- The Jesuit Exploration of Brazilian Cacao: The first explorations of cacao
In the 1600s, the small-scale cacao production in Brazil contrasted with the incredible sugar plantations the country boasted. In fact, Brazil was the world’s crown jewel of sugar production in the 1600s (Schwartz, p. 417). The plantation of sugar was concentrated in Bahia, specifically along the coast of Pernambuco. This region is notable because it would over the next centuries would also become one of the main hubs for cacao cultivation.
Brazilian Cacao originated in the Amazon River and flourished through its trenches. As early as in the 16th century, Jesuits exported cocoa they found growing wild near the Amazon, in what it is now the state of Amazon, but originally was Grão Pará and Maranhão. In this period of time, most of the Brazilian cacao production was organized in small plantations. The cacao trade in the country highly relied on enslaved native labor. In the Amazonian basin, wild cacao pods were harvested by exploited Native Americans, specifically Tupi people, one of the most numerous groups indigenous to Brazil (Serafim Leite, p. 262).
Instead of founding cacao plantations, the Jesuits mostly relied on organized expeditions in order to gather cacao pods (Coe and Coe, p. 143). By exploring the native knowledge of the jungle and riverbanks, the Jesuits were able to collect an incredible variety of wild-growing cacao pods. This strategy of cacao gathering, rather than cultivation, did impose a big problem for the Jesuits. It was fairly easy for enslaved people to flee in the midst of one of the expeditions. As such, the Jesuits had to develop a comprehensive system of rewards and incentives in order to motivate the natives to participate in such expeditions (Clarence-Smith, pp. 195). In addition to the use of enslaved people labor and due to the high value of chocolate, the Jesuits did employ “paid” natives, who received their wages according to the number of hours worked. In short, the cacao expeditions organized by the Jesuits encompassed a mix of both enslaved indigenous and “paid” natives.
2. Systematic cacao production: the Portuguese Crown‘s attempt to rival Jesuit production
During the years of 1580-1640, the Spanish crown controlled the role of the Portuguese state and therefore its colonies. In this period, New Spain became the region in the world that most imported and consumed Brazilian cacao (Coe and Coe, p. 194). Even after Portugal reclaimed the rule of its state, New Spain maintained itself as a top importer of Brazilian cacao. However, the production of the commodity of the country was extremely limited. With these lenses, in 1665, the Portuguese Colonial Governor-General encouraged the expansion of cacao production in Brazilain territory, seeking to obtain a share of the growing demand for cacao from New Spain (Walker, p. 83). In 1679, four years later, the Portuguese Crown and Overseas Council in Lisbon issue a directive that reiterated the Crown’s encouragement and support for the plantation of cacao in all Brazilian land (Arquivo Publico do Salvador, Bahia). In 1678, a royal order from King Pedro II in Lisbon demanded the systematic cultivation of cacao in Grão Pará, the birthplace of the Brazilian cacao production, which still followed the traditional Jesuit cultivation practices (Serrão, p. 120). With the Crown support, the systematic production of cacao would then begin in the state of Bahia. While the organized and systematic production of cacao began in the 17th century, most of the cultivation of the commodity still followed the modest Jesuit style until the 1600s (Walker, p. 84).
3. The Jesuit cacao expansion to the northeast
Until the late 1600s, cacao production in Brazil was concentrated in the Amazon basin, in the state of Grão Pará. Although the epicenter of cultivation would remain in Grão Pará, Jesuit missionaries seeking to expand profit would start planting the commodity in the northeast of the country. In 1674, the cacao cultivation would begin in the state of Maranhão, following the foundation of the Jesuit College of São Luís do Maranhão, which sought to maximize its revenues through the cultivation of the commodity (Walker, p. 87). Within less than three years, the state boasted one thousand cacao trees (Russell-Wood, p. 155). With its early success, the Jesuits started exploring the rural interior of the state, sending expeditions to collect cacao pods in a similar manner to their cultivation process in the Amazon basin.
4. The foundation of the Company of Grao-Pará and Maranhão: the Portuguese Crown’s attack on the Jesuits
A significant mark to the Portuguese Crown cacao production in Brazil was the ruling of King José I (1750–1777). His Prime Minister, Marquês de Pombal, aware of the profit the Jesuits and the yet modest Portuguese-controlled cacao production in Brazil, decided to massively expand the systematic production of the commodity. In order to achieve this goal, the Company of Grao-Pará and Maranhão was founded. Owned and regulated by the state, the Company was awarded the complete monopoly of Amazonian-born cacao (Dauril Alden, p. 124). The state-ordered monopoly was already an incredible hit to the Jesuits’ cultivation of cacao and their long-term ambitions. On top of that, in 1759, the Jesuit order would be ordered to abandon Brazil and all of its assets (Walker, p. 88). All the lands previously controlled by the Jesuits were integrated into the Portuguese Crown control. All in all, the cultivation practices employed by the Jesuits were rudimentary and clearly lacked the structure to produce large amounts of cacao, but the Crown-sponsored monopoly and expelling accelerated its downfall. By 1775, cacao exports from Brazil, under the Company of Grao-Pará and Maranhão, amounted to around 10% of the world’s exports, symbolizing the rapid growth of the cacao empire within the country (Clarence Smith, p. 234).
5. Brazilian cacao in the 19th century: Salvador de Bahia establishes Brazil as one of the global hubs of cacao production
In 1937, Brazil’s total cocoa production reached a peak of 138,000 tons (Knight, 1976). Much of the growth in cacao production in the 19th century is centered around the city of Salvador de Bahia. Over the course of its existence, Salvador would emerge as the leading city in the number of slaves it received. Records estimate that around 1.2 million enslaved people entered Brazil through the Bay of All Saints, the principal bay of the Brazilian state of Bahia (Eltis). The expansion of cacao in Brazil, reaching the aforementioned peak of 138,000 tons, was only possible due to this enormous number of enslaved people. Coerced labor was the main driver of cacao growth in a region already known to exploitation due to the large scale production of sugar that Salvador boasted since the 1600s.
Although the production of cacao started in the early 16th century, the output of the commodity remained extremely modest until late in the 18th century. The Jesuit order was the main driver of production for most of this period, starting off massive expeditions in the state of Grão-Pará by the Amazonian Basin. They are also credited with the expansion of cacao production in Brazil, being the ones who first sought to cultivate cacao in the northeast (in addition to the West Amazonian basin). While there is a credit to their innovative farming strategies and business intuition, the Jesuit order relied on enslaved Native-American and African labor in order to carry out such practices. Over the course of the 17th century, the Portuguese Crown acknowledged the great cacao potential Brazil had and started implementing measures to benefit from the commodity. In addition to encouraging the systematic cultivation of cacao, the Crown sought to undermine its biggest threat: the Jesuit order. By expelling the order and monopolizing the production of cacao, the Portuguese empire was able to effectively increase the output of cacao in Brazil, reaching its peak in 1937. Salvador de Bahia, in the northeast, became one of the greatest producers of cacao in the world and also one of the biggest importers of enslaved people. As such, the history of cacao in Brazil is a subpart of a greater history: the history of exploitation and slavery
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Serafim Leite, S.J., Historia da Companhia de Jesus no Brasil (Sao Paulo: Edições Loyola, 2004), Vol. V, p. 262 and Vol. VIII
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Cacao Plantations in Amazonia and Bahia (17th–19th Centuries) , Food and Foodways, 15:1-2,
75-106, DOI: 10.1080/07409710701260214
Figure 1: Timothy Walker, p. 76
Figure 2: “Amazon River Facts for Kids.” Wikt:Expedition, kids.kiddle.co/Amazon_River.
Figure 3: Johann Moritz Rugendas – Diener, Pablo and Costa, Maria de Fátima. Rugendas e o Brasil. São Paulo: Capivara, 2002. (Portuguese)