Hernán Cortés can take the credit for successfully taking cocoa to Europe. He could see its importance as a cash crop, for in Mexico the cocoa bean had a monetary value, and was used in the place of small coins. Cortés had been searching for the gold of El Dorado, but he quickly realized that cocoa was a renewable source of ‘money’. He took the beans and planted them in Haiti, Trinidad and, it is believed, on the island of São Tomé, from there they were taken to the Ivory Coast, where much of the world’s ‘bulk’ cocoa is grown. It was Cortés, too, who adapted the Aztec recipe for preparing chocolate gruel, so that the cold, fatty and spicy drink, which some chroniclers called ‘a wash fitter for hogs’, became a hot drink, with the addition of sugar, vanilla and cinnamon, that appealed so much to the European palate.
From its introduction to the royal court in Spain in the sixteenth century, cocoa remained a closely guarded secret for about a hundred years. Then through a series of strategic royal marriages made to secure the future of the Holy Roman Empire (later to become the Austro-Hungarian Empire), the taking of chocolate spread through the palaces of Europe. At first chocolate was drunk only in the privacy of the bedchamber, at breakfast time. Some critics were alarmed at the power of this beverage, which was said to be intoxicating. It was, in fact, the first alkaloid to be introduced into Europe, before tea and coffee.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it remained the preserve of royalty and the aristocracy, as it was a highly taxed commodity. At this time cocoa was sold under special licence by royal apothecaries, who regarded it more as a medicine than a foodstuff. Cocoa has always been a precious commodity so, quite naturally, whenever there is money to be made, there will be a fraudster trying to make a fast buck, and cocoa is no exception to this rule. There are accounts of Aztec cocoa beans being hollowed out and filled with earth, then passed off as counterfeit money. In Europe, brick dust was commonly found in the cocoa being sold by the less scrupulous merchants, and today the practice of adulteration continues in more insidious ways.
Cocoa was also an important commodity in the slave triangle. Ships would set sail from Liverpool and Bristol, laden with ironmongery and textiles produced by the mills of the Industrial Revolution, and exchange them with West African chiefs for a cargo of slaves. This human cargo was transported to the West Indies, where the slaves were used to labour on sugar and cocoa plantations. A cargo of tropical hardwood, like mahogany, or sugar, rum and cocoa was loaded on to the ships for the last leg of the trip back. There is an early account of pirates who, having seized a ship, jettisoned its cargo of cocoa beans believing them to be sheep droppings.
It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century (1852 in England) that taxation was slashed from 10 per cent (two out of the 20 shillings in every pound sterling) to one penny per pound in weight of cocoa. It was also around this time that the revolution in the manufacture of cocoa came about. The Dutchman Van Houten patented the cocoa press and the process of alkalizing cocoa, both of which removed the excess fatty components of cocoa, making it much more readily soluble as a drink. Then came the Swiss Rudolf Lindt, who invented the conch and ‘eating chocolate’ as we know it today. At this stage, the current big boys came on the scene: the Cadburys, the Frys and the Rowntrees in England, Nestle in Switzerland, Hershey and Bakers in the USA, following in the footsteps of Van Houten and Lindt. Many early industrial producers of chocolate were Quakers and, being barred from the professions they might have followed, they became industrialists. The Cadburys and Milton Hershey built model villages for their workforces, educated their children and provided health care and near-Utopian conditions for the time. Chocolate was also heralded as a pure and healthy alternative to the dreaded gin, which had ruined the lives of so many working people before them. Chocolate was even marketed as ‘flesh forming’ which, at the time, was as powerful a marketing tool as ‘low-fat’ is today.
© 2003 Chantal Coady. All rights reserved.