The History of Chocolate

Chocolate and the Spanish

It was only a matter of time before the secret of chocolate spread beyond the Mesoamericans, and that journey began with the Spanish conquests in the New World. Christopher Columbus may have been the first Old World explorer to come across cacao beans. In his fourth and final voyage to the New World, Columbus, along with his son Ferdinand and their crew, happened upon Mayan traders in two large canoes.

As was their habit, the Spaniards captured one of the canoes to get a look at the kinds of goods that were traded and valued in this new land. Among the canoe's contents were fine clothes, weapons, even a copper bell, as well as a large number of unfamiliar beans. Columbus showed no interest in a load of what to him seemed worthless beans, but Ferdinand did note that when any of these beans fell to the ground, the natives would scramble to retrieve each one "as if an eye had fallen" from their heads. Columbus didn't bother bringing any of these strange beans back to Europe.


The true introduction of cacao to the Spanish invaders most likely came in 1519, when conquistador Hernán Cortés landed on the Yucatán Peninsula and met the Yucatán Maya. Like Columbus, Cortés was unimpressed by the beans, at least at first. He was far happier with the exotic treasures he found when he marched west, defeated the great Aztec ruler Montezuma, and conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1521.

At the time, Tenochtitlan was the largest city in the world, and it was crammed with the bounty of a vast and powerful empire. In addition to the gold and other riches Cortés craved, he found enormous stores of cacao beans. Indeed, there may have been as many as a billion cacao beans in the royal treasury at one time.

While Cortés found the chocolate beverage of the natives nearly undrinkable, he and his fellow invaders could not help but recognize the value the beans had among the Mesoamericans. As the Spanish conquerors took over as rulers and Spanish colonists began living among and marrying the natives, the traditional Mesoamerican uses of cacao were adopted or adapted by the Spanish settlers. They continued to use the beans as money for everyday purchases. But they found ways to make the chocolate drink more to their liking by warming it and adding spices and sweeteners with which they were more familiar.

The Spaniards also came up with their own name for this warm cacao beverage, one that was easier for them to pronounce: chocolate. (There is disagreement over the exact origins of this word, but one strong theory is that it came from combining the Yucatec word for hot, chocol, and the Aztec word for water, atl, to form chocolatl, which the Spanish invaders would have pronounced chocolaté.)

Cacao Sails to Spain

While the Spanish explorers who conquered Mesoamerica in the early 1500s were likely the first Europeans to be introduced to chocolate, it is believed that the first chocolate to reach the Old World arrived in 1544. In that year, Dominican friars, who had traveled to the New World to convert the natives to Christianity, purportedly took a delegation of Mayan nobles from Guatemala back home to Spain to meet with Prince Philip (Philip II). The delegation brought with them the most valuable items from their culture, including gift jars of beaten cocoa, mixed and ready to drink.

The Spanish nobility quickly took to this new and exciting beverage, as did Catholic priests in Spain, who used the high-energy drink to sustain themselves during religious fasts. But it seems the Spanish wanted to keep the chocolate discovery from the rest of Europe. For close to a century, Spain hid the secret of the cacao beans, restricting their processing exclusively to monks hidden away in Spanish monasteries.

Indeed, the secret was so well kept that when English pirates boarded what they thought was a Spanish treasure ship in 1579, they mistook its huge cache of cacao beans for a worthless load of dried sheep's droppings. In frustration, the pirates torched the whole ship, not realizing that they were destroying a cacao trove that would eventually be worth a king's ransom in their homeland.

As the drink became more and more popular among upper-crust Spaniards, it developed into a profitable industry for Spain, which began planting the cacao trees in its overseas colonies. As a result, Spain also became home to the very first chocolate factories, where the dried, fermented beans shipped from the New World were roasted and ground.

Eventually, with the decline of Spain as a world power, the secret of cacao leaked out, and the Spanish Crown's monopoly over the chocolate trade came to an end. By the mid-17th century, the knowledge of cacao had spread like wildfire to Italy, France, Germany, and England.

As the knowledge of chocolate spread, so did its many uses. Keep reading to learn about chocolate's medicinal history.

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