Chocolate: the Dark Side

F_006, 2/12/02, 11:47 am, 8C, 4824x7504 (656+81), 100%, Max Maps & Cha, 1/50 s, R92.2, G59.8, B74.5
Map of Africa, from My Europeana


As with most profitable, massed produced items, there is a darker underside of chocolate that is a stark contrast to how the fashionable, tasty treat is usually portrayed.

Criminal Acts by Chocolate

Many of the criminals remained faceless because chocolate was easily manipulated as to not be identified with the original owner, consequently there was no proof that it was stolen.

Although today cocoa is not considered to be of high value, as has been seen, it was once to be almost the value of gold or silver (Grivetti, 243).  It was because of this fact, and that it was very hard to track the ownership of natural chocolate, that the cacao beans and chocolate products became the targets and means of many crimes (Grivetti, 243). Fraudulence in the cocoa industry extends all the way back to the Aztecs.  Since cacao beans were used as currency, some Aztecs would counterfeit seeds by breaking avocado pits and shaping them to look like the beans (Coe, 99).  In the colonial era into the early modern period, merchants would add animal, vegetal, and mineral adulterants into their cocoa products (Grivetti, 625).  Animal adulterants were often suet, lard, and tallow, to be a cheaper alternative to cocoa butter (Grivetti, 626).  Vegetal adulterants included starches to increases chocolate’s mass, and other whole nuts, oils, and seeds to decrease the overall cost of production (Grivetti, 628). The mineral adulterants were used as coloring agents (Grivetti, 629).  However, an article in Peterson’s Magazine in 1891 claimed adulteration to chocolate could be divided into two main categories (Grivetti, 626):

  1. “Those which are simply fraudulent, but not necessarily injurious to health- the use of some cheap but wholesome ingredient with the pure article for the purpose of underselling and increasing profits.”
  2. “Those which are injurious to health- the use of drugs or chemicals for the purpose of changing the appearance or character of the pure article, as for instance, the admixture of potash, ammonia, and acids with cocoa to give the apparent smoothness and strength to imperfect and inferior preparations.”

Another form of fraud in the 18th century was the weighting of scales with lead pieces to increase the price of the chocolate sold (Grivetti, 257).  Chocolate was also used in extortion, smuggling and theft.  The Old Bailey Court Records show the history of chocolate crimes in England (Grivetti, 244).

Defendants Accused of the Following Crimes Number of Cases
Theft: simple grand larceny  63
 Theft: burglary 19
 Theft: receiving stolen goods 6
 Theft: shoplifting 3
 Theft:at specified place 3
 Theft: petty larceny 1
 Theft with violence: highway robbery 1
 Theft: not specified 9
 Breaking the peace: assault 2
Deception: forgery 1
Deception: not specified 1
Housebreaking: theft specified 1
Murder 1
Offence against the King: counterfeiting 1
Offence against the King: tax fraud 1

As can be seen, most criminal acts involving chocolate did not involve violence.  Although, there are a few accounts of chocolate’s use in murder or attempted murder.  Due to chocolate’s strong flavor and inherent bitterness, it was sometimes used to mask the taste of poison (Grivetti, 258).  Those included in attempted murder by chocolate are King Charles II in 1685, the Knights of Malta in 1750, Fredrick the Great in the 1790’s, and Napoleon Bonaparte (Grivetti, 258).  Napolean’s story was published in 1807, as it had the makings of a soap opera:

“Pauline Riottie, reportedly a former mistress of Bonaparte, became destitute, so she was hired to be a kitchen inspector at a monastery by a sympathetic priest.  One day Napoleon Bonaparte visited.  Pauline took it upon herself to prepare his chocolate beverage.  However, one of the cooks observed that she mixed with it something from her pocket, but without saying a word to her that indicated  suspicion, he warned Bonaparte. In a note delivered to a page, to be on his guard.  When the chamberlain carried in the chocolate, Napoleon ordered the person who had prepared it to be brought before him.  This being said Pauline, she fainted away, after having first drank the remaining contents of the chocolate pot.  Her convulsions soon indicated that she was poisoned, and notwithstanding the endeavors of Bonaparte’s physician, Corvisart, she expired within an hour, protesting that her crime was an act of revenge against Napoleon who had seduced her when young, under a promise of marriage, but who since his elevation, had not only neglected her to despair, by refusing an honest support for herself and child, sufficient to preserve her from the degradation of servitude. …The cook was, with the reward of a pension, made a member of the Legion of Honor, and it was given out by Corvisart that Pauline died insane” (Grivetti, 258-259).

Negligence was another form of crime, often involved in chocolate’s medicinal use (Grivetti, 259).  However, the biggest negligence in chocolate’s history involves slavery.

Slavery in the Production of Cacao

This picture represents the darkness that people often try to ignore, especially involving slavery.

The use of slaves on Caribbean sugar plantations was a common practice by the mid-16th century, but with the growth of chocolate’s popularity the demand for sugar and cacao also grew (Off, 37).  In response to the demand and the shortage of indigenous people because of mass death, hundreds of thousands of Africans were taken to Spanish American cocoa plantations (Off, 37).    Coerced labor in the Caribbean Basin and Brazil reached its greatest influence in the late 18th century (Smith, 197).  This forced labor lasted a very long time, despite significant drawbacks.  Besides being morally wrong, slavery needed a lot of capital up front to pay for slaves, substantial costs were lost when slaves died or fled, and there were times of great inefficiency when there was low morale or resistance (Smith, 195).  The draw, therefore, of coerced labor was it’s availability (Smith, 195).  The use of slaves continued to rise until the French Revolution where the French banned slavery, followed by the Dutch, then British (Smith, 202).

Cocoa was mainly produced by free labors by the 19th century due to labor reforms, although there were still pockets of unfree labor that persisted, particularly in Africa (Smith, 195).  The use of forced labor in cacao plantations existed in Spanish America, Venezuela, and Portugal.  Spanish American had used indigenous slavery until disease killed much of the workforce, so they began to use black slaves, and Venezuelans were just as dependent (Smith, 196).  As Venezuela was the leading producer of cacao, slavery remained central to cocoa production, as even small planters used slaves (Smith, 197).  Cacao had been introduced to Venezuela by Spanish missionaries, and was an integral part of their society (Young, 25).  As such slavery was kept until 1852 (Smith, 205).

Slavery is very persistent in it’s involvement in chocolate’s production.  Slavery was still being used in Sao Tome into the 20th century, but was mostly ignored until the chocolate Cadbury firm was forced to recognize it (Satre, 21).  After William Cadbury made a trip to Portugal in 1903, the Office of Foreign affairs was worried that the conditions of labor on the islands would become public debate, which they hoped to prevent (Satre, 50).  However, thankfully, the British government decided to intervene, and because Portugal’s dependence on England, the slavery began to come to an end (Higgs, 10).

Forms of child slavery in the cocoa production still exists today despite all of the reforms, but there are many who are still trying to bring an end to such heinous acts:

  1. Child Slave Labor in Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa.
  2. Campaign to end child slavery on the Ivory Coast.
  3. The University of California is trying to stop Chocolate Slavery.
  4. CNN Freedom Project

To go back to the home page.

Suggested readings:

  1. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
  2. Grivetti, Louis E., and Howard Shapiro. Chocolate History, Culture, and Heritage. Somerset: Wiley, 2011.
  3. Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012.
  4. Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: New Press, 2008.
  5. Satre, Lowell J. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2005
  6. Smith, W. G. Cocoa and Chocolate, 1765-1914. London: Routledge, 2003.