Chocolate’s Dark Secret: Valentine’s Day and the Abstraction of Love

By Chris Magra

Valentine’s Day has a long history that dates back to antiquity, but no one celebrates the ancient Roman festival of the Lupercalia, or the secret marriages that took place under Emperor Claudius over 1,000 years ago. People put less of an emphasis on the history of the holiday and focus instead on the celebration of more personal forms of love.  The amorous often accomplish this by buying heart-shaped boxes filled with chocolates for those near and dear to their hearts. And when they do, they think not about the historical connections between sugar and slavery, or about the fact that deep ties between chocolate and enslaved people persist today.  We buy chocolate; eat chocolate; drink chocolate; and give chocolate away as gifts.  We do not pause to consider who produced that chocolate and under what conditions. People consume a lot of chocolate around February 14. 86% of Americans buy at least some of the sweet confection around this time of the year.[1]  Stores sell more than 58 million pounds of chocolate in the United States in the week leading up to the holiday.  According to one estimate, these sales bring in $448 million,[2] and 22% of these transactions occur between the hours of 8 PM and midnight.[3]  The fact that we know this evidences how big of a business Valentine’s Day is, which also helps us understand why the legacy of chattel slavery is often hidden. 

Most of us aren’t familiar with the history of chocolate.  While many historians have studied sugar’s bittersweet past, scholars have written much less about this particular confection.  As a result, a substantial number of people understand that Europeans gained a taste preference for foods and drinks sweetened with sugar over the course of the seventeenth century.  Sugar production in the Portuguese colony of Brazil and among various European colonies on Caribbean islands supported the growth of large plantations. Enslavers experimented with indigenous slavery, enslaved Africans, and then created transoceanic networks to export this sweetener.  Yet, the origins of chocolate are less widely understood than the sugar revolution.  Mayan people in Mesoamerica domesticated cacao trees around 250 CE.  The Mayans used chocolate in recipes, religious ceremonies, commercial exchanges, and as forms of political tribute.  Between 1200 CE and 1500 CE, the Aztecs expanded the Mayan trading networks and chocolate quickly flowed through the Aztecs’ vast trade empire all the way to their capital city, Tenochtitlan (today Mexico City).  Hernán Cortés then conquered Tenochtitlan in 1521.  This conquest made Cortés very wealthy, and it gave Spain a monopoly on supplies of cocoa beans and chocolate from Aztec and Maya lands for the rest of the sixteenth century.  

Spanish missionaries and settlers changed the fate of chocolate consumption by converting indigenous tribute systems into a market-oriented mode of production.  They moved thriving shaded sacred cacao groves into sunny fields to increase crop yields, despite the fact that this meant early deaths for the trees.  They enslaved indigenous people with knowledge of cacao cultivation even though the Spanish monarchy banned Indian slavery in 1542.  According to one expert, it was enslavement, not disease, that destroyed indigenous populations in the Western Hemisphere the most.[4]  European settlers in New Spain started exporting cocoa beans to Europe for the first time in human history, and these settlers increased imports of enslaved African workers over the course of the seventeenth century to maintain a disease-resistant, reproductive workforce.  Cacao planters used enslaved African men, women, and children in the colonies, especially Venezuela to produce more cocoa beans and increase profits.

The English replicated the Spanish model.  Oliver Cromwell’s expeditionary force wrested control of Jamaican cacao plantations and enslaved African workers from Spain in 1655.  Cocoa beans and recipes for making chocolate were then shipped to England and North America, along with enslaved workers. Entrepreneurs in North America expanded on previous small-scale milling operations in the Caribbean and in Europe, and they started “chocolate works” to produce bulk quantities of chocolate in the eighteenth century.  Obadiah Brown, a member of the famous family that financed Brown University, began manufacturing chocolate in 1752 in Rhode Island.  These works consisted of storage for barrels of cocoa beans he imported from Caribbean and South American plantations. There would have been room for a stove for roasting the beans and winnowing the shells.  The mill was the centerpiece of the chocolate works.  Large stone mill stones were powered by horse or water.  Mill stones were used to repeatedly grind large amounts of cocoa beans into bits.  Free and enslaved workers carried these bits into a separate area for processing.  In this separate area, free and enslaved artisans hand-ground the processed cocoa beans into chocolate.  These artisans used specially designed metal rollers and heated chocolate stones to slowly and laboriously grind chocolate.  The chocolate was then poured into molds and dried and wrapped in paper and placed in storage.  Consumers typically used the chocolate for baking and for scraping bits into hot beverages.  Merchants exported surplus amounts of chocolate to overseas markets, including African markets, where chocolate was exchanged for enslaved people.

The Industrial Revolution changed the technology involved in chocolate manufacturing, and different sorts of commodities were produced, but enslaved men, women, and children continued to produce cocoa beans on Equatorial plantations in the Western Hemisphere.  In 1828, Casparus Van Houten invented a machine for manufacturing powdered low-fat cocoa in the Netherlands.  J.S. Fry and Sons used hydraulic presses and steam-powered grinders to produce the world’s first chocolate bar in England in 1847.  In Switzerland, Henri Nestlé figured out how to make powdered milk by evaporation in 1867.  Rodolphe Lindt made chocolate more mixable through the introduction of the process of conching in 1879.  These men revolutionized chocolate making, but they were not solely responsible for chocolate.  White Europeans never were the only ones involved in producing chocolate.

After 400 years of relying on enslaved workers, one famous chocolate manufacturer believed it was time for a change.  William Cadbury called for all chocolate makers around the world to join him in a moratorium against purchasing cocoa beans from plantations using enslaved labor in 1910.  That same year, the United States Congress made it illegal to import cocoa beans produced through enslaved labor.  

The U.S. is currently the world leader in consuming goods produced through enslaved labor.  Our land of liberty imports over $144 billion in goods that enslaved people made each year.  The list of these goods includes cocoa beans.  According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “The most common goods which have significant incidence of forced and/or child labor are cotton, sugarcane, tobacco, coffee, rice, and cocoa in agriculture.”[5]  American consumers eat and drink chocolate sourced from exploited people.

Right now, cacao is mostly cultivated in Africa.  The Ivory Coast and Ghana produce 70% of the cocoa beans in the world.  A substantial portion of the workforce in these countries is made up of child laborers, enslaved laborers, and enslaved child laborers.[6]

Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love that obscures the exploitation behind an important part of the holiday. Chocolate producers have made profits from making and selling food and drinks for centuries.  Much of this chocolate and these profits were made from the exploitation of people.  We get heart-shaped chocolates in shiny red packages with fancy cards, and few of us stop to think where and how that chocolate was made.  

Chris Magra is a Professor of Early American History at the University of Tennessee.  He is finishing a new book that sheds light on the carceral dimensions of the food system in early America.

Title image: Evils of Chocolate  Jean MarsillacLe More-lack, ou essai sur les moyens les plus doux & les plus équitables d’abolir la traite & l’esclavage des nègres d’Afrique (London/Paris, 1789).  Roughly translated as Without Moors: An Essay On the Lightest and Most Equitable Means of Abolishing the Slave Trade and Slavery of African Negroes. This image shows a European couple having chocolate for breakfast before the man rises to beat an enslaved African worker with a stick.

Further readings: 

Carol Off, Bitter Chocolate: Investigating The Dark Side Of The World’s Most Seductive Sweet (University of Queensland Press, 2016).

Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, third edition, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2013).

Órla Ryan, Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012).

Louis Evan Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro, eds., Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008).


[1] Chocolate sales are booming this Valentine’s Day, as consumers stay close to home (

[2] White, Dark and Milk Chocolate – How Much Milk is in Your Favorite? – Rockview (

[3] Ibid.

[4] Andrés Reséndez writes, “if I had to hazard a guess using the available written sources, it would be that between 1492 and 1550, a nexus of slavery, overwork, and famine killed more Indians in the Caribbean than smallpox, influenza, and malaria.  And among these human factors, slaver has emerged as a major killer.”  Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery (New York: Mariner Books, 2016), 17.

[5] US Department of Labor Releases List of Slave-Made Goods (

[6] Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry – Food Empowerment Project (  Eight enslaved children have sued major chocolate manufacturers for human rights violations.  For more on their story, see Mars, Nestlé and Hershey to face child slavery lawsuit in US | Child labour | The Guardian.

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