The food of the gods
Nine new chocolate factories were built in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. The reality that millions died from hunger or repression under Stalin’s monstrous autocratic rule was conveniently swept under the carpet.
Krupskaya chocolate — named after Vladimir Lenin’s widow Nadya Krupskaya — has been a
Russian favourite for decades. After World War 2, Leningrad workers petitioned authorities to immortalise her by renaming the local chocolate factory in her honour. During the 900-day siege of Leningrad, the factory never stopped production even though 800,000 civilians were killed and Adolf Hitler had vowed to “erase the city from the face of the Earth”.
For some, a love of chocolate literally meant death by chocolate. When Leon Trotsky was in exile in Mexico, a Spanish communist posed as the lover of one of his comrades and regularly turned up at the Trotsky house with gifts of chocolates and flowers. The visitor’s real name was Ramon Mercader, and he was an assassin sent by Stalin to kill his nemesis.
On August 20 1940, Mercader arrived at the
Trotsky house, his raincoat concealing an ice pick, and killed the Russian exile with a blow to the skull.
The mastermind behind the murder plot was Stalin’s chief spy and assassin Pavel Sudoplatov. Two years previously, Stalin had ordered him to assassinate Ukranian nationalist Yevhen Konovalets, who the Russian tyrant accused of planning an armed insurrection.
“The plan was to give Konovalets a present with an explosive device,” Sudoplatov later wrote. He met Konovalets in Rotterdam in the Netherlands and gave him a box of Ukrainian chocolates with a bomb hidden inside it. He waved goodbye and minutes later the box exploded, instantly killing Konovalets.
During World War 2, the Nazis plotted to kill
British prime minister Winston Churchill with a bar of exploding chocolate. They coated incendiary devices with a thin layer of rich dark chocolate and wrapped them in expensive packaging. The plot was foiled by British spies who alerted senior intelligence chiefs.
Sacred rituals and sheep droppings
Cacao beans, the base ingredient for chocolate, have been used in Mesoamerica for thousands of years to flavour food and make drinks.
The Aztecs believed cacao was given to them by their gods and used it in ritual offerings, including those linked to fertility.
Cacao was also a currency. One bean could buy a tomato; 100 beans would get you a turkey or a slave. By the time of the Spanish conquest in 1545, cacao beans outranked gold dust as the primary currency.
Far from being the intrepid, saintly explorer of myth, Christopher Columbus was a sadistic brute who committed many atrocities on his expeditions, including capturing women to be raped by his crew.
In 1502 the Genoa-born explorer stumbled upon a Mayan trader whose canoe was filled with what was obviously valuable cargo. Columbus seized the cacao and presented it to his bosses at the Spanish court. The royals were underwhelmed by these bitter, ordinary-looking beans.
A shipment of cacao beans confiscated from a Spanish ship off the coast of Britain was mistaken for sheep droppings and burnt.
The production of chocolate in developing countries has been linked to child labour and modern slavery for well over a century.
São Tomé and Príncipe, off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, was the first African nation to cultivate cacao.
The horror of life on the plantations in this Portuguese colony received wide publicity after war correspondent and human rights advocate Henry Nevinson was sent by Harper’s Magazine to investigate rumours of captured Angolans being enslaved and shipped off to the cacao plantations. His account was serialised in the monthly magazine from August 1905.
On his 720km journey through Angola’s “Hungry Country”, Nevinson described human bones littering the sides of the trail, so many that it “would take an army of sextons to bury all the poor bones which consecrate that path”.
The bones in the dust were those of captives who were too weak to walk and had been left to die. Shackles that had bound hands and legs to prevent escape still hung from trees.
Portugal officially abolished slavery in 1876. But once Nevinson reached the coastal towns he was enraged to discover that Portuguese officials “freed” captives so that these “voluntary” workers agreed to go to São Tomé for five years to be worked to death and never to return to their homeland.
In São Tomé he found conditions so harsh that one in five workers died each year.
As a Quaker, William Cadbury of Cadbury’s decided to investigate for himself. He wrote that “Most of the mortality is from two diseases — anaemia and dysentery; complaints that are easily developed by people in a depressed mental condition … this is exactly what one would expect when we know that these people are forcibly taken from their homes for work across the sea, without any hope of return.”
His outrage did little or nothing to stop this exploitation, though.
Rich man, poor child
Fast-forward to March 23 2014, when the first case of Ebola was reported in Guinea in West Africa. The terrifying disease, which causes victims to bleed out through their orifices, would claim more than 11,000 lives during the epidemic, which lasted more than 21 months.
As the disease spread rapidly through Liberia and Sierra Leone, the price of cacao spiked exponentially on the international futures market. Traders speculated that if Ebola spread to cacao-producing regions such as Côte d’Ivoire and decimated the labour force, the price of cacao would rocket. Côte d’Ivoire is the largest exporter of cacao in the world, providing 70% of the world’s supply.
In many ways that cacao spike is another example of the heavy toll the tastes of the rich continue to extract from the poor, particularly children.
In 2001, under pressure from the US Congress, big chocolate companies pledged to put an end to child slavery in the industry. Since then there have been “honest chocolate” and fair trade initiatives, but beyond virtue signalling nothing has changed for the vast majority of workers in the field.
The 2015 Cocoa Barometer, published by a coalition of European development and campaigning organisations, calculated that a cocoa farmer and dependants in West Africa would be expected to survive on between $0.50 (about R7 at today’s exchange rate) and $0.84 a day, well below the World Bank’s 2015 extreme poverty line of $1.25.
If anything, the exploitation has increased. A report released in October 2020 by the US National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago concluded that 1.56-million child labourers were working in cocoa-growing areas of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana in the 2018 and 2019 growing season, an increase of 14% since a 2015 study.
Justice at last?
In February this year, human rights firm International Rights Advocates launched a child slavery class action lawsuit against seven chocolate multinationals, including Nestlé and Hershey, in Washington DC. Eight former child slaves claim they were forced to work without pay on cacao plantations in Côte d’Ivoire. All the multinationals deny culpability.
Though none of the multinationals owns the farms, the plaintiffs accuse them of aiding and abetting the illegal enslavement of “thousands” of children on these plantations.
One of the plaintiffs was only 11 years old when a local man in his home town of Kouroussandougou in Mali promised him work in Côte d’Ivoire for 25,000 CFA francs (about R650) a month. Legal documents allege the boy worked for two years without ever being paid, often applying pesticides and herbicides without protective clothing, before he managed to escape.
In 2020 The Economist interviewed Belgian chocolatier Dominique Persoone, who is making chocolate in the jungles of eastern Congo.
The factory is just outside the Virunga National Park, a vast reserve that is home to a third of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas. The park and its rangers face constant threats from hundreds of heavily armed militiamen who poach its animals.
Persoone hopes to create jobs by making his exclusive chocolate from local cacao, and help save Virunga.
Chocs in the dock
Chocolate featured in SA’s Rivonia Trial when the very real spectre of death hung over the accused appearing in the dock at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria.
On the first day of the trial prison officers shoved accused No 1 Nelson Mandela, shackled and in short trousers, next to Denis Goldberg in the dock.
This was the first time any of the others had seen Mandela since their arrest, as he was already serving a five-year sentence for supporting strikes and leaving the country without a permit.
“I stood next to him and had chocolate in my pocket. I nudged him and he looked down and nodded. I broke off a square of the chocolate and handed a bit to him. He wiped his hands over his face and the chocolate disappeared into his very, very thin cheek. Here we are, they are charging us with sabotage and here this little bit of chocolate melts away,” recalled Goldberg.
Not even iconic freedom fighters can resist the food of the gods.
There have been ‘honest chocolate’ initiatives, but beyond virtue signalling not much has changed for workers in the field