Whether you’re snacking on some M&Ms while waiting for a movie to start or stress-eating an entire box of Thin Mints in your car, the act of consuming chocolate has become so ingrained in our culture that if you’re brazen enough to publicly admit you don’t like it, you’ll likely be met with a confused and aggressive “What the hell is wrong with you?” But the history of chocolate—as explored in this recent TED-Ed video—is more complicated than people might imagine.
In their earliest usage, as far back as 1900 B.C., the beans of the cacao tree were used by the native Mesoamericans to make a bitter, ceremonial drink. Centuries later, this frothy, invigorating beverage was shared with the Spanish conquistadors, who took it back to Europe. There, it was thought to be an aphrodisiac or medicine but soon became a popular, sweet treat once sugar was added. Every aristocrat worth their salt had chocolate at the ready, which skyrocketed demand for the precious beans from distant, exotic lands.
Of course, as with any other commodity that Europeans at that time wanted, they made slaves get it. African slaves were shipped to the Caribbean, South America, and islands off the African coast where cacao plantations were maintained. Thus began the first in a long line of a bunch of awful shit being done in the name of chocolate.
The 1800s brought the invention of the cocoa press and milk chocolate, turning the confection into a mass-produced, affordable treat for everyone, not just the richest of the rich. Soon after, the slave trade began to dwindle and plantations moved from South America to West Africa, where they could abuse local labor instead of shipping that labor around the world to be abused. To this day, as the video says, “Many of the plantations throughout West Africa, which supply Western companies, use slave and child labor, with an estimation of more than two million children affected.” These facts are easy to forget when you’re biting into a Hershey bar. But just remember that, as with everything else we enjoy in this world, our love of chocolate is steeped in a history of violence, exploitation, and generally fucked-up shit. Enjoy!