Last Wednesday I listened to a talk on the radio, urging people to buy only Fairtrade chocolates this Easter. Given that Easter eggs have been littering my local supermarket since about a week after Christmas, it’s really too late to influence consumers at this stage, but it wouldn’t be Easter without a news story about Fairtrade chocolate – or, for that matter, the rise and rise of the Easter Bilby as a replacement for the Easter Bunny.
Most cocoa today is grown in West Africa, about 50 percent in the Ivory Coast, also in the news at present for all the wrong reasons. Much of it is grown using child labour, often children who have been bought and sold as slaves. It puts a new perspective on eating chocolate as part of an Easter celebration.
It is ironic, and very sad, that some chocolate today is produced using slave labour, because the rise of some of the great chocolate companies in the 19th century was closely linked to the anti-slavery movement.
Theobroma cacao (literally ‘food of the gods’) comes from Central America, where it played an important part in Aztec ritual. Cacao beans were used as currency, a form of money that really did grow on the trees. Making chocolate was hard work, and time consuming – and women’s work. The beans had to be crushed, fermented, and eventually converted into a bitter brown liquid with a much-prized froth on top. The Jesuit missionary, José de Acosta, described it:
‘Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant taste. Yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians, where with they feast noble men who pass through their country. The Spaniards, both men and women that are accustomed to the country are very greedy of this Chocolate. They say they make diverse sorts of it, some hot, some cold, and some temperate, and put therein much of that “chili”; yea, they make paste thereof, the which they say is good for the stomach and against the catarrh.’
Flavoured with flowers and herbs, and often stained red with annatto, the drink represented blood. When the Spaniards arrived, they had their own stimulant and social lubricant, alcohol, which in the form of the red wine of the Eucharist also represented blood. These two ritual drinks collided in odd ways.
The Catholic Church had problems with chocolate at first. Because it was used in pagan ceremonies, should it be banned? And as it became too popular to be banned, should it be treated as a feast food (like meat) and avoided during Lent and other fasting periods? This is the link that led, eventually, to our connection between Easter and chocolate – though few now fast during the previous 40 days.
Three bitter brown drinks, tea, coffee, and chocolate, arrived in Europe at much the same time, in the early 17th century. They were all too bitter for contemporary European tastes, so they were mixed with sugar. Demand for sugar rose along with the taste for hot drinks, and this led to the growth of sugar plantations, first in the Atlantic, then in the West Indies, worked by African slaves.
Like cocoa production today, the sugar plantations were a long way from their consumers, so few people – then as now – thought very hard about the conditions in which their sugar was grown. By the late 18th century though, an anti-slavery movement began. In England a group of Quakers presented a petition to Parliament calling for the abolition of the slave trade in 1783.
Which is where chocolate comes in.
Sugar cane is a grass, grown as an annual. Planting and cutting the cane is hard work. Then the cane is crushed, and the liquid boiled to syrup. During the crushing season, the vats must be fed and tended 24 hours a day – and the workers who fed them were treated as part of this industrial process.
Cacao, on the other hand, is a perennial crop. The trees are planted and tended; the beans are then picked and fermented, a complex process requiring brain rather than brawn. In the West Indies, freed slaves produced most of the cocoa, working in family groups to produce a cash crop while also involved in subsistence agriculture.
Chocolate therefore seemed a better, more morally acceptable item of trade, and a number of Quaker families shifted away from sugar into chocolate production. Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree are still important names in chocolates, and all of them were originally Quaker family firms. Some were also connected to the temperance movement, and cocoa was seen as a particularly healthy and virtuous alternative to alcohol. Ideally, this cocoa would been sweetened with non-slave sugar, the 19th century equivalent of Fairtrade, though frankly, this was not always the case.
Eventually most cocoa production moved from the West Indies to West Africa. Trees take 5 years or more to produce their first crop, so new plantings need capital. The old system of freed slaves and their descendants planting a few trees to supplement their income gave way to commercial production methods, with all their problems.
Britain ended participation in the African slave trade in 1807, though it was only in 1833 that all slaves in British colonies were freed (with very generous compensation to the West Indian slave owners). But slavery is a hard beast to kill. In the early 20th century, Cadburys sourced most of its cacao beans from the Portuguese colony of São Tomé, where the beans were grown by slaves.
The debate that followed this discovery was very similar to the one today – is it better to boycott producers who use slaves, or to trade, in the hope that better economic conditions will help the workers? One problem is that chocolate is, for most of us, a discretionary purchase. Profits for the producers are low, and very erratic. Speculators trade in cocoa futures – but the future of the people who grow the crop is less certain.
But José de Acosta was right: chocolate is good for catarrh. I’ve got a chronic cough, and a piece of dark chocolate works wonders. The active ingredient, theobromine, is better than codeine a stopping a cough – and much more pleasant.
Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (2008)
Gillian Wagner, The Chocolate Conscience (1987)