How did chocolate spread around the world?

By Cocoa Runners  ·  15th January 2021  ·  The World of Chocolate

Today, chocolate is everywhere. From North and South America, to Europe, Africa and Asia, all the way to Australasia, chocolate is consumed and/or produced in vast quantities. But that wasn’t always the case. Less than 500 years ago, it was confined to just one small corner of the globe. So how did chocolate spread around the world?

Origins: Northwest Amazon

Theobroma Cacao, aka the Cocoa tree, appears to have originated in the Amazonian jungles of what is now Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and northern Brazil about 10-15 centuries BCE.  And the first evidence we have of cocoa being consumed is somewhere around 3,500 BCE in modern-day Ecuador (for more on this, please come to a Virtual Tasting).

Somehow or other, cocoa was transported to modern-day Mexico, where it became central to the Mayan civilisation. It appears to have spread gradually throughout both the Aztec and Mayan empires, but how it was spread (i.e. as seeds, seedlings or cuttings) is not known.

Indeed, the mechanics of how cocoa seeds and cuttings were spread around South America and thence to South East Asia and finally to West Africa are not well established.  There is some evidence that for some of the chocolate spread around the world, devices similar to the “Wardian Box” were crucial to cocoa seedlings surviving long sea journeys.

Chocolate Production forced to Spread

As Spanish and Portuguese aristocrats became more and more enamoured with drinking chocolate, cocoa supply couldn’t keep up. This was partly because demand was just too high, but things were made harder because of the devastation and deaths of the indigenous Amazonian tribes (by some estimates, over 80% of these tribes were destroyed). 

Entrepreneurial farmers, traders and landowners, including religious orders like the Jesuits and Dominicans, started to explore new locations to grow cocoa – and started to open “plantations” everywhere from Venezuela to southern Brazil in the early 1700s. 

Soon after, the Spanish started to look further afield – all the way to the Philippines in the 1660s, and then onto Indonesia, Sri Lanka and beyond.  Finally, other colonial powers such as the British and the French saw local demand for drinking chocolate and started to plant cocoa in their colonies in the Caribbean (such as Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago and Grenada).

Slavery: Colonial Times and Modern Day

In almost all of these cases of cocoa expansion, it was grown as a key part of the slave trade. The expansion of cocoa farming went hand in fist with the expansion of slavery.

During the 19th century, as the Portuguese lost control of their Brazilian colonies, they realised the urgent need to grow cocoa in other colonies, starting with Principe and then spreading to Sao Tome in West Africa.  Again, these plantations were worked by slaves.

In the early 20th century, campaigns were successfully led (in particular by women suffragettes and suffragists) to boycott slave labour-grown cocoa in Sao Tome.  It worked, and forced major chocolate companies to move their chocolate sourcing to mainland West Africa, in particular to Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire, where cocoa farmers still struggle to this day.

Again, if you join one of our Virtual Tastings we’ll explore this more – and explain how sadly the plight of many of the farmers in these countries remains dire (the average income for a cocoa farmer is still less than $1 per day – whereas $2.50/3.00 is a minimum basic income).

Robert Fortune and the Wardian Case

One of the most fascinating aspects in the story of how tea was exported (aka smuggled) out of China to India in the late 19th century by Robert Fortune using “Wardian Cases”.  These cases – basically self-contained mini greenhouses – were crucial to transplanting tea bushes from China to the northern Himalayas. 

During his first attempt to “export” the tea plant from China in 1848, the Wardian cases were unfortunately opened and not resealed when they landed in India, which ruined the first set of specimens. However, from his second trip Fortune successfully sent over 13,000 cuttings and seedlings in Wardian cases to his employer, the East India Company.

And in 1858 he repeated the same trick to “export” Chinese Tea plants to the US, just before the start of the US Civil War.

Wardian cases were also used in the 1860s to smuggle the Chinona plant out of South America to India – and thereby enabled the extraction of quinine, the alkaloid that kills malaria parasites (and reputedly the origin of Gin and Tonics).  Again, the same approach and Wardian cases were used to break Brazil’s stranglehold on rubber production when in the 1870s they were used to “export” rubber seedlings from Brazil to London and Sri Lanka.

So how did chocolate spread?

Exactly how cocoa seeds and seedlings spread is not as clear. Clearly the Olmecs in Mexico didn’t have access to Wardian cases – but somehow chocolate spread from the Amazonian jungles up to Mexico.

We have some evidence of the wooden boxes being used to transport cocoa seedlings from the late 18th century (see image below for some pointers, courtesy of Howard Shapiro’s research in the archives of Colonial Spain in Madrid).  And there are some records of similar approaches being used to create cocoa plantations in the Philippines and South East Asia in the late 17th century.

An image of boxes used to transport cocoa plants around the world
Source: Wiley, Howard Shapiro

What is clear is that cocoa could be transported, grafted, and established relatively easily.  And this makes sorting out the history of cocoa’s spread even harder.  The role of Robert Fortune and the Wardian cases is clear for tea, because it was such an ordeal to steal the plant from China. But cocoa was so widespread, and so much easier to transport, that cocoa’s heroes (or villains, depending on your point of view) have been lost to history.

Even understanding who established cocoa (and how) on the West African mainland is unclear.  The traditional story for Ghana is that in 1870, Tetteh Quarshie, a Ghanain blacksmith, smuggled some cocoa beans from Fernando Po (an island close to Sao Tome and Principe).  For this act, he is now the face on the Ghanian Cedi-Bill.

But other claims can also be made, by the Basel Mission in the 1850s and 1860s, for example.  And then also Sir William Griffith (Governor of the Gold Coast) planted a separate set of cocoa trees in the 1880s in the Aburi Botanical Gardens, which were then distributed to local farmers who rapidly started to plant cocoa seeds.  And so after the Cadbury court case and boycott of Sao Tome chocolate in the early 1900s, Ghana was poised to become a chocolate growing powerhouse.

Overall, our lack of understanding here is a poignant reminder that despite chocolate being a widespread inexpensive luxury and treat, we don’t really think enough about its costs and its history.

Further Reading

On Wardian Cases: