The Bloody History of Chocolate


A sweet treat with a not so sweet history

by Alexander Quebec

Chocolate is one of the worlds favorite treats. A billion dollar industry where a majority of the works harvesting it make less than a dollar a day, but hey, that’s capitalism right?

But wait, there’s more…

Where was chocolate discovered?

While today, a majority of it is grown in West Africa in questionable conditions (more on that later), chocolate actually came from the other side of the Atlantic in Central America. Until the arrival of the Europeans, no one aside from the Mesoamericans in Central America had a clue that chocolate was even a thing on the other side of the world. 

While we’re not exactly sure who was the first to actually use chocolate, we can most certainly say that it was nothing like the chocolate you enjoy today. The Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs were known to use it for religious ceremonies, however, the Mayans took it one step further and used it for special occasions like weddings, or as currency for everyday goods like turkeys (10 beans), slaves (100 beans), or hookers (8 to 10 beans, left on the nightstand *wink wink*). Their version of the chocolate drink used roasted cacao bean paste mixed with chili peppers, cornmeal, and was transferred between two vessels until a nice froth appeared on the top.

Mayan artwork depicting cacao beans

The Aztecs, unfortunately for them, did not grow their own and had to import their beans. However, being that the Aztecs were pretty tough in their dealings with their subject peoples, the beans were offered to them as a tribute. The beans were also used as currency for everyday goods and, unlike the Mayans, were drunk cold.

The Europeans first instance of finding out about chocolate came around the 4th Voyage of Christopher Columbus (a.k.a his Farewell Tour as he was later put out of commission by illness, arrest, and death on his return to Spain).

This was only the beginning for the end of the Aztecs and Maya (the Olmecs were long gone by the time the Europeans crashed the party).

The year 1519 was the end for the Aztecs. Hernan Cortez arrived from Hispaniola (modern-day Cuba) against the orders of his boss. Seeking God, glory, and most importantly, gold, Cortez arrived in newly “discovered” Mexico, set up shop in what is now Yucatán, and made his way around Yucatán and central México, conquering tribes and subjugating the natives along the way. Eventually, he made his way to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, where he was welcomed warmly as the Aztecs thought he was the God Quetzalcoatl manifested in human form. Cortez took Moctezuma hostage and demanded a ransom in the form of gold, then he and his men took the gold and killed everyone anyway. 

The final death toll is estimated to be at 100,000 indigenous people. Now, if the conquest didn’t kill them, the disease the Europeans brought with them did. Without the immunity required to survive diseases brought over to the New World from Europe, tens of thousands of indigenous peoples met their end via smallpox. Today, however, smallpox is one of two diseases that have been officially eradicated off of the face of the Earth due to intense inoculation efforts made by the World Health Organization.

“Bro, mom told us not to open the door for strangers”

Either as a reward or punishment, depending on how you view it (Cortez had a warrant for his arrest on the charge of insubordination) the king of Spain made him the first Governor of New Spain (now known as México). At first, things were looking up for the young, ambitious Spaniard. Cortez might have had the last laugh, but after a series of rebellions against him, as well as internal intrigue back home in Spain, he was eventually stripped of his title and spent the last years of his life trying to get some recognition for his conquest of New Spain (a.k.a México), dying without so much as an acknowledgment from the royal court.  

Meanwhile, in Yucatán, Pedro De Alvarado was finishing up his conquest of Central America, bringing the Maya city-states under his control. Once that part was over, he became a local governor before dying honorably in battle against a horde of aggressive and rebellious natives…

…Just kidding, he died in a freak accident by a spooked horse. No, I know you’re thinking of a Catherine the Great kind of situation (that never actually happened either, but let’s go with it), the horse was just spooked and trampled him to death. 

Final Death Toll: 90% of the Mayans and 50% (3 million) of the Aztec Populations died by smallpox


What about today?

Inside of a cacao bean pod. World Cacao Foundation

A different kind of human abuse happens in chocolate harvesting: child labor. 
Two-thirds of the world’s chocolate comes from West Africa, and it’s estimated that over 2 million of the laborers harvesting that chocolate are children (anyone under the age of 18). The world’s largest manufacturers of chocolate: Hershey, Nestle, and Mars, have made attempts to eradicate child labor from their supply chains, but have repeatedly missed their target dates each time. It’s not that they would hire child laborers themselves, but rather that its very difficult for them to source where the cacao beans come from, which could potentially include farms where child labor was used.

So, where do these kids come from? Like all developing world problems, Most of them end up at the farms due to poverty at home, lured with promises of money and gifts from potential employers, which many never receive. They are either sent by their parents or are taken by bus to the farms that grow the cacao beans to harvest them for under a dollar a day.

If that wasn’t enough, cacao farming does cause quite a bit of Deforestation in West Africa. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, about 70% of illegal cacao farming (It’s illegal, don’t ask me how). If you have a basic understanding of Environmental Science, you would know that forests help prevent soil erosion, which is bad since it prevents runoff and sediment from running into the water supply and generally messing things up for the anything that lives there.

So there’s that stuff too

Well, now that you know the bloody history of Chocolate….enjoy!

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