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This century has revealed that cacao consumption dates back 5,500 years by the Mayo Chinchipe Marañón culture. These findings link ancient cacao to the Fine Aroma variety, highly prized in today’s chocolate industry, from the same Amazon region now known as southern Ecuador. Cacao usage, spanning millennia, migrated to Mesoamerica. The Olmecs concocted beverages from ground cacao, water, spices, berries, and herbs. This legacy persisted among the Mayan people and Aztecs, who infused cacao into
potions, medicinals, and sacred rites, ascribing to it divine essence and provenance. Something later preserved in the scientific nomenclature of the tree, Theobroma cacao (Linnæus, 1753). In Náhuatl, it was called cacahuacuahuitl, and its fruit simply cacahuatl, giving rise to the term cacao.
Chocolate, on the other hand, stems from the Náhuatl term xocoātl, blending ātl for water and xoco for sour. Spanish conquerors first encountered cacahuatl on Isla Guanaja during Christopher Columbus’s fourth voyage in 1502, but it was during Hernán Cortés’ time that cacao and chocolate preparation methods were introduced to Spain (1534, Monasterio de Piedra, Nuevalos).
Cacao seeds, esteemed by Mayan and Aztec societies within the echelons of nobility, warriors, and merchants, served both as a prevalent currency and a prime example of early payment methods. Yet, counterfeit cacao seeds as currency also emerged. Despite this, their substitution by metal coins spanned centuries, with cacao seeds enduring as currency through the colonial era and into the early 20th century in south-eastern Mexico.
Anything was purchased with cacao: attire, provisions, slaves, and even gold, a material adeptly refined. Before European arrival, gold had already been adopted for transactions. The self-sufficient Chibcha civilization, masters in gold-working had a measurement system that exceeded Spanish precision. But regardless of its amazing form or function, gold was looted and exchanged for colourful trinkets and beads, to be basically melted down into bars or ingots.
In 1535, the Spanish crown established the first mint in their Kingdom of the Indies, allocating 90% of its production for export. But cacao seeds persisted in circulation. A hare was priced at 10 cacao seeds, a slave around 4,000, and 200 equated to 1 silver real—a metallic coin that devalued over time, plummeting to 15 cacao seeds per unit by 1720.
The New Laws of 1542 forbade the enslavement of indigenous people in New Spain, declaring them vassals of the King. Concurrently, the Crown issued two copper coins for lesser exchanges, yet these were promptly withdrawn from circulation due to the populace’s refusal, despite the threat of fines, lashes, and compulsory labour.

Towards the end of the 16th century, the annual tribute payment in the Viceroyalty amounted to either 1.600 cacao seeds or 1 gold peso. The cost of an indigenous person for forced labour ranged between 300 and 500 cacao seeds, contingent on factors such as gender, age, health, and skills, while 8 to 10 seeds could secure a session with a prostitute.
Moving southward, the encounter between the Spanish Empire and the Incas markedly diverged. Incas’ dominion, entrenched in disciplined collective progress, scarcely knew poverty or enslavement. Their thoroughfares facilitated governance and defense, eschewing mere mercantile aims. An expansive societal schema, comparable to communistic principles, esteemed conquest and coinage as peripheral to rule and trade. Yet, this agrarian paradigm was overturned by the mining imperatives of the Conquistadores, propelled by a religious zeal to amass untold wealth from precious metals and beyond.
In these harrowing odysseys, cacao crossed seas to the Iberian shores, where the once bitter aphrodisiac was enriched, sweetened, and rapidly adopted by the European elite. Beyond Spain, cacao’s conquest extended to France (1615) and England (1650), sweeping through the entire Slumil K’ajxemk’op [‘Rebel land’]. Yet, it met scepticism: ‘ilquale più pare beveraggio da porci, che de huomini,’ Girolamo Benzoni critiqued in Historia del Mondo Nuovo, dedicated to Pope Pius IV in 1565. Nonetheless, merely four years hence, Pius V sanctified its consumption as not violating the fast. The surge in European consumption necessitated augmented production, leading to the enslavement of Africans for the cultivation of cacao and other crops in the Americas, earmarked for Europe. In this epoch, each settler could employ two to four indigenous individuals, compensating them with approximately 100 cacao seeds for a day’s toil from dawn till dusk.
The Sveriges Riksbank, established in 1668 as the world’s first central bank, preceded chocolate’s arrival in Scandinavia by about two decades. By that time Louis XV sought to regulate both wholesale and retail chocolate sales in France, while in 1711 a Swedish abundance ordinance stipulated: ‘Den som brukar Thé, Caffé och Chocolade hemma i sitt Hus, betalar Två Daler Silfvermynt utan åtskillnad.’
Spain monopolized cacao until 1728, yielding control of its trade to the Netherlands.
In the ensuing years, the first chocolate production machines were set in motion (France, 1756, and Barcelona, 1780). Toward the close of the 18th century, European-style chocolate landed in North America, coinciding with revolutionary France’s endeavours to abolish slavery in its colonies.

Between 1811 and 1814, the insurgent general José María Morelos minted the first truly Mexican coin. His decree expunged emblems of the Spanish monarchy, heralding ‘una flecha con un letrero al pie que señala el viento donde corresponde, que es del sur.’ This act marked the advent of the inaugural fiat currency, pledging redemption upon the revolution’s triumph. Though Mexico secured independence in 1821, the anticipated redemption remained unrealized.
In the subsequent years, as liberal and abolitionist movements gained traction in the Americas, Portuguese colonizers shifted cacao cultivation to their African colonies, persisting in the exploitation of slave labour for production.
The Industrial Revolution further fuelled the thirst for growth. In Amsterdam, a machine separated cacao butter from powder (Van Houten, 1828), facilitating its dissolution in hot liquids—such as milk, a long-standing British preference. The first blending of chocolate with hazelnuts was introduced in Switzerland (Kohler, 1830), and England saw the debut of the first chocolate bar for sale (Fry & Son, 1847). Concurrently, in France, soluble cacao powder was commercially introduced for both adults and children (Poulain, 1848).
The creation of milk powder in Vevey marked the beginning of Swiss milk chocolate (Nestlé, 1867), leading to chocolate that easily melted in the mouth shortly after (Lindt, 1879).
In the Roaring Twenties, confectionery firms in the eastern United States innovated by introducing chocolate disks wrapped in gold foil as part of the Jewish custom of presenting coins to children during the Festival of Lights.  This practice echoed traditions already established in Belgium and the Netherlands in conjunction with Saint Nicholas. Over time, these sweet images of money became enduring symbols of both Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations.
During World War II, German saboteurs devised a chocolate bar with a concealed steel bomb set to detonate moments after being cut. Additionally, in Germany, Nestlé‘s subsidiary Maggi utilized thousands of prisoners of war and Jewish forced labourers. By the mid-20th century, plant breeding was acknowledged for enhancing cacao production. Since then, both stock and consumption have steadily increased, a trend mirrored by anthropogenic global warming. Nevertheless, headlines proclaiming ‘Chocolate is on track to go extinct in 40 years’ sporadically emerge, yet it’s likely the small-scale cacao farmers who will perish first.

At the onset of this century, the Save the Children Fund disclosed to the BBC that children in Mali were trafficked to labour forcibly on cacao farms for €30.
This revelation spurred unforeseen scientific inquiries into the health benefits of chocolate. Concurrently, it prompted the establishment of the Harkin-Engel Protocol, a collaborative endeavour to eradicate the worst forms of child labour and trafficking within cocoa supply chains by 2005. However, a few years past this target, subsequent findings indicated that the cost for children trafficked from Burkina Faso to the Ivory Coast rose to €230, equivalent to about two sacks of cacao at international prices during that period. Morbidly, in Ivory Coast, an undercover investigation revealed that a typical plot allotted to a diligent farmer—as their sole recompense after years of slave work from childhood into adulthood—yields a meager average of just 2 cacao sacks per season. [ca.130kg]
In 2019, a trafficker, known as a ‘locateur,’ was captured on film confirming that a payment of €300 was considered acceptable, remarking that “not all have the same price, like lambs.” The following year, a study conducted by the NORC social research group at the University of Chicago revealed that in the 2018-19 period, approximately 1,560,000 children, aged 5-17, were engaged in cocoa production in the agricultural households of cocoa-growing regions in Ivory Coast and Ghana. This report highlighted that 95% of these children were subjected to at least one hazardous aspect of child labour, including land clearing, heavy lifting, use of agrochemicals, handling sharp tools, extensive working hours, and night shifts. In 2021, eight children from Mali, former slaves on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast who successfully escaped, launched legal actions in the United States against major chocolate companies (Nestlé, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Mars, Mondelēz, Hershey, and Olam Americas), accusing them of aiding and abetting slavery on cocoa farms. Although the judges acknowledged the case’s validity, they dismissed it due to its occurrence outside the United States.
A TV feature in April 2022 showcased a producer whose farm yielded approximately 30 sacks of seeds a year (ca. two tons), earning him €2,800, including responsible premiums from major chocolate corporations at €1 per sack. Of this total, a substantial portion covered pesticides, transport, materials, and taxes, leaving less than a third for all employees. In those days, the international ICCO price for a ton of cacao was €2,242. However, cacao farms are often smaller than in this case. Another farmer mentioned producing six to eight sacks annually, thus having to involve his young children in the process, with total earnings of around €400.

Meanwhile, the giant family-owned company Mars initiated corporate responsibility pilot programs to support a group of small holder farmers ‘on a path to a sustainable living income in the next 8 years’—from €1 to €2.5 daily. In September 2022, the World Bank set the poverty line at €2.15 daily.
Cacao ranks as the eighth illicit financial flow in Africa, with farmers receiving less than 70% of its international value. Additionally, cacao prices have exhibited extreme volatility.
Today, over 90% of the world’s cocoa stems from plots under three hectares, with Ivory Coast alone hosting 1.2 million such smallholdings, yielding nearly half the global output.
In contrast, just three firms dominate 65% of the grinding sector’s capacity. Within the chocolate trade, the also few leading multinationals, controlling the majority of the lucrative multi-million market, have admitted the presence of child labour in their supply chains, engaging in the worst forms of exploitation. Despite profiting from these practices, they’ve recently ‘pledged’ to cut reliance on child labor by 70% by 2025.

antipodes café

i. Moneda de Cambio 4000 cacao seeds (glued to the wall)
ii. Moneda de Cambio 2 cacao sacks (mound OR hanged)
iii. 2 Marcos Alemanes Diptych: 2 frames, each with 2 chocolate coins (both sides)—1 Deutsche Mark and 0.50 German Euro.
iv. Hobby of Kings Chocolate coin collection (+500 pieces)
v. Dĕūro Chocolate coins minted in Madrid
vi. Cambio Exchange booth (1 Euro ≙ 1 Dĕūro)
vii. Cambio Exchange machine (1 Euro ≙ 1 Dĕūro)
Logroño City Hall i,ii,iv,v,vi (2022.11)
Obrador, Montevideo i,ii,iii,v (2023.01)