacao was transformed from a barter item into a cash crop in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador (Presilla, 2009:28). The cultivation of cacao as a cash crop required an immense amount of labor. In the beginning, indigenous peoples worked the cacao plantations, but their populations would be decimated by disease introduced by the Europeans (Presilla, 2009:28). Cacao production could not keep up with a rising demand for chocolate, especially as chocolate-drinking spread through Europe. Within 50-60 years, the practice of drinking chocolate had spread to France, Italy, and England (Presilla, 2009:24).

The Search for New Markets for Cacao Cultivation:

To meet demand, the Spanish relocated primary cacao cultivation from Mesoamerica back to Venezuela by the seventeenth century (Presilla, 2009:28). Here still, the challenge of insufficient labor to work the cacao plantations in Venezuela and South America persisted. As a result, slave labor from Africa was imported to keep cacao cultivation profitable in the colonies.

To further increase the production of cacao, the Spanish brought cacao to its eastern colonies, including the Philippines, Java, Indonesia (Presilla, 2009:43).

Other European colonial powers desired to similarly profit from cacao cultivation in their colonies. In the New World, the Portuguese ruled over Bahia, or modern-day Brazil. The Portuguese took Lower Amazon cacao seeds from Bahia to West Africa in the nineteenth century (Presilla, 2009:43). Cacao cultivation continued to spread from Portuguese West Africa to modern-day Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast by 1905 (Presilla, 2009:43; Coe and Coe, 2013:197). The British spread cacao to modern-day Sri Lanka, and the Dutch spread cacao to Java and Sumatra. By the 20th century, Europeans brought cacao to the New Hebrides, New Guinea, and Samoa in Oceania (Coe and Coe, 2013:197).

The Rise of West African Cacao

Colonialism spread cacao seeds across the equator, but West Africa, in particular, became the largest producer of cacao because it is the primary region where Forastero cacao grows. Crucially, the Portuguese had brought Forastero cacao from Brazil to Sao Tome (Coe and Coe, 2013: 197). Although Brazil also grows Forastero cacao, cacao production declined in the 1950s following the devastation of cacao-producing regions by witches’ boom and black pod rot (Presilla, 2009:123). Modern-day chocolate corporations favor Forastero cacao because its disease-resistance makes it the more dependable, cost-effective cacao to source relative to the other two major breeds of cacao: Criollo and Trinitarto. As reflected in the 2012 cacao market, the business practices of modern-day chocolate corporations who source cacao from West Africa, where Forastero cacao thrives, reinforce the profit-driven cacao cultivation established during the colonial period: 80 percent of the world’s cacao is of the disease-resistant Forastero variety (Coe and Coe, 2013:197).


(© Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons, 2009)

Because Forastero cacao (green) is absent in non-West African regions–Criollo cacao (red) grows in Central America and Trinitario cacao (brown) grows in South and Southeast Asia, profit-driven chocolate corporations source less cacao from these regions.


Profit Above All: The Case of Cadbury

 In Great Britain, three firms dominated the cocoa and chocolate market: Cadbury, Fry, and Rowntree (Satre, 2005:14). By 1900, nearly half of the cocoa beans purchased by Cadbury were from the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome (Satre, 2005:19) when it was brought to Cadbury’s attention that the cacao plantations in Sao Tome were being worked by Angolans against their will (Satre, 2005:7). Under the guise of state-supported contact-labor system that could be renewed every five years, around four thousand Angolans were being captured and shipped Sao Tome and Principe to work on the cacao plantation (Satre, 2005:2-7). Although Portugal formally abolished slavery in its colonies in 1879 (Satre, 2005:2), a new slave labor arose on the cacao plantations in the twentieth century.

Nearly a decade after first learning of the inhumane labor conditions on the islands passed before Cadbury would officially boycott cacao from Sao Tome and Principe in 1909 (Higgs, 2012:148). Notably, his decision was preceded by his acquisition of fourteen acres in the Gold Coast, or modern-day Ghana, to be used for a Cadbury factory (Higgs, 2012:148). Despite having sufficient evidence for the inhuman labor conditions years before, Cadbury waited to boycott cacao from Sao Tome until he secured an alternate source of cacao for his company.

Although American chocolate corporations immediately filled the void left by the British boycott of Sao Tomean cacao, cacao production in Sao Tome eventually fell. The island’s cacao-producing regions were affected by swollen shoot disease in 1918 (Higgs, 2012:160). Since, Sao Tome and Principe have been unable to compete with the Ivory Coast and Ghana, chocolate corporations’ primary suppliers of cacao (Higgs, 2012:164). Ultimately, the profit venture begun by European colonial and the Portuguese transportation of disease-resistant Forastero cacao to West Africa primed the West African coast’s economies to flourish through cacao cultivation.




Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.

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

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

Satre, Lowell. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. pp. 1-32, 73-99.


Jews and Chocolate: From the Inquisition to the Land Flowing With Milk, Honey and Chocolate

Beginning as early as 1500 BCE with the Olmecs, cacao spread throughout the world, becoming a luxury enjoyed by everyone from Mayan Ajaw, to Aztec Tlahtohqueh, from Spanish friars to French courtiers and English noblemen, to the chocolate loving throngs in the supermarkets of the world today. While chocolate was brought to the old world primarily by exploring Catholic Spaniards, many cultures and religions played vital roles in the development of the “food of the gods”. In this post, I will concentrate on the historical involvement of the Jewish people in the cacao trade throughout the centuries, and examine how, as a result of Jewish contributions that continue to this day, the holy land came to flow not only with milk and honey, but chocolate as well.

While some, including famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, believe that Christopher Columbus was actually Jewish (Wiesenthal), and others believe there exists a connection between the Maya and the Israelite ancestor Eber (“The Mayans And The Jewish Midrash”), it seems most likely that Jews discovered cacao along with the rest of the old world sometime after it was introduced to Spain by the various early Spanish explorers of Mesoamerica (many accounts of Jews and chocolate from the time appear to back this up).

In 1478, fourteen years before Columbus set sail for India (which turned out to be the Americas), King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Spain, the very same people who helped to fund the exploration of the new world, established the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, commonly referred to as the Spanish Inquisition. The
inquisition’s aim was to wage war on any non Catholic denominations in order to protect t

Depiction of crypto-Jews conducting a  seder in secret. Public domain.

he Church’s majority. With the Spanish Alhambra declaration in 1492, hundreds of
thousands of Jews were forced to either convert to Christianity or face expulsion from Spain. Those who converted were called Conversos or Marranos, and many of them converted publicly, but continued practicing Judaism, with this latter group being called crypto-Jews (Marcus 51, Pérez and Hochroth).


At the time that Jews were being expelled from Spain, King John II of Portugal, seeing an economic opportunity, offered Jews asylum in return for one ducat (gold or silver coin) and one-fourth of the wealth they carried into the country from Spain (Marcus 53). It’s estimated that 120,000 Jews fled to Portugal to seek asylum despite the economic extortion, however within six months the King had declared that any Jew remaining in Portugal would be enslaved. Despite several recent Jewish expulsion orders from France, some of the Jews were able to get out of Portugal and settle in nearby Bayonne, France, and it is in this city that we get our first whiff of chocolate (“Bayonne | Jewish Virtual Library”).

While chocolate historians are unsure as to how exactly cacao was introduced to France, in “The True History of Chocolate,” Sophie and Michael Coe present three theories: First, it was introduced by the daughter of Spanish royalty, Anne of Austria when she was married to Louis XIII of France. Second, Spanish monks gifted cacao to the French. Third, it was imported as a medicine (Coe and Coe, 150-152). While any of those three theories could be the true portrayal of events, a fourth theory exists. Over the course of the inquisition, chocolate drinks imported from the new world grew in popularity with the Spanish elite (i.e., monarchs, nobles, and well-to-do merchants), and while Jews were never considered members of the elite in most countries at that time, they were often quite well off, and could have possibly afforded cacao drinks themselves, or handled the product in the course of their business trades. Additionally, later on in the inquisition period, various sources mention that those being held for investigation (often times crypto-Jews who later escaped Spain), were given chocolate drinks, so one could assume that many Jews had contact with the substance in Spain (Coe and Coe, 135). While supporting evidence is minimal, some believe that the Jews escaping Spain and Portugal brought cacao with them when they migrated to Bayonne, France. The city became a center for chocolatiers over the course of the 16th century, and although France subsequently expelled the Jews again in the 17th century, to this day the residents of Bayonne honor the Jewish contribution to chocolate in their city (“France Thanks Sephardic Jews For Chocolate, 500 Years Too Late”).

Whether or not the introduction of cacao to France can be attributed to Jewish refugees, the inquisition certainly assisted in the spread of chocolate. In addition to Portugal, Jews fleeing Spain also sought refuge in Holland, until persecution against Jews there began to rise as well. While King Edward I of England had expelled all Jews from the country in 1290, by the mid 17th century, Oliver Cromwell, an English political leader, assisted in the return of Jews to England, most of whom came from Holland (Coe and Coe, 164). Those coming from Holland were used to drinking coffee and tea, and in 1650, a Jewish businesswoman opened up the first coffee-house (many of which later went on to serve cacao drinks as well) in Oxford (Coe and Coe, 164). According to Jean-Baptiste Labat, a Dominican priest who lived in the Portuguese controlled island of Martinique for two years, there existed a Jew by the name of Benjamin Dacosta who was the first person to plant cacao on the island, although he was expelled and deported from the territory a few years later (Coe & Coe, 194).

While Jews continued to appear in reference to chocolate in various contexts throughout the next few centuries, they began appearing more frequently with chocolate in the mid-20th century. After World War II, several stories emerged about how various holocaust survivors had come to view chocolate as a symbol of hope. One holocaust survivor, Eva Kor, said that when Auschwitz was liberated, survivors were given chocolate and hugs by their Soviet army liberators (“Voices Of Auschwitz”).

Credit: Human

Already pre-World War II, but even more so after, Jews from all over the world began emigrating en masse to their new homeland, Israel. It is in these mass emigrations following centuries of oppression and persecution that we find the roots of the modern Israeli chocolate industry — I would argue that Jewish history is the reason Israeli’s are so driven to create and innovate in their own land in all industries, including the chocolate trade. In 1933, a Russian-born Jew by the name of Eliyahu Fromchenko left his home in Latvia and made his way to Ramat Gan, Mandate Palestine (at that time, all inhabitants, including Jews and Arabs alike, were “Palestinians” — the country would later become Israel). Fromchenko founded “Elite,” the company that would dominate the Israeli chocolate and confectionery market in the coming decades with their highly popular para (cow) chocolates, with a heifer adorning each square (“Strauss Elite”).

Public Domain.

While Fromchenko and para chocolate might have popularized chocolate consumption in the New Jersey sized country, chocoinovation didn’t stop there, with dozens of boutique and specialty chocolate shops and factories opening up across the country over the past few decades. Each chocolatier, influenced by his or her respective lineage and culture has brought forth a new spectrum of flavors and combinations. One such chocolate artisan is Ika Cohen, who runs a small chocolate shop in Tel Aviv, where she produces chocolate with a variety of interesting flavors, such as a Za’atar (a savory Middle Eastern spice mix) infused ganache (which won two gold medals at the International Chocolate World Final in Italy). Another company, Baracke, founded in 1983 by a government-sponsored collaboration between Israeli and Arab entrepreneurs, began producing halva (a Middle-Eastern sesame based, sweet and flaky treat) with cacao nibs sprinkled throughout (http://baracke.co.il/חלבה-לכל-המשפחה-שאמיות-חלבה-קקאו/).


Public Domain.

Holy Cacao operates as the only fully bean-to-bar chocolate factory in the country, producing their Ecuadorian and Peruvian sourced cacao bars in Pnei Hever, Israel. Put simply, the Israeli affinity for chocolate has grown tremendously in recent years, with consumers eating up everything from chocolate rugluch (a pastry of sorts) produced throughout the country, to a chocolate craft beer produced by a kibbutz in Southern Israel (http://www.ketura.org.il/ViewArticle.aspx?articleID=189).



Public Domain.

However chocolate production in Israel hasn’t been entirely conflict free in recent years, with the Israeli public boycotting Strauss (now the largest Israeli chocolate manufacturer), in protest against the high price tag their chocolate fetches, and the discrepancies between prices in Israel and abroad for Israeli made chocolates (Winer). With chocolate bars ranging in price from $1.50 to $5, the food that has become just as essential as coffee or tea to some Israelis, is beyond their reach price-wise. While the boycotts did cause Strauss to lower their prices some, chocolate still remains a pricey product in a country with primarily large families, where consumers might have to choose between a chocolate bar or a $1 large loaf of bread.

Additionally, despite various chocolate festivals held in the country (including Chocolate Week, and the 2013 International Chocolate Awards National Competition), and the many offered tours of chocolate factories and workshops across the country, the Israeli public is little aware of the labor and wage issues ingrained in the cacao trade. There is little-to-no public push for increased Fair-trade or Direct Trade cacao sourcing — this in contrast to the US where Fair-trade, Direct Trade and Utz certifications have become commonplace.

The burgeoning Israeli chocolate industry is certainly a boon to worldwide chocolate development, with it’s rich history, delectable palate of new tastes, sensations and products to offer. That said, I would certainly like to see the Jews persecuted history taken into account when sourcing cacao for Israeli made chocolate, so the holy land can flow with milk, honey, and ethically produced cacao.

Works Cited:

  • Wiesenthal, Simon. Sails Of Hope; The Secret Mission Of Christopher Columbus. New York: Macmillan, 1973. Print.
  • “The Mayans And The Jewish Midrash”. Realbiblecodes.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.
  • Pérez, Joseph and Lysa Hochroth. History Of A Tragedy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Print.
  • Marcus, Jacob Rader. The Jew In The Medieval World, A Source Book, 315-1791. Cincinnati: The Sinai Press, 1938. Print.
  • “France Thanks Sephardic Jews For Chocolate, 500 Years Too Late”. The Times of Israel. N.p., 2013. Web. 10 May 2016.
  • “Bayonne | Jewish Virtual Library”. Jewishvirtuallibrary.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.
  • Coe, Sophie D and Michael D Coe. The True History Of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
  • “Voices Of Auschwitz”. Edition.cnn.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.
  • “Strauss Elite”. Strauss Group. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.
  • Winer, Stuart. “Boycott Threat Aims To Sweeten Chocolate Prices”. The Times of Israel. N.p., 2012. Web. 10 May 2016.