We know it’s sweet, unctuous and addictive, but there’s more to chocolate than meets the eye. Julia Nurse explores the transformation from cacao bean to confectionery, which was only possible with the help of the knowledge of enslaved people on New World plantations where the cacao tree was grown.
The cacao bean was harvested and used across Mesoamerica for centuries. By the 15th century the beans functioned as currency throughout the region, testament to their spiritual value. To the Aztecs, cacahuatl, from which the term ‘chocolate’ originates, was deemed “similar in nature to blood”. It was a life-giving force with medicinal benefits. Reddened with the spice achiote, cacao was prescribed for haemorrhages, shared during elite marriage ceremonies, and offered in sacrifice to “thirsty, sensuous deities”.
The cacao bean is derived from the cacao-tree fruit pod. When dried and roasted, these transform into cocoa beans. In the 16th century the Aztecs created a frothy, cool, liquid version spiced with “ear flower” and chilli by pouring the liquidised version of cacao from a great height, as seen in the Codex Tudela.
Christopher Columbus was the first European to encounter the cacao bean. On his fourth mission to the Americas in 1502, he stole a large canoe full of the beans from Indigenous people. Cacao’s value was not obvious to all colonisers, though. Allegedly, British pirates mistakenly burned a shipload of the beans they discovered in 1579 when they were thought to be sheep droppings!
The Spanish used the name ‘cacao’, for the plant, which morphed into ‘cocoa’ and ‘chocolate’. Linnaeus referenced the original spiritual significance when he adopted the name ‘Theobroma’ for cocoa, meaning “food of the gods”.
Chocolate was viewed as very much ungodly by some European colonisers. In 1648, Thomas Gage told a much-repeated story of Creole women who were so fond of their chocolate that they insisted on drinking it during church services in Chiapas (in what is now Mexico). The women were promptly excommunicated. When the bishop fell dangerously ill soon after, he was administered a supposedly medicinal dose of chocolate. Rumour abounded that the chocolate had been poisoned and to “beware of the chocolatte of the Chiapa”.
The Portuguese became aware of a disease that affects the cocoa tree, which they called lagartão due to the lizard-like shape of the brooms hanging on infected trees. These were commonly known as “witches’ broom”. Cocoa was reported in Europe at a time when suspicions around anything unnatural was deemed diabolical, the work of witches. The original sacrificial uses of chocolate by elite Mesoamericans were viewed with suspicion – the achiote colouring would turn the lips and mouths of native Americans red, as though they had been drinking blood.
Colonisers saw potential value in cocoa despite their suspicions, though. To establish authority over Indigenous peoples, Spanish colonists sought to understand Mesoamerican culture. They relied upon native people’s knowledge to cultivate the cocoa tree to ensure the product was going to reap rewards. They did so by generating discourse with Indigenous communities, while also enslaving them to help establish cocoa plantations.
Cocoa did not become widely accepted in Europe until Spanish friars introduced it to the Spanish court during the 17th century. According to a drawing in Lady Ann Fanshawe’s 17th-century recipe book, the Spanish used small whisks known as molinillos to froth up the liquid and added spices like cinnamon, anise seed and black pepper. We know this method and recipe derived from those used in the Americas, according to an inscription next to this sketch, which reads: “the same chocolaty pottes that are mayd in the Indes”.
Spanish-style chocolate was not to the British taste. Fanshawe’s recipe for “To dresse Chocolatte” is crossed out. In another contemporary recipe published by Hannah Woolley in ‘The Queen-Like Closet’ in 1670, ‘To make Chaculato’, the following were added: claret wine from France, sugar from the Caribbean and British eggs. Chocolate in the 17th century was a cross-cultural symbol of empire and colonialism.
As with many foods, chocolate was considered to have health-giving properties. Mesoamericans considered chocolate to be ‘cold’ in terms of bodily balances. Likely influenced by this, in European humoral terms, chocolate was also classified as a ‘cold’ plant even though its strong odour and bitter taste would normally be regarded as ‘hot’. The Spanish got around this discrepancy by heating it up. An English physician in Jamaica, Henry Stubbe, author of the 1662 ‘The Indian nectar, or A discourse concerning chocolata’ was particularly taken with the fattiness of the cacao nut, and its heat-producing qualities, but he discovered that when drunk cold, cocoa offended his stomach.
Many works praised the medicinal virtues of chocolate during the early modern period. The oil of chocolate was credited as “a most natural pomatum for ladies to clear and plump the skin”. People believed that it helped with gout or rheumatic pain, cured piles, made a “wonderful plaister” and even “kept arms from rusting”, according to D de Quélus in his ‘Natural History of Chocolate’ published in 1775.
Physicians also recommended it for consumption (what we would call tuberculosis today). Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum, even had a trade card promoting milk chocolate, because it was believed to be light on the stomach.
In this leaflet from the 1870s by Taylor Brothers, cocoa is advertised as being homoeopathic and dietetic: “soothing to the nervous system... restorative, invigorating and sustaining, refreshing, sanative and antiseptic” and ideal for “invalids and convalescents”. Reference to the slavery origins of this plant is downplayed in this romanticised vignette of the plantation in Trinidad.
Chocolate became popular for its flavour, not just as a health product, and European merchants in capitalist systems ensured that the cocoa bean brought them riches far beyond those of the Mesoamerican elites who had used the cocoa bean as currency. In Spain, dedicated chocolate rooms were set up to impress guests among the nobility, elevating the ingredient. In London, chocolate houses were exclusive emporia, which gained reputations for privilege and notoriety.
It was not long before chocolate reached a wider audience. By the late 17th century in Madrid, chocolate was widely available to buy from street sellers. This continued into the 19th century, as shown in this lithograph from 1827 showing a woman vendor among a crowd of people.
Chocolate also reached the working classes in Britain. In 1878 a committee was set up in Nantwich to consider the establishment of a cocoa house or rooms as “an alternative to the beerhouse” as part of the temperance movement. The Three Cups Cocoa House was opened to cater for the working classes.
Increasing numbers of cocoa producers appeared on the market in the early 20th century. Tea producers like the Mazawattee Tea Company jumped on the chocolate bandwagon to produce their own version of cocoa around 1910. The name Mazawattee is “an exotic blend of the Hindi word ‘Maza’ meaning pleasure and the Sinhalese word ‘Wattee’ meaning garden to describe the lush growing tea plantations”. Mazawattee signs were soon visible on nearly every railway platform and buses across England. By adding cocoa to their brand, the company extended the symbolism of empire. In their promotional image for the product, Britannia welcomes a young woman in a small sailing boat packed with numerous barrels of cocoa.
Cocoa production remains an important part of the economy in South America today, but pathogens threaten the survival of the cocoa tree, particularly in Brazil. Initiatives are forging community projects in other regions where cocoa is produced. Ghana is now one of the largest producers of cocoa. The Cocoa & Forests Initiative provides communities with seedlings to plant a diversity of shade-tolerant cocoa-tree species, and training on how to care for them. With demand for chocolate not abating, cocoa production remains important, not just for the chocaholic, but also the environment and the people dependent on its production.
About the author
Julia is a collections research specialist at Wellcome Collection with a background in Art History and Museum Studies. She currently runs the Exploring Research programme, and has a particular interest in the medieval and early modern periods, especially the interaction of medicine, science and art within print culture.