Category Archives: History

A Bittersweet History


1900 BCE: The pre-Olmec Mokaya people are the first society that we know consumed chocolate.
1400 BCE: First evidence of a fermented alcoholic beverage made with cacao pulp.
1250 BCE: The Olmec civilization reaches its first peak at San Lorenzo around the time of the events in Mediterranean Europe that inspired the Illiad and Oddysey.
1000 BCE: Mayan peoples move from mountains and high plains into the Yucatán Peninsula and Guatemalan lowlands, where they are able to cultivate cacao.

black and white illustration of a person with long hair pouring liquid into a pot, where it foams.
Mayan and Aztec hot chocolate was frothed by pouring it back and forth between two vessels. The resulting foam was a particular delicacy.

630–612 BCE: Sappho the poet is born somewhere in this time period on the Greek island of Lesbos. “Love shook my heart / Like the wind on the mountain / Troubling the oak-trees.”
250: Mayan society enters its “Classic period” in the Petén lowlands of Guatemala, comparable to ancient Greece or Renaissance Italy.
613: Mayan civilization is at its peak. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the prophet Muhammad begins to preach about visions he receives, which will become the basis of Islam.
770: Cacao is imported to what is now Utah.
800: The Classic Maya Collapse occurs, when major cities at the center of the Mayan region become uninhabitable due to environmental degradation and overpopulation. The populace flees south to the highlands and north to the Yucatán, which is experiencing a renaissance of its own. Coastal Mayan traders and cacao growers in the Chontalpa region thrive as well, likely monopolizing trade with the Valley of Mexico.
850: Gunpowder is invented in China sometime in the 9th century.
1200: Aztecs begin to purchase cacao from Mayan growers and traders.
1206: Genghis Khan becomes ruler of the Mongols and begins expanding their territory into an empire that will eventually cover most of Eurasia.
1325: The seat of the Aztec empire is established at Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). In the next few decades, the largest outbreak of Bubonic Plague in recorded history will begin in Asia and sweep across Europe.
PART TWO: Chocolate goes to Europe
1440: Johannes Gutenberg invents the printing press.
1502: Columbus mistakes cacao beans for almonds. Later on the same voyage, he and his crew spend a year stranded on Jamaica.

black and white illustration of five cacao seeds, vertically aligned

1520: Hernán Cortés takes control of Tenochtitlan, seat of the Aztec empire, with the assistance of several other cities in the region. He controls the empire by taking emperor Moctezuma hostage and eventually killing him. Cortés and his soldiers are among the first Europeans to taste chocolate.
1527: Cortés brings cacao beans back to Carlos I of Spain.
1542: Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas writes an account of the mistreatment of indigenous people in Spain’s American colonies.
1560: Dutch sailors take Criollo trees from Venezuela to Celebes (now Sulawesi, Indonesia).
1582: While Jesuit missionaries exploit the indigenous people of Brazil as laborers in the cacao industry, another Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, travels the other direction to begin the most substantial direct cultural exchange to date between Europe and China.
1585: The first major shipment of cacao is sent from Veracruz to Spain.
1600: While Spain establishes the transatlantic cacao trade, Elizabeth I grants the British East India Company’s charter, spurring both English trade with and colonization of India.
1606: A Florentine merchant brings chocolate to Italy.
1615: A Spanish princess (confusingly named “Anne of Austria”) brings cacao to Paris when she is sent to marry Louis XIII. French royalty rapidly establish a tradition of morning cocoa.
1659: David Challiou is named the official chocolatier of Paris.
1697: In London, White’s on St. James’s Street opens. It caters to high-class clientele who purchase opera tickets while enjoying their cocoa.
1750s: Most Western European nations have cacao plantations in their respective colonies.
1822: The first cacao trees are transplanted to Africa, establishing what will become the world’s largest center of cacao production.


1791–1804: Haitian plantation slaves rebel. This Haitian Revolution leads to Haitian independence, though Haiti is economically devastated by extreme French reparation demands a couple decades later.
1820: The first cacao trees are transplanted to São Tomé, off Africa’s west coast.
1824: John Cadbury, a Quaker, begins selling tea, coffee, and chocolate.
1840: Māori Chiefs sign the Treaty of Waitangi, written by British representatives, setting New Zealand up for centuries of disputed governance and ownership.
1866: J. S. Fry & Sons, another Quaker company, begins producing their Chocolate Cream bar over a century after Joseph Fry’s first chocolate-making experiments.
1876: Portugal abolishes slavery, but maintains an extreme form of indentured servitude on São Tomé and Príncipe because it is the only way to keep chocolate plantations profitable.
1893: John Cadbury’s son George buys land for a company town to improve living conditions for his employees.
1905: Cadbury introduces the Dairy Milk bar, which rapidly becomes their top product.
1906: Journalist Henry Nevinson publishes a book detailing slave labor in São Tomé and Príncipe.
1909: After years of public pressure, Cadbury, Fox, and Rowntree begin to boycott São Tomé.
1913: São Tomé’s chocolate production peaks at 36,500 tons per year.
1973: Without Cadbury and other major customers, São Tomé is producing only 12,000 tons of chocolate per year when it becomes independent of Portugal.
2005: With Portuguese investment gone, São Tomé produces only 3,000 tons of chocolate each year.

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Diego’s Chocolate: Produced where it’s grown

There’s a place in Guatemala with a beautiful view of Lake Atitlan where a Mayan man named Diego makes chocolate with his family. Starting from his grandmother’s recipe, he experimented until he had created a solid bar worth selling to the tourists nearby, and the result is unique in several ways.

Farmers from nearby Costa Sur (a major cacao growing region since the pre-Classic Maya period) bring their beans right to Diego in the most direct of direct trades. Without brokers or shippers to pay, Diego can pay farmers a price that beats fair trade premiums without breaking the bank.

The beans are processed less than they would be in a recipe from the European tradition—ground once, rather than continuously conched over several days. Diego sweetens the chocolate with panela, unrefined cane sugar that he buys from small Central American producers. The minimally refined ingredients make for a grainier chocolate than we’re accustomed to, but it melts in your mouth like nothing else.

The chocolate is sold in cigar-shaped rolls, wrapped with wax paper and then brightly colored tissue paper, and the pretty labels, showing that beautiful view of Lake Atitlan, are each colored by hand. Diego could have them printed, but he would rather employ someone locally for the job.

PREVIOUS: Chocolate at war

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Some Better Solutions: Local Ownership and Direct Trade

Fair trade programs might increase a grower’s profit margin by a few percent, but it will take a radical change in trade dynamics to shift the balance of economic inequity. Divine Chocolate represents one model for this change—the growers’ cooperative that supplies cacao for Divine bars also owns a majority 44% share in Divine. They have ownership over the entire supply chain, and reap the same benefits as any other shareholders.

Direct trade is another alternative to fair trade certification. Like fair trade, it is a term used by chocolatiers to describe their bean-buying practices. Rather than operating within the conventional chocolate supply chain and paying a premium for certification, direct trade chocolate companies establish relationships with individual growers. Direct trade chocolatiers often visit plantations to evaluate growing and working conditions while cultivating partnerships with individual farmers. Most of these are small “bean-to-bar” companies that do everything from roasting to conching to molding to sales in-house. Direct trade isn’t governed by a certifying body, so various companies interpret the term differently, but many have established codes of ethics that guide their buying practices.

Diego’s Chocolate in Guatemala and Madécasse in Madagascar offer a radical answer to concerns about trade dynamics and global economic inequality. By growing, producing, and packaging chocolate locally in their respective countries, they retain most of the profit that would otherwise go to chocolatiers in the global north.

Ultimately, fair trade and direct trade are incomplete solutions. Poverty and lack of education prevent many growers from producing better quality crops, driving a harder bargain with buyers, or moving into higher-profit segments of the chocolate supply chain. There is no single solution, but right now it seems like the best thing we consumers can do is support equitable alternatives that allow everyone in the chocolate industry to run successful businesses and build healthy communities.

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Fair Trade: The Market-Driven Answer

Legislation in Europe and the U.S. that would have placed an embargo on slave-made chocolate has largely failed. It has fallen to advocates and concerned members of the industry to develop piecemeal certification programs and best practices for ethical trade. The best-known of these is fair trade labeling, a group of certification program that requires buyers of cacao to pay growers an above-market rate and certifies farmers based on their labor practices. The standards for fair trade labeling are set by a handful of major fair trade networks.

Labeling and certification initiatives like fair trade have been criticized for a variety of reasons. They tend to be focused on marketing, providing a marginal increase in price for growers without giving them a real route out of poverty. According to Fair Trade, Corporate Accountability, and Beyond, fair trade farmers see about eight cents of each dollar spent on chocolate. The remaining 92% goes to bulk buyers, shippers, commodity brokers, chocolatiers, taxes, and—in the case of fair trade and Organic products—to the certifying organizations. Perhaps the ultimate issue is that fair trade certifiers are trying to solve problems with the same market-based tools that caused them in the first place.

PREVIOUS: Chocolate for the Masses

NEXT: Some Better Solutions: Local Ownership and Direct Trade

Chocolate at War

In 1825, the Royal Navy consumed more hot chocolate than all the rest of Britain combined. They served it to sailors on watch duty because it was warm, invigorating, and non-alcoholic. They were neither the first nor the last military force to see value in chocolate. Many ancient Mesoamerican societies treated cocoa as an energy drink for soldiers and messengers, and the tradition has continued into the modern day.

Soldiers in both world wars were provided with chocolate as part of their field rations, though it was meant only for emergencies. To prevent soldiers from indulging, their chocolate bars were formulated to taste “a little better than a boiled potato,” according to the Hershey Archives. In the United Kingdom after World War II, when chocolate rationing ended for the general public, so many people rushed to buy chocolate that rationing was reinstated for another four years while production caught up with demand.

When the Soviet Union blockaded West Berlin, the American and British governments coordinated an airlift of food and other supplies that involved over 1,500 flights per day at its peak. While the operation wouldn’t have been possible without precise coordination, its success in the public mind was largely thanks to pilot Gail Halvorsen, who dropped chocolate bars from his plane to the children of West Berlin. The “candy bomber,” with his parachutes made from handkerchiefs and his concern for the happiness of children, secured the operation’s public image.

PREVIOUS: Some Better Solutions: Local Ownership and Direct Trade

NEXT: Diego’s Chocolate: Produced where it’s grown


Chocolate for the Masses

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the cost of sugar and cacao suddenly dropped, making chocolate bars affordable to the masses in a way they hadn’t been before. Between economic shifts, more efficient manufacturing, and new marketing techniques, chocolate really became the product we know today.

Forrest Gump famously said “Life is like a box of chocolates.” That box of chocolates as we know it was invented by Louise Agostini. Her husband, Jean Neuhaus, created the first Belgian pralines. Neuhaus was a pharmacist who coated medicine with chocolate to make it more palatable, but in 1912 he began to experiment with powdered milk and other candy fillings. Within a year, a Swiss chocolatier mechanized the process and sold a box of chocolates, and in 1920 Agostini designed the “ballotin”—the molded plastic inset that her husband, and many other chocolatiers, used to keep chocolates from sliding around in their boxes.

Agostini and Neuhaus’s ballotins were beautiful displays of chocolate, perfect for display and gifting, but they weren’t the only Belgians to try innovative marketing. A company called Leonidas decided to bring chocolates to the masses at a reasonable price and with minimal packaging by selling it from an open counter on the street: a walk-up chocolate bar.

While the Belgians and Swiss made the proverbial box of chocolates, others developed their own machinery for mass production. Industrialization took its toll, though. In 1915, Heinrcih Stollwerck, one of five German brothers to develop early machinery for mass-producing chocolate bars, drowned in his own chocolate when a machine exploded.

Marketing and mechanization weren’t the only realms of innovation for the cacao industry. In 1925, the New York Cocoa Exchange was established for trading of cocoa futures. For people in the cacao industry, the Exchange offered an opportunity to hedge their bets against future price fluctuations. Unfortunately, it also gave speculators an opportunity to play the market, and if speculative trades aren’t sufficiently regulated they can harm both growers and buyers of cacao.

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From Liquid to Solid: Chocolate Innovation

Some of the first solid chocolate in Europe was made around 1674, but it was coarse and unappetizing. Chocolate bars as we know them today weren’t invented until nearly two centuries later.

The story of industrial chocolate when Fry and Sons replaced water-driven mills with steam engines in the 1700s, around the time of the U.S. Revolutionary War and the French Revolution.

In 1828 Casparus van Houten patented a new technique for processing cacao, using a hydraulic press to force much of the fat out and leave behind “press cakes” that could be ground into cocoa powder. His son Coenraad later developed the alkalizing or “dutching” process that makes cocoa powder sweeter and helps it dissolve in water.

At the same time Charlotte Brontë published Jane Eyre, in 1847, Francis Fry created an “eating chocolate” by adding cocoa butter back in to van Houten’s cocoa powder. It was much grainer than what we eat today, but still more palatable than the early versions. Cadbury followed with their own eating chocolate two years later.

The British Quaker companies may have made the first chocolate bars, but Swiss inventors made some crucial improvements. Daniel Peter added Henri Nestlé’s powdered milk to create milk chocolate, and the two went into business together under Nestlé’s name. Rudolph Lindt developed the conching machine, which mixes and melts chocolate for up to 72 hours to smooth it.

In 1861, Cadbury began to sell heart-shaped chocolate boxes for Valentine’s Day, and in 1895 the big name in American chocolate entered the scene when Milton S. Hershey sold his first chocolate bar.

PREVIOUS: Chocolate in Africa: From Cadbury to Child Slavery

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Mesoamerica: From the Olmecs to the Triangle Trade

Cacao is called the food of the gods, and for much of its history it has also been the food of the elite. While it may have been a staple for the Olmec or pre-Olmec peoples who originally cultivated it in Central America and the Amazon basin, we have no solid evidence.* By the time of the first written records—Classic Maya burial inscriptions from 1000 CE or earlier—chocolate was reserved for ceremonial occasions, or for the wealthy.


black and white illustration of a cacao tree

When Hernán Cortés took over Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, Aztec law and custom had put similar limits on chocolate consumption. The Aztecs were unable to grow cacao near their capital because of its latitude, so they relied on trade for some of their supply. The rest came as tribute from those conquered in battle—a sort of feudal arrangement.

The Spaniards at first relied on the same network of trade and tribute established by the Aztecs to provide their cacao. That wasn’t sustainable in the long run, with the Spanish appetite for chocolate growing and native Americans decimated by invasion and disease. Cacao supply eventually dropped and prices jumped. Former conquistadors were running out of American empires to conquer and saw a new opportunity. They established themselves as landowners and claimed the native people as their property along with the land. We did not find sources that centered on the native actions and perspective related to these horrors.

The new Spanish bureaucracy established a system known as encomiendas, estates owned by Spaniards who mined or grew crops and relied on indigenous people for labor. In theory, the Spanish encomenderos were responsible for the lives and health of their subjects. In practice, the only service provided by many encomenderos was conversion to Christianity. Encomenderos may have believed they were saving souls, but converting the slaves did little to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Priests like the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas made Spanish royalty aware of the situation, and new royal decrees gave some protection to native Americans. Indigenous peoples were given back certain (limited) rights, and the encomiendas were slowly dismantled, returning the land to other forms of ownership.

The new laws said nothing about slavery in general, so plantations switched to a labor force imported from Africa. Most of the major European powers with equatorial colonies took part, sending ships in the continuous cycle known as the triangular trade. They exchanged manufactured goods for slaves in Africa, then crossed the Pacific to deliver slaves and pick up cacao, which they took back to Europe so the route could be repeated.

Portugal’s Jesuit missionaries were Spain’s major rival in the cacao trade. The Jesuits sent indigenous people to collect cacao that already grew wild in the Amazonian rain forests, in addition to enslaving or employing them on plantations. As in the Spanish colonies of Ecuador and Venezuela, though, smallpox and measles destroyed the native workforce. These diseases and other factors brought Brazilian cacao production to a near halt.

black and white illustration of quetzalcoatl's head

In some legends, the god Quetzalcoatl is credited with bringing cacao to Mesoamerica.

*To clarify: There is solid evidence cacao was consumed by Olmec and Pre-Olmec peoples.  We don’t know if it was readily available to everyone, or limited to ceremonies and/or the social/economic elite.

NEXT: Chocolate in Africa: From Cadbury to Child Slavery

Chocolate in Africa: From Cadbury to Child Slavery

In South America, respected priest Bartolomé de las Casas, spoke out against slavery and feudalism. The closest equivalent in Africa was the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers. Quakers had been historically persecuted for their egalitarian religious beliefs and were barred from many professions, but they were often successful in business, and well respected for honest practices and quality goods.

Quakers brought their concern for fairness and welfare to the chocolate industry with four major English brands: Fry, Cadbury, Rowntree, and Terry. They shared with the Aztecs a dislike of drunkenness, and thought that chocolate beverages could be a good replacement for alcohol. They also established the predecessor to today’s fair trade movement by buying only beans that had been grown without slave labor. Cadbury’s radical ideas about labor extended to their workers at home in England as well. They even constructed a utopian factory town in the countryside to get their employees out of urban slums.

Cadbury’s original ideals didn’t always prevail, though. In the early 1900s they were purchasing nearly half their beans from São Tomé, where slavery was commonplace on plantations. Even after the violation was brought to light, Cadbury argued that they could do more for slaves by working with slave-holding Portuguese planters than by finding a different source. But with up to six thousand slaves dying on São Tomé each year, the public outcry continued and Quaker chocolatiers returned—at least for a while—to their boycott of slave-grown cacao.

With much of the industry boycotting São Tomé, the island’s growers shifted away from cacao production. Smaller farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, owned and operated by West African families, stepped in to take up the slack. For several decades, they made good money, first under colonial governments and then, for a time, under their own rule. It didn’t last.

In the 1950s, farmers in West Africa found cacao a valuable cash crop, but as France and England let go of these former colonies and withdrew financial investment, Ghana and the Ivory Coast started to rely on the chocolate industry for most of their revenue. Today, farmers are heavily taxed and must operate through resellers—sometimes several layers of them—to bring their crops to market. Each intermediary takes their cut, as does the government, and industrial chocolate companies in Europe and America are always happy to drive down costs and increase their profit margin.

Between post-colonial disinvestment, class tension, and religious disputes, the economic and political climate in West Africa hasn’t been good for cacao growers. Many of them now live in poverty or have turned to other professions. Others make up the gap in a different way: with unpaid child labor. An oft-quoted U.S. State Department report describes conditions on some farms as “the worst forms of child labor.” Reporters interviewing plantation workers find a range of stories—from those who were paid and treated well to those who were abducted, purchased from their families, or promised pay and then enslaved. These children endure labor that is almost literally back-breaking, carrying heavy loads, and are unlikely to receive any education.

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Chocolate: Forepast Fad Food

Simple line drawing of a person with big poofy hair.  X-ray vision shows lungs, digestive system, and uterus.  Text with arrows pointing to them says “chocolate for the lungs”, “chocolate for digestion”, and “chocolate for babies”.  Illustration by Cat Callaway

By the wise and Moderate use whereof,
Health is preserved, Sickness
Diverted, and Cured, especially the
Plague of the Guts; vulgarly called
The New Disease; Fluxes, Consumptions,
& Coughs of the Lungs, with sundry
other desperate Diseases. By it
also, Conception is Caused,
the Birth Hastened and
facilitated, Beauty
Gain’d and continued.

Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma (1631)
from Chocolate: or, An Indian Drinke
translated by James Wadsworth (1652)