Cacao in the Caribbean

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Photo of cacao pods taken by me, 2017e846.

Puerto Rico and other islands in the Caribbean are important in the history of the cacao trade and chocolate production.   While cacao did not originate in the Caribbean, the climate and location make it a major part of the cacao industry beginning in the 1500’s.  The Caribbean became a main location for cacao production and shipping, but disease and the desire for greater profit caused a downturn in the growth of cacao in the Caribbean.

 

Demand for chocolate increases in Europe, and the Caribbean takes on a more important role in the chocolate industry.  By the early 1600’s, England is embracing chocolate for its medicinal properties, as well as its taste (Momsen and Richardson, location 19611).   This demand for cacao encourages the growth of the cacao trade in the Caribbean islands.  The Spanish introduced the criollo variety of cacao as a crop to the Caribbean in the 1500’s from Venezuela (Momsen and Richardson, location 19253).  Cacao grows well in the Caribbean, and the physical location also makes it an ideal shipping location to access Europe, as it is on the shipping route from South and Central America.   By 1665, cacao and ginger are the main export crops in Puerto Rico (Momsen and Richardson, location 19091).  Trinidad is a major source of cacao production in the Caribbean as well, and their cacao is considered of superior quality (Momsen and Richardson, location 19252).  The quality of Trinidad cacao is most likely due to the original criollo type cacao planted there at the time.   However, after their cacao crops are devastated by disease, when the industry attempts to revive itself years later, they plant the forastero type of cacao, which is considered not to have the same high quality taste as criollo, and the industry never fully recovers (Momsen and Richardson, location 19278).  Problems with Spain cause cacao production in the Caribbean to become even more important to Europe.

Spain’s attempt to control the cacao trade makes Caribbean cacao production more important.  Although Spain prohibits the export of raw cacao beans in Venezuela in the 1700’s, cacao already has a foothold in the Caribbean (Momsen and Richardson, location 19126).  Privateers control Caribbean shipping to a great extent and the cacao trade into the 18th century (Momsen and Richardson, location 19126).   In fact, Dutch privateers trade with Venezuelans and are active in distributing cacao back to Europe (Coe and Coe, location 2732).  Spain’s attempt to control the cacao trade pushes Europe into finding new ways of promoting cacao production.  In some ways, dealing with privateers may be easier for Europe than dealing with Spain, as privateers are interested in money; but they are independent sources for obtaining cacao from the Caribbean, and are not as concerned with politics.  Additionally, Britain can obtain cacao directly from many of the islands of the Caribbean as they control a number of the islands that produce cacao.   The cacao crop itself is grown in a more natural setting than many agricultural crops in the Caribbean.  Cacao trees in Puerto Rico and much of the Caribbean are grown in cacao forests.  Multiple species of trees are interspersed, and planted in a more natural habitat.  While touring a cacao farm in Puerto Rico, one can walk through a cacao forest, and observe it in the same way it would have been hundreds of years ago.  In Puerto Rico, cacao trees, coffee trees, banana trees and others are often mixed in together.   This unobtrusive way of growing cacao makes it easier to grow and more difficult to control.

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Photo of cacao pods on the tree before they are ripe taken by me, 2017e846.

A desire for greater profit changes the scope of the Caribbean and Puerto Rico’s role in the cacao trade.  By 1800, the major exporters of cacao in the Caribbean, Grenada and Trinidad, are using other islands such as Puerto Rico and Cuba to send their crops to Spain (Momsen and Richardson, location 19098).  Most of the islands have stopped producing cacao on a large scale, and although cacao is still grown in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean, many of the large farms are planting more profitable crops.  Cacao is often combined with growing coffee and other crops, providing a more diversified farm.  This helps to stabilize the farm’s income.  Cacao farms use of slaves throughout much of the Caribbean contributes to the huge profits being made in the chocolate industry.  On many of the Caribbean islands, slaves were used as labor for farms, including cacao farms (Higman 59).  Slavery is abolished in Puerto Rico in 1873 (The World of 1898).   In the Caribbean, when slavery is abolished, it is a turning point in cacao production, as the majority of the organized agricultural industry moves on to other crops that yield a higher profit.  The Caribbean is no longer as lucrative to the chocolate industry as a location for cacao growing.  However, some farms in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean continue growing their cacao crops, using hydropower.  Cacao is still grown in the Caribbean on a smaller scale.  The water of rivers in the mountains run equipment to make production of cacao easier and less labor intensive.  Yet the historical place the Caribbean held in the chocolate industry and trade with Europe is finished.

The Caribbean played an important role in the chocolate industry.  Though cacao did not originate here, as cacao’s popularity grew and Europe became aware of its many benefits, the Caribbean played its own role in the growth of chocolate’s place in society.  On a tour of a cacao farm in Puerto Rico, I was able to witness how cacao was farmed and produced on a smaller scale in the 1800s.  The way that hydropower was used is impressive, and the experience of walking through a cacao forest is one I would recommend.

 

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Coe, Michael D.  The True History of Chocolate.  Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Higman, Barry W.  Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807-1834.  University of the West Indies Print, 1995.

Momsen, Janet Henshall, and Richardson, Pamila.   “Caribbean Chocolate.”   Chocolate:  History, Culture, and Heritage, edited by Louis Evan Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro.  Kindle ed., John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2009.

“The World of 1898:  The Spanish-American War.”  Library of Congress, Hispanic Reading Room.  Retrieved from:  https://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/slaves.html.

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