Site icon

A Very Short History of Cocoa

Cocoa: An Introduction (Part 2)

Nowadays, West Africa is by far the world’s largest cocoa-producing region. Côte d’Ivoire alone is responsible for around 40% of global production, with neighbouring Ghana amounting to a further 25%. However, cocoa is indigenous to neither of these countries. To trace cocoa’s origins, we must direct our attention across the Atlantic to the Americas.

Understanding the history of cocoa is vital for not only shedding light on how cocoa came to be the commodity it is today, but also for comprehending the complex web of social, economic, and political circumstances which make designing and implementing sustainability projects in cocoa ever more complicated.

Theobroma cacao originates from the Upper Amazon, where it has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years, originally by the Olmecs. Since the at least the 7th century CE, cocoa beans were used by the Aztecs and the Incas as a form of currency, or to create the drink xocoatl. Xocolatl is the Nahuatl word from which ‘chocolate’ is ultimately derived.

A statue of a men holding a cacao bean download from this is a postal photograph of National Anthropology and History Museum of Mexico. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Cocoa production and consumption remained confined to Latin America until the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Hernán Cortéz was the first to bring cocoa to Europe, recognising the potential of chocolate as a desirable drink for European nobility.  By 1580, cocoa plantations controlled by Spanish conquistadors were already a source of considerable wealth for the colonial heartland.

In 1737, cocoa was given the scientific name Theobroma cacao by Carl Linneaus, the Swedish botanist known as the “father of modern taxonomy”. In naming the fruit he drew inspiration from the Greek word ambrosia, meaning a substance thought to confer immortality on anyone who tasted it. Chocolate’s power verged on the mystical, and it was often considered dangerous. Indeed, for a time, chocolate was considered a medicinal elixir fit only for adults; in 1702, a European doctor wrote that “Chocolate’s properties are such that they stimulate Venus’ ardour.”

T. cacao, leaves, fruits and seed. A. Bernecker, 1864. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Naturalis Biodiversity Centre

Like in Mesoamerica, in Europe chocolate was initially the drink of the elites, who sought to control the production of cocoa. Thus began cocoa’s rise as a vehicle for and a product of globalisation. Cacao was grown only in ‘The Chocolate Belt’ – the tropical stretch of the world between 10 degrees north and 20 degrees south. Spanish colonisers initiated the large-scale cultivation of cocoa across Latin America during the 16th century. From there, its cultivation spread to Brazil in the 17th century, and then further to Fernando Po (an island off the coast of Equatorial Guinea now known as Bioko) in 1840. It was from Fernando Po that cocoa reached Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast, in 1879.

The development of chocolate as a global and widely accessible commodity is inextricably linked with the Industrial Revolution. Coenraad van Houten created a cocoa press which could separate fat from cocoa beans in 1828, developing a process known as “Dutching”.  This led to the creation of cocoa powder. Unlike traditionally processed cocoa, this powder is not acidic, making it more palatable for mass market consumption. In 1850, Joseph Fry discovered that adding cocoa butter back into cocoa powder created something malleable, which allowed the development of chocolate bars. It was this industrialisation which transformed cocoa something that was typically consumed as a beverage to something usually eaten.

Mazawattee cocoa : Britannia welcomes the new cocoa (Latariba). Wellcome Collection.

In addition to its inextricable links with the rise of industrial machinery, the transformation of cocoa into a global commodity cannot be separated from European colonialism and slavery. When chocolate became popular in Europe, conquistadors used encomiendia, a tributary system of communal slavery applied to conquered non-Christian populations, to guarantee their supplies. Encomienda differed from other forms of slavery in that colonial authorities demanded certain quantities of produce from subjugated communities without demanding who specifically would conduct this labour.

As other European powers realised the vastness of the potential markets for chocolate, they, too, began implementing forced labour regimes to ensure a steady supply of cocoa. It is in part for these reasons that chocolate production shifted from the Americas to West Africa, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Not only is the climate in these regions ideal for cocoa production, but these areas were under the control of British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese colonial authorities.

Slavery in the cocoa trade persisted long after the official abolition of slavery within the European colonies. In 1906, journalist Henry Nevinson wrote an exposé of the working conditions on São Tomé and Príncipe, a Portuguese colony nicknamed the “chocolate islands”. Nevinson concluded that the islands – which he nicknamed the “Islands of Doom” – were slave colonies. Colonial measures also helped keep most valuable aspects of the cocoa value chain within the hands of colonisers. Even in cases where African producers managed to own their cocoa plots, their access to cocoa processing remained limited due to high tariffs imposed on processed chocolate by colonial powers. As a result, many financially disadvantaged African producers were compelled to sell cacao beans as low-priced commodities.

Bartolomé de las Casas, “Brief relation of the destruction of the Indies,” Regionum Indicarum per Hispanos (Heidelbergar: typis Guilielmi VValteri acad, 1664). New-York Historical Society Library.

Allegations of slavery in the cocoa industry persist to this day. Indeed, combatting forced labour is one of the key activities of Beyond Beans and other cocoa sustainability foundations. Incidences of exploitation, forced labour, environmental damage, and other malfeasance will be the focus of a later post in this series.

Throughout the history of chocolate, one fact becomes especially apparent: chocolate is very lucrative. Chocolate has transformed from a beverage of the elites to a relatively cheap commodity accessible to almost anyone, but the wealth generated by cocoa has primarily remained in the hands of those who are able to control the complex ways in which it is transported from the point of production and processed into more valuable consumer products.

This network of profit is maintained through a complex web of knowledge, commerce, policy, technology, and transportation. In the next article in this series, we will examine the logistics of contemporary cocoa production and processing, considering how chocolate is transformed and transported from a colourful fruit in the tropics to the tasty treat we know today.  


Alimentarium Food Museum – A Nestlé Foundation (2021). The History of Chocolate [online] Alimentarium. Available here. [Accessed 24 Jul. 2023].

Calisher, CH (2007). Taxonomy: what’s in a name? Doesn’t a rose by any other name smell as sweet?. Croatian Medical Journal. 48 (2): 268–270.

Cocoa Runners. (2021). Not So Sweet: The Dark History of Chocolate & Slavery. [online] Cocoa Runners. Available here. [Accessed 25 Jul. 2023].

Food Empowerment Project (2022). Child labor and slavery in the chocolate industry. [online] Food Empowerment Project. Available here. [Accessed 25 Jul. 2023].

Grivetti, L.E., & Shapiro, H.Y., (eds.) (2009). Chocolate: History, Culture, & Heritage.

Leissle, Kristy. 2018. Cocoa. Cambridge: Polity Press. Miller, A., Brown, F. and

Ferretti, E. eds., (2017). CHOCOLATE: Food of the Gods. [online] Online exhibitions across Cornell University Library. Available here. [Accessed 24 Jul. 2023].

Nevinson, H. (1906). The slave-trade of to-day. Conclusion.–The islands of doom, by Henry Woodd Nevinson. [online] Harper’s Magazine. Available here. [Accessed 25 Jul. 2023]. This article was originally published in the February 1906 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Verna, R., (2013). The history and science of chocolate. The Malaysian Journal of Pathology. 35(2), pp., 111 – 121. Available here. [Accessed 24 Jul. 2023].

World Cocoa Foundation (2018). History of Cocoa | World Cocoa Foundation. [online] World Cocoa Foundation. Available here. [Accessed 24 Jul. 2023].

Cover image – Cacao tree from Sir Hans Sloane’s A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, Vol. 2, 1725, table 160

Exit mobile version