Kathryn E. Sampeck


Spring 2017: Non-resident Fellow, Du Bois Research Institute

How Chocolate Came to Be

Project Description

How Chocolate Came to Be

Chocolate bundles together deep contradictions: rich, dark, sinful, healthy, sweet, bitter; it can be a food, drink, and flavor. Few substances we consume today permeate so many realms of life, from the exceptional to the mundane. The question my research poses is:  “why is chocolate so unusually potent, transcendent, and contradictory?” A crucial part of the answer lies in the role of chocolate as a shorthand for blackness and the dilemmas of race. This association is due to more than color: one of the deep dilemmas of chocolate production is its reliance on slavery, a dependence that grew more entrenched over the course of the colonial period. Cacao, the tree whose seeds people use to make chocolate, was one of the first agricultural sources of wealth in the Spanish empire. The Izalcos region of today’s western El Salvador, an unequaled producer of cacao, quickly became one of the richest encomiendas in all the Indies and a key player in the genesis of colonial legal and contraband commercial practices. In the face of rapidly declining indigenous population, both free and enslaved people of African descent became ever more essential as agricultural labor, but even more importantly, to provision daily needs for Izalqueños in subsistence, supplies, and even in Christian spiritual life. Africans and their descendants played decisive roles as entrepreneurs, facilitators, and defenders in this volatile and dynamic economy, inhabiting a netherworld of enforced illegal practice, serving as a convenient scapegoat, and being scions of virtue. Changes in material culture, configurations of laboring, political, economic, and social spaces, imagery, and accounts about chocolate at home and abroad show that “chocolate” was a vehicle for defining new relationships with the colonial economy, tastes of the body politic, and colors of changing social realms.

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