Chocolate and the Ugly Secret of Cacao Production on São Tomé Island

Thomas A. Wikle, Oklahoma State University
DOI: 10.21690/foge/2021.64.2f


Valued at more than US $100 billion, chocolate is easily the most profitable sector of the world’s confectionary industry (Abesamis 2019). Looking across continents, Europe consumes half of the world’s chocolate followed by the U.S. and Canada (25%), Asia (15%), Latin American (7%) and Africa (3%). While consumption is weighted towards wealthy countries, chocolate’s principal ingredient is grown and harvested in the developing world. Like coffee, cacao trees used for harvesting cacao beans are grown within low latitude rainforests. However, in contrast to coffee where distributers emphasize connections with regions or countries in their marketing efforts (i.e. Central America or Ethiopia), geographic sources of cacao beans are seldom mentioned in promoting chocolate. Instead, most know chocolate through brand names such as Godiva (Belgium), Teuscher (Switzerland), Cadbury (United Kingdom) and Ghirardelli (U.S.).

Unknown to most consumers, the commercial chocolate industry was once closely tied to islands off Africa’s west coast. For several years, the tiny Portuguese colony of São Tomé and Príncipe was the world’s most important source of chocolate’s basic ingredient. However, unknown to chocolate makers and the public, the islands’ remote location concealed an ugly secret where men and women toiling on humid plantations were subject to slave-like conditions. This article explores the development, decline, and rebirth of cacao production on São Tomé Island. Along with a historical look at plantation life, we examine the former colony’s recent efforts to promote tourism and other types of economic diversification.

Geography and History

The island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe (in English, Saint Thomas and Prince) is Africa’s second smallest country and among its most isolated (Becker 2008). Located on the Equator (Figure 1), the country is formed by rocky archipelagoes surrounding two larger islands. Measuring 50 by 30 kilometers, São Tomé Island is 200 kilometers west of Gabon and geologically part of a massive shield volcano rising 3000 meters above the ocean floor (Mountjoy and Hilling 1988). About 140 kilometers to the northeast is the smaller island of Príncipe. Together, São Tomé and Príncipe are part of the Cameroon Volcanic Line that includes Equatorial Guinea’s Bioko and Annobón Islands. The islands have a rugged topography with high interior mountains, dense rainforests, and coastlines punctuated by beaches and small inlets. Along with basalt flows, massive volcanic eruptions have produced iconic features such as Pico Cão Grande (Great Dog Peak; see Figure 2). With an average annual temperature of 27˚C, the islands receive between 1,000 and 4,000 millimeters of rain each year (Burgess 2004). Similar to other tropical regions, the islands have an impressive array of flora and fauna. More than 900 species of vascular plants and 63 endemic bird species have contributed to its nickname, “African Galapagos” (Law 2018).

São Tomé was uninhabited when discovered by Portuguese explorers João de Santarém and Pêro Escobar in 1486 (Garfield 1992). Five years later, Portuguese King John II granted Álvaro Caminha rights to establish a permanent settlement on the island. Efforts to promote European immigration were mostly unsuccessful as a result of extreme isolation and threats from tropical diseases. To hasten settlement, the Portuguese began forcibly transporting undesirable groups including criminals and prostitutes (Schorsch 2009).

Figure 1. The Equator passes through Ilhéu das Rolas (Island of Turtledoves). Photo by Thomas Wikle.

Figure 2. Pico Cão Grande (Great Dog Peak). Photo by Thomas Wikle.

Faced with the task of making their colony profitable, government officials supervised the clearing of forest lands on São Tomé’s northern lowlands for sugar cane plantations (Hodges 1986). Lacking a native population, slaves were brought from the African mainland to work on the fazendas (farms) and by the mid-16th century, São Tomé and Príncipe was Africa’s largest producer of sugar (Gemery and Hogendron 1979). However, competition from other colonies such as Brazil affected profits and despite the influx of slaves, efforts to sustain a source of labor remained problematic. Fleeing to live in nearby mountains, escaped slaves often returned to raid plantations for food (Clarence-Smith 1978). With only a small number of European overseers, fear began to grow about an organized slave revolt. By the mid-1500s, São Tomé’s sugar production was in decline and for the next few decades the island was used as a staging point to house slaves captured on the African mainland before their transport to the Americas (Law, Schawarz and Strickrodt 2013).

Portuguese administrators continued searching for activities that would generate income. In 1780 they introduced coffee production and in 1824, cacao was successfully grown on Príncipe (Maxwell 2003). Cacao production can be traced to South America (Solly 2018). Later cacao plants were transported northward into Central and North American where indigenous groups introduced European explorers to a sweet liquid xocoatl that was consumed in rituals or as a type of medicine. Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés was the first to bring cacao to Spain and by the late 1500s, cacao beans arriving from the Americas were being used to make a sweet liquid for the Spanish elite (Dillinger et al. 2000).

Cacao Trees and Cacao Production

Cacao beans come from the Theobroma cacao tree, a broadleaf evergreen that thrives in latitudes within 18 degrees of the Equator (Ortiz 2016). The first cacao trees grown on the islands were of the Amelonando variety that originates in Brazil (Aikpokpodion et al. 2009). Whereas coffee is grown on hillsides and mountain slopes, cacao is best suited to lower elevation areas that receive shade from other trees. The trees themselves are delicate and easily damaged by disease or changes in microclimate including too much or too little sunlight. Pollinated by the wind or insects, cacao trees begin to bear fruit (pods) when they are four to five years old. Growing directly from the trunk or a large branch, cacao pods are harvested when they reach a red-yellow color (Figure 3). Each pod contains 20 to 60 beans surrounded by a sweet and sticky white pulp.

Figure 3. Cacao pods. Photo by Vera Kratochvil.

Labor is the most costly element in growing and harvesting cacao with workers needed to keep the area around trees free of weeds. The pods themselves must be harvested manually so as not to damage the tree. Using a machete, a single fieldworker can harvest about 600 pods a day. After being detached, a curved knife is used to remove purplish-colored beans. The beans are then fermented for six days to give them a distinctive flavor and aroma and subsequently dried to reduce their moisture content from 60% to 7.5% (Figure 4). The reddish-brown colored beans are subsequently cleaned and sorted before being transported to overseas chocolate makers. Upon arrival in Europe or the U.S., the beans are subject to additional preparation and processing beginning with roasting to reduce acidity and to develop flavor and sweetness. Outer shells are removed, leaving small pieces called “nibs” that are ground into a non-alcoholic liquor used to make bars and other products. About 900 beans are needed for each kilogram (2.2 pounds) of chocolate.

Figure 4. Cacao beans drying. Photo by Chuck Moravec.

As demand for cacao increased in the late 1800s, Portuguese investors began purchasing land from local crioulos (persons of mixed African and Portuguese/European ancestry) and soon the colony of São Tomé and Príncipe was the principal source of cacao for Great Britain’s three largest chocolate makers, J.S. Fry and Sons (Bristol), Rowntree (York), and the Cadbury Brothers (Birmingham). However, sustaining a sufficient number of plantation laborers remained a significant challenge since Europeans and most forros (free descendants of slaves) were unwilling to work in the fields (Higgs 2012). A longstanding source of free labor ended when slavery was abolished within all Portuguese colonies following an 1869 treaty with the U.S. and Great Britain. One ready source of workers were convicts brought to the islands from Portugal’s other African colonies including Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde. Subsequently, men and women were recruited from the mainland to serve five year terms as serviçias (contract workers). To locate new serviçias, recruiters followed former slave routes into the continent’s interior. At least some men and women were pressed into service against their will after being forced to march to the coastline wearing shackles (Nevinson 1906a). Estimates suggest that between 1888 and 1908 as many as 67,000 Africans were shipped to plantations on São Tomé and Príncipe to become low wage contract workers who possessed few rights.

Figure 5. The Plan for Roça Agostinho Neto.

The plantation or roça (pronounced “raw-sa”) was the focus of large-scale coffee and cacao production. Roças operated as self-sufficient cities with schools, stores, and chapels. A typical roça had buildings arranged along the edge of an open area called a plaza. Plazas were used for the daily roll-call, drying beans, and other purposes. Infrastructure on larger roças sometimes included narrow-gauge tracks used by small locomotives and carts to facilitate the movement of cacao to processing facilities and coastal shipping stations. Specialized facilities were also built for fermenting, drying, roasting, and storing cacao beans. Serviçias lived in houses or barracks called senzalas that resembled long sheds subdivided inside by partitions (Nevinson 1906b). Built for the plantation owner or manager, the largest house was called the patrão. Most large roças were equipped with a hospital for treating tropical diseases, often with separate wards for men and women (Figure 5). Constructed using ornate designs and capped with a Mediterranean-style tiled roof, the hospital and patrão were symbols of a roça’s power and prestige. Social stratification on roças stipulated areas off limits to serviçias including the patrão and upper floors of the hospital reserved for Europeans. By 1906, more than 70,000 hectares of land on São Tomé and Príncipe Islands were under cultivation within roças (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Boundaries of Roças on São Tomé Island.

Life on a roça was arduous with men responsible for harvesting and transporting cacao pods and women tasked with extracting and preparing beans for fermentation and drying. Most serviçias worked 62 hours a week with a half-day off on Sundays. Wages were low. During the early 1900s, men received a monthly salary of around 2,500 reis per month (about US $2.50) and women, just 1,800 reis (Nevinson 1906b). Most serviçias were well-fed and provided with good housing and medical care. The basic diet included beans, rice, fish, and vegetables. Other staples such as clothing, tobacco, soap, cotton, cooking utensils, and rum could be purchased from a store using currency printed on the roça. Since a worker’s wages could only be spent at the company store, nearly all money paid to workers came back to plantation owners (Nevinson 1906b). Alcoholism was widespread and tropical diseases, especially malaria, took a severe toll.

Roças dispensed their own brutal forms of justice with serviçias enjoying few personal freedoms. Among other restrictions, serviçias were prevented from growing their own food or leaving the roça without permission. Runaways and others who violated rules were subject to severe punishment. To maintain a steady labor supply, some plantation managers renewed contracts without their workers’ knowledge and at least some serviçias who did not renew their contracts discovered that the meager funds they earned were insufficient to pay for transportation back to the mainland. Although limited in scope, the Portuguese implemented policies to protect workers. For example, the children of serviçias (called tongas) were not compelled to work until age 11 and at age 16 they were given the option to sign a contract.

Unaware of working conditions or the absence of freedom experienced by serviçias, European chocolate makers continued importing cacao beans from the islands. However, by the late 1800s, stories about slave-like conditions found their way to Europe and the U.S. (Scientific American 1897). In 1901, William Cadbury (grandson of Cadbury and Sons founder, John Cadbury) saw an advertisement listing buildings, equipment, and more than a hundred workers as assets of a São Tomé plantation that was for sale. The information was shared with others on his company’s board of directors and soon after, the company joined other chocolate makers in an investigation of working conditions and labor practices within São Tomé and Príncipe. Joseph Burtt was hired to carry out the inquiry. Arriving first in Angola on the Africa mainland, Burtt’s reports described men and women transported, “…against their will, and often under conditions of great cruelty” (Pierson 1910). Traveling next to São Tomé Island he visited several roças and met with plantation owners and government officials (Satre 2005). Another visitor to the islands was British war correspondent Henry Nevinson whose 1906 article in Harper’s Magazine drew attention to annual death rates of 14% among adults and 20% for children (Nevinson 1906a; Figure 7). The most common causes of death were noted to be dysentery, anemia, and smallpox. As Nevinson noted, unlike slaves, serviçias cost plantation owners nothing; if they became sick and died the manager could rely on Portuguese administrators to find replacements.

Figure 7. Henry Nevinson. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Three years passed without action by the chocolate makers. Finally in 1909, J.S. Fry, Rowntree and Sons, Cadbury Brothers, and Stollwerck implemented a boycott on imports from São Tomé and Príncipe while shifting to cacao supplies coming from the British-controlled Gold Coast (now Ghana). The response by plantation owners was to increase exports to chocolate producers elsewhere in Europe and the U.S. Instead of declining, shipments increased and by 1913, São Tomé and Príncipe was the world’s largest cacao producer, exporting more than 36,500 tons in a single year (Dulcine 2012). However, the production boon proved to be short-lived. In 1919, tiny insects called thrips devastated nearly all of the colony’s cacao crop (Keisow 2017). At the same time, brutality towards the serviçias was making it increasingly difficult to sustain a supply of workers. As profits declined, buildings and equipment fell into disrepair (Figure 8) and by 1935, a global recession made it necessary for the roças to move towards self-sufficiency by growing their own food. By the early 1940s, production per hectare had fallen well below that of other West African countries. The islands experienced other problems related to labor. Rumors that Portuguese administrators might confiscate land and force forros to work in the fields led to violence in the early 1950s.)

Figure 8. Coastal Shipping Station. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

Figure 9. A child living on an abandoned Roça. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

Over the next 25 years the roças produced modest quantities of cacao and coffee. The end of colonial rule came in 1975 when a military coup in Portugal brought independence to all Portuguese colonies in Africa (Seibert 2003). Viewing the roças as symbols of colonialism, São Tomé and Príncipe’s new Marxist government nationalized the island’s largest roças into 15 state-owned companies. Other medium-sized roças and smallholder properties called glebas remained in private hands but were subject to new regulations. It was believed that land reform would be a catalyst for economic diversification. However, within a few months more than 4,000 persons, mostly Europeans and Angolans, left the islands. The exodus created additional trouble for the roças as experienced managers were replaced with newcomers who possessed limited knowledge about plantation operations. Between 1975 and 1987 cacao production dropped from 10,000 tons to 3,900 tons per year (World Bank 1991). Many roças fell into disrepair or were abandoned and occupied by squatters who grew subsistence crops (Figure 9).

Recognizing the country’s economic dependence on cacao production, international aid organizations stepped in to provide assistance. For example, a 1980 World Bank project provided funding for gravity-fed irrigation systems, solar driers, and greenhouses. In 1990, the country’s centrally planned economic system was replaced by a free market economy and a year later, Miguel Trovoada became São Tomé and Príncipe’s first freely elected president. To stimulate innovation, the new government subdivided some large plantations to create smaller farms. Unfortunately, a 1998 slump in cacao prices led to an additional drop in production. With limited funds to purchase supplies, many farmers stopped using fungicides and insecticides and at least some grew cacao only as a means of preserving their property rights.

A Visit

Officially the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, the former Portuguese colony is not a popular tourist destination. Although it’s possible to find non-stop flights from Lisbon, the majority of international flights to São Tomé City pass through other West African capitals such as Accra (Ghana), Malabo (Equatorial Guinea), or Libreville (Gabon). Upon arrival, visitors find few tourist amenities. In lieu of currency exchange desks or ATM machines, it’s necessary to find a “black market” money trader willing to exchange Euros or U.S Dollars for Dobras. Island culture is a blend of European and African traditions with most people speaking both Portuguese and a crioulos language such as Sãotomense, Angolar, or Principense. Like other former colonies, religious beliefs combine elements of Catholicism with animist traditions. The country’s population of 208,000 includes forros (the descendants of European immigrants and African slaves), angolars (the descendants of Angolan slaves), Mozambicans, Cape Verdeans, and others (Antalya Organize Sanayi Bölgec 2019). Along with beans and rice, food staples include locally grown maize, bananas, citrus fruits, roots, fish, and bush meat. A popular dish called calulu is made from seafood combined with okra, eggplant, and tomato. Meats consumed on special occasions include goat, beef, and chicken.

With a 2017 per capita gross domestic product of just $1,900, a significant part of the population lives below the poverty line (Global Finance 2019). Isolation and the absence of economic diversification contribute to the country’s standing as among the world’s largest per capita recipients of foreign aid. The population is young with a median age of 18 years and a life expectancy (65 years) that is close to the world average. With no minimum age for working, child labor is widespread. Educational attainment is a symbol of status leading families with the financial means to send children to live with relatives in São Tomé City where they can attend a secondary school.

Outside cacao production, the country has few economic activities for generating hard currency. With limited domestic food production, the island imports most of its food. Some income is generated through timber exports and the sale of fishing permits (see Figure 10). Challenges to economic development include a poor road infrastructure and a lack of deep water ports, making it necessary for larger ships to be loaded or unloaded using barges. Although without known mineral resources, an agreement with Nigeria has established a pathway for the joint exploitation of petroleum resources within the Niger Delta. Manufacturing is limited to a few small factories that make soap, bricks, or beverages. Although the tourism industry has expanded in recent years, growth in international visitors is constrained by difficult travel connections, poor infrastructure, and threats from disease. As a result of these issues, the former colony remains one of the least visited countries in the world (Smith 2019). Despite reforms, government corruption remains an issue. In recent years the country’s leaders have taken measures to attract foreign investment, reduce the longstanding budget deficit, and privatize industry.

Figure 10. Impounded Gabonese fishing boat. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

São Tomé City has the charm of a place untrammeled by hotel chains or hordes of tourists. Along wide boulevards lined with walnut trees are colonial-era buildings designed in the Salazarist style to project power and prestige (Figure 11). Many have fallen into disrepair with faded pastel colors, dilapidated balconies, and shuttered windows. Ironically, the city’s open-air markets offer clothing, tools, household goods, fish, fruit, and palm wine but no chocolate. Near the city center and overlooking the entrance to the Bay of Ana Chaves is the 16th century Fort São Sebastião. Despite the dominance of urban areas, most lead an agrarian life. Within villages are wood plank houses called lucháns (Figure 12) or Portuguese-style homes constructed on concrete foundations. Built on the sides of some houses are lean-to shelters used to sell goods. The country’s most well-known natural area is the 195 square-mile Obô Natural Park. Covering 35% of São Tomé Island, the park’s virgin rainforest has been classified by the World Wildlife Fund as among the most important biological areas on Earth (World Wildlife Fund 2000).

Figure 11. Catholic church in São Tomé City. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

Figure 12. Traditional house called a Luchán. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

Despite many roças having been reclaimed by rainforest, cacao and coffee continue to be produced on both larger plantations and smallholder farms. Some larger plantations are owned and operated by foreign companies while many smaller holdings have been organized into cooperatives that share equipment and facilities for bean fermentation, drying, and storage. One example is CECAQ-11, an association of more than 1,100 small growers. Although production has increased from where it was in the mid-1980s, the country is no longer among the world’s most important cacao producing nations, now led by the Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Indonesia (Cacaoweb 2019).

Figure 13. Roça Agostinho Neto. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

Figure 14. Church at Roça Agostinho Neto. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

Visiting a roça is like stepping back in time. Two of São Tomé Island’s largest are Roça Agostinho Neto (formerly Rio de Ouro Roça or River of Gold) and Roça Água Izé (farm near the water). Named for a former president of Angola, Agostinho Neto is located on the island’s northern plains. A wide road lined with pastel-colored buildings leads past the plantation’s residential area to its hospital complex (Figures 13 and 14). When Burtt visited in 1905 the plantation was managed by retired general Claudio de Sousa e Faro, who supervised the work of more than 1,500 seriçais (Higgs 2012). Today, Agostinho Neto’s population is estimated to be 1,000. Located on the eastern coastline, the island’s oldest cacao plantation is Roça Água Izé. In the early 1900s more than 1,800 seriçais and tongas lived there under the oversight of José Maria de Sousa e Almeida, a crioulos credited with making the plantation among the country’s most profitable. One of Água Izé most impressive features is its hospital that features an elaborate entryway and exterior staircase (Figures 15 and 16). Today the building is occupied by squatters including children who run to greet Europeans and Americans shouting “branca!” (white person!). Near the hospital are tracks from the plantation’s narrow gauge railway, once used to transport cacao to coastal shipping stations. Not far away is a narrow coastal channel and blowhole cut by erosion through pillow-shaped basaltic lava called Boca do Inferno (Mouth of Hell; Figure 17). A legend from the early 1900s holds that a cruel European overseer at Água Izé used the channel for instantaneous travel back to the Portuguese Kingdom. Locals feared that he could reappear at any time. A few roças have been converted to other purposes such as boutique hotels or cafes. For example, Roça Sundy was initially a cacao and coffee plantation and later served as a vacation home for the Portuguese royal family. Today, the former plantation operates as a 12-room hotel featuring a restored planter’s house with a high ceiling and balconies that overlook a garden.

Figure 15. Hospital at Roça Agua Izé. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

Figure 16. Hospital ward at Roça Agua Izé. Photo by Thomas Wikle.

Figure 17. Boca do Inferno (Mouth of Hell) . Photo by Thomas Wikle.

In recent years the island’s cacao producers have found ways to be more competitive by serving specialized chocolate markets. For example, in lieu of competing with high volume operations elsewhere in West Africa, some farmers have shifted to producing eco-friendly, “fair trade” beans (Constable 2019). While ecofriendly beans come from cacao grown in the absence of chemical inputs such as fertilizers and herbicides, fair trade prices recognize costs associated with sustainable living and production. The growing demand for organically grown beans has been compared to the emphasis on premium ingredients used within the craft beer industry. Craft chocolate differentiates itself by flavor, the types of beans used, and the origin of ingredients. Confectionaries that purchase fair trade beans from São Tomé and Príncipe include Cadbury, Divine, and the German chocolate maker François Pralus. The islands’ best-known producer of organically grown cacao is Claudio Corallo, an Italian businessman and farmer who purchased a 120 hectare roça in 1997 called Terreiro Velha. Along with overseeing cacao production on his plantation, Corallo gives demonstrations at his laboratory and chocolate factory in São Tomé City. Inside a room lined with teak paneling are long wooden tables used for testing velvety and bittersweet dark chocolate containing between 60 and 100% pure cacao. As visitors watch, Corallo prepares samples for tasting that include additives such as ginger, orange, grapes, raisins, salt and pepper, and cacao bean slivers (to provide a nutty flavor and crunchy texture; Figure 18). Sold through his website, Corallo’s chocolate isn’t cheap. A 160 gram box sells for US $18 (see

Figure 18. Claudio Corallo prepares chocolate samples at his factory in São Tomé City. Photo by Thomas Wikle.


Isolation has remained a defining element in the settlement and economic history of São Tomé and Príncipe. The islands are distinct from other locations within Africa in having been occupied by humans for a relatively brief period of time. In its early years, Portugal’s remote outpost was unattractive to most Europeans. Seeking ways to make the colony profitable, government administrators brought slaves from the African mainland to work in the sugar cane fields. Income from cacao exports during the mid-1800s led to a new labor shortage, prompting government officials to import laborers from other Portuguese colonies. Working within fields and processing facilities, men and women from Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde endured harsh treatment from European overseers. Along with creating challenges for contract workers hoping to return to their homelands, the colony’s remote location shielded the mistreatment of workers from outside eyes.

Today, the landscape of São Tomé and Príncipe continues to project its colonial past. Interspersed among dilapidated buildings are the rusting hulks of equipment and machinery used for processing and preparing cacao beans before shipment to Europe or the U.S. While some former plantations have been reclaimed by the rainforest, others are occupied by the descendants of contract workers who grow subsistence crops. Change has been slow in coming. Despite efforts to diversify the economy, cacao continues to be the country’s most important export. Recognizing the challenge of competing with high volume producers, some farmers have shifted production towards demand for premium beans. Despite its unique role in the story of chocolate, São Tomé and Príncipe remain virtually unknown to all but a handful adventurers who come to learn about former colony’s culture, pristine forests, and unfortunate past.