Chocolate and the Portuguese

By Sue Hall

I am in the UK for a few weeks, as Jim has been recalled to work. It’s a strange existence. We have house-swapped so our homestead in Portugal is occupied and we are traversing various homes in the Midlands. Our next stop is a thatched barn near Stratford upon Avon. This summer has meant I have had the luxury of reading more. I have just read Beatrice by Fiona Joseph. It is about a Cadbury heiress who in the 1920s gave up her fortune. I will come back to this later.

As I wait to move into the barn, I have occupied myself in the library at Warwick University, where I studied history many years ago. I am sitting on the fifth floor and have wandered around the shelves this warm sunny day.

Years ago I had a fascination with sugar – that is the sugar industry and slavery. It just so happens that on the fifth floor of the library today, I have come across books about Portugal and sugar and, somehow, my memories of those days of fascination came back like a sugar rush.

I had forgotten how important sugar was to Portugal and Brazil, in particular. I do remember that Eric Williams, in Capitalism and Slavery, argued that sugar and capitalism were intrinsically tied together, but within five minutes of browsing, it is pointed out to me that Cuba happily produces tons of the white stuff and capitalism is not their forte. It reminds me that history is only as ‘true’ as the understanding or background of the historian.

Anyway, political theory is not where I planned to go with this … Whilst I was getting the sugar rush of memory, I came across a book called Chocolate Nations – Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa by Órla Ryan.

I have scanned the pages and it is an exposé of “the hard economic realities of our favourite sweet, from the thousands of children who work on plantations to the smallholders who harvest the beans”. It does not look good for Cadbury’s …

I look up Portugal in the index and the only reference is this: “Local legend has it that Tetteh Quarshie, a migrant farm labourer, brought the first cocoa pod to his native land (Ghana) in 1879. The pod was taken from Fernando Po, a tiny African island, where Portuguese missionaries had brought the beans from Brazil”. Initially, Cadbury’s – that much loved producer of chocolate – imported the cocoa beans from São Tome and Príncipe in Portuguese West Africa and then from 1908 shipped Ghanaian cocoa.

I now look up Brazil. There are three entries: cocoa beans, disease affliction and production collapse. It seems that Brazil had a major problem of witch broom (which turns the bean to mush) in Bahia in the late 1980s. This disease nearly wiped out the harvest.

At that time Brazil was the second largest producer of cocoa. It has since struggled to recover. How easy it is to forget where Dairy Milk comes from and the implications of ‘the lady loves Milk Tray’.

I learn from yet another book, Cocoa and Chocolate 1765-1914 by William Gervase Clarence-Smith, that a number of small chocolate factories sprang up in Belém from the 1880s, with the aim to supply the internal market. One of the most successful was Fábrica Palmeira, founded by five Portuguese in 1893.

I also learn that Portuguese peddlers made their way up the Amazon in canoes promising money from Belém merchants for the wild cocoa. Sephardic Jews from Morocco competed with these peddlers, selling textiles for local produce. Some of these Moroccan Jews had left the Algarve having arrived there from Portuguese Africa in the 1820s after the repeal of the anti-Jewish legislation.

There were also chocolate factories in southern Brazil, catering to the desires of wealthy Brazilians with European tastes. Chocolate in Brazil interested Swiss manufacturers with Chocolats Suisses of São Paulo being founded in 1912.

But chocolate never really caught on in Portugal, because, surprisingly, the Portuguese preferred tea due to early contact with China. This preference was passed on to the British when Charles II married a Portuguese Princess (Walvin 1997: 12-14).

Of course whilst the Portuguese were opening chocolate shops in Belém, Cadbury’s were making their mark across the world, with their range of goodies underpinned by Quaker values. I am going to turn my attention to Cadbury’s in my next article as I have just enjoyed reading Beatrice by Fiona Joseph. Beatrice was a very unusual Cadbury. She was a Cadbury who gave up a shareholder fortune for her beliefs. I plan to meet the author in Bournville Archives next week, so there will be another big chunk of chocolate coming soon.