Chocolate fortunes brewed on slavery

A worker at a cocoa co-operative for wholesale export sorts cocoa beans in Moussadougou, a village in San-Pedro, on the southern coast of Ivory Coast. PHOTO | AFP

Over the last five weeks, we have been looking at a series of commodities that can be said to have contributed immensely to the wealth of European conquistador nations who charted, conquered and colonised the New World.

By harnessing two factors of production, land and labour for free or at very little cost, adding value up the ladder on the supply side of each commodity and ultimately determining the price of the finished product, the entrepreneurs earned phenomenal profits while contributing handsome revenues to their respective exchequers in taxation. This week we look at cocoa in the final part of the series.

“Cocoa is the single healthiest food in the world. It smokes all the other superfoods,” said Chris Kilham of The Dr Oz Show.

About 3000BC verdant forests and running rivers made up the landscapes of the territory known as Amazonia, and forest covered much of the corridor of land we today call Central America. It is in this vibrantly alive landscape that wild cacao flourished.

Wild varieties of cacao, with their fruit pods clustered on forest trees, provided food for birds and animals.

According to archaeologists, either the ancient Olmec or the Maya whose civilisation flourished from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Pacific coast of Guatemala are believed to have cultivated the cacao tree for the first time around 1000BC.

The hot and humid climate there was ideal for cultivating the sensitive cacao tree.

The Mayans, who settled in the region a few centuries after the disappearance of the Olmecs, used cacao to prepare a bitter and highly spiced drink. This beverage was drunk and offered as a sacrifice in sacred rituals by their kings, priests and noblemen.

The Mayan civilisation also came to a mysterious end and was eventually replaced by the Aztecs around 1300AD. This bitter, spicy drink was a source of wisdom, energy, an aphrodisiac and balsam for the Aztecs. It was also offered to the gods as a sacrifice and served as a currency at the time.

The first European to come into contact with cocoa was Christopher Columbus in 1502 on his fourth voyage to the New World when he tasted it and found it too bitter and spicy. Several years later in 1528, the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortèz brought this brown gold and the recipe for this exotic drink to Spain.

In Cortèz, cocoa found the perfect advocate. His account of cocoa, its popularity and value, greatly piqued the interest of the Spanish. Cortèz also grasped the value of cocoa for military purposes, noting that “One beaker keeps a soldier fresh for the whole day.”

The Spaniards added sugar and other ingredients to this unique energising drink, which they now called chocolate, and it soon came to be considered a fashionable delicacy which was enjoyed in the Spanish court for almost a century.

Cocoa, as with coffee previously, received papal approval in 1591, when Pope Gregory XIII declared that drinking cocoa during Lent did not break the fast.

And so, it was, Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with a bowl of cocoa going on ahead!

In 1615, the drink was first tasted in France when the Spanish Princess Anna married King Louis XII, and from there spread to other royal courts and nobility in Europe.

Until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the consumption of chocolate, still in the form of a hot drink, was the preserve of the wealthy.

Realising the great commercial value of cocoa, the Spanish established cocoa plantations in their colonies. Great fortune lay in pleasure then as, indeed, it does today.

Though Mexico was the original source of commercial cocoa, Spanish explorers discovered vast forests of wild forastero cacao in the Guayaquil coast of southern Ecuador.

By clearing other vegetation from cacao trees, the Spanish gained a fast and easy source of commercial cocoa, made even cheaper by the use of African slave labour. And so, it came to pass that cocoa beans from Mesoamerica and South America made their way by various means to an increasingly chocolate-hungry Europe.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the scenic West Indies became home to sprawling cocoa plantations. Martinique, Guadalupe, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Trinidad were important suppliers of cocoa beans.

In the 1700s various mechanical inventions changed the fundamentals of the cocoa industry.

Formerly labour intensive processes performed by hand were mechanised and became a matter of mass production, considerably lowering costs and eventually cocoa prices to the consumer.

Thus, cocoa became affordable to ordinary people in homes and the many cocoa emporiums which were opened throughout Europe. The situation was soon replicated in the Americas.

exotic flavour

In 1819, Francois-Louis Cailler built the first Swiss chocolate factory, in Vevey. The Swiss would further enhance chocolate fortunes with innovation.

Even as chocolate was stimulating innovation and industry in Europe, new cocoa plantations were springing up in tropical locations such as Sao Tomè, Gold Coast (Ghana), Nigeria, Ivory Coast (Côte Ivoire), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Java and Sumatra, New Guinea, New Hebrides, Samoa and the Philippines.

Today cocoa is consumed widely throughout Europe and the Americas and to a lesser extent in the rest of the world. Cocoa, the food of the gods and electuary of lovers, has captivated humanity with its exotic flavour and sensuous mouth feel!

What do we learn from this history of commodities?

We need to protect our primary resources with vertical integration by innovation to add value on the supply side to prevent others from taking the cream of the profits.

We are in the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.

Kenya has proven time and again that we are world class in the realm of information technology as demonstrated in the transformative money transfer platform M-Pesa and other ground-breaking innovations in the digital industry.

We need to harness these resources to create new wealth for our nation. We cannot change history but we can shape our future.

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