In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Chocolate

  • Introduction
  • Early Imprints
  • The Science of Chocolate in the Long 17th Century
  • Cacao Cultivation and Consumption in Colonial America
  • The Introduction of Chocolate to Early Modern Europe
  • Business and Industry from the 19th Century
  • Chocolate and Health
  • Biochemistry of Theobroma cacao L.

Atlantic History Chocolate
Adam Siegel, Axel Borg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0069


While the role of Theobroma cacao L. in the Atlantic economy has been overshadowed by other commodity crops such as coffee and tobacco, it has played as significant a role in the Atlantic economy as it did in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, when cacao seeds (beans) were used as currency, capital, and tribute, befitting their status as “food of the gods.” Cacao or chocolate has been a staple of Atlantic trade, as its postcolonial cultivation has expanded and extended along coastlines on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. For the sake of brevity, the term “chocolate” will be used here to refer to all derivatives and comestibles derived from the cacao bean, its pulp, or its pod, unless otherwise noted. Chocolate was carried to the Old World in the immediate post-contact era; its earliest mention in European sources is in accounts of Cortes and Diaz del Castillo. A number of European observers recorded Mesoamerican recipes for the frothy drink prepared from cacao and consumed by the Aztecs. Most European literature on chocolate in the 17th century is devoted to its healthful or medicinal properties. The expansion of cacao plantations by the Spanish and Portuguese and other colonial powers accompanied the increasing importance of chocolate as a trading commodity; this led to a sharp growth in consumption and a concomitant expansion in the material culture associated with chocolate. The Industrial Revolution allowed for the large-scale production of chocolate products (grinding, milling, emulsifying), which led to the rise of the great chocolate concerns still with us today (e.g., Cadbury, Hershey, Nestlé, etc.). Another great scientific revolution of the 19th century, in anthropology and archaeology, led to a rediscovery and reassessment of the role of chocolate in Mesoamerica (see Cacao Cultivation). In the 20th century, scholarship on chocolate has continued to focus on its origins and pre-Hispanic cultivation and use, both ritual and medicinal, as well as on the salubrious properties of chocolate. In the 21st century, the cultivation of cacao has expanded: while Central America and the Caribbean (Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Trinidad and Tobago) still generate annual yields in the tens of thousands of metric tons, South America (Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, the homeland of the plant) and West Africa (Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and São Tomé and Principe) produce the greatest amounts; Indonesia is the main producer in Asia (see Business and Industry from the 19th Century). This annotated bibliography highlights the most significant publications devoted to chocolate since Cortés.

Early Imprints

The earliest European publications devoted to cacao and chocolate were descriptive; the literature in European languages is found first, unsurprisingly, in Spain, and then spreads through western Europe. Several 16th-century publications offer chocolate “firsts”: Colombo 1521 (by the son of Christopher) is the earliest description of cacao, and Cortes 1522, a map prepared in Seville, is the first reference to chocolate in Europe. Benzoni 1565 offers the first image of the cacao plant for European audiences; Barrios 1609, published in Mexico, is the first European-language book on chocolate. Valverde Turices 1625 includes one of the first recipes for chocolate in Europe. Diaz del Castillo 1632 is our earliest account of ritual use of chocolate; Martyr de Angleria 1530 provides the earliest description of the cacao bean as a medium of exchange.

  • Barrios, Juan de. Libro en el cual se trata del chocolate, y que provecho haga, y se es bebida saludable ó no, y en particular de todas las cosas que lleva, y que receta conviene para cada persona, y como se conocerá cada uno de que complexión sea, para que pueda beber el Chocolate de suerte que no la haga mal. Mexico City: Fernando Balbi, 1609.

    The first book in a European language devoted to chocolate.

  • Benzoni, Girolamo. La Historia del Mondo Nvovo di M. Girolamo Benzoni, Milanese: Laquel tratta dell’Isole, & Mari nuouamente ritrouati, & delle nuoue Città da lui proprio vedute, per acqua & per terra in quattordeci anni: Con Priuilegio della Illustrissima Signoria di Venetia, Per anni XX. Venice: Fr. Rampazetto, 1565.

    Includes the earliest printed images of the cacao tree, as well as a description of its cultivation and preparation.

  • Colombo, Fernando. Historia del S. D. Fernando Colombo, nelle quali s’ha particolare e vera relatione della vita, & dei Fatti ch’egli fece dell’Indie occidentali dello Mondo Nuovo, hora posseduto dal S. re Cattolico, nuovamenta di lingua spagnuola tradotte nell’Italiana dal Sig. Alfonso Ulloa. Venice: Francesco de’Francheschi, Senese, 1521.

    The earliest description of Europeans’ first encounter with the cacao bean, 30 July 1502, Isla de Piños.

  • Cortes, Hernan. Carta . . . 30.10.1520. Seville, Spain: J. Cromberger, 1522.

    Contains the first print reference to chocolate in Europe.

  • Diaz del Castillo, Bernal. Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva-España. Escrita Por el Capitan Bernal Diaz del Castillo, vno de sus Conquistadores. Sacada a Lvz Por el P. M. Fr. Alonso Remon, Predicador y Coronista General del Orden de Nuestra Senora de la Merced Redempcion de Cautivos. Madrid: En la imprenta del Reyno, 1632.

    Contains the first account of Moctezuma being served chocolate.

  • Martyr de Angleria, Petrus. De Orbe novo Petri Martyris ab Anglera mediolanensis protonotario Caesaris Senatoris Decades VIII. Compluti Alcala apud Michaele d’Egina: Compluti, 1530.

    The earliest account of cacao bean as currency and delicacy.

  • Valverde Turices, Santiago de. Discurso de una bevida [aloxa], que aunque en las Indias aya fido antigua, en este lugar es mas nueva, como es el chocolate. Seville, Spain: J. Cabrera, 1625.

    One of the earliest European guides to medical uses of chocolate, including recipes for its preparation.

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