Globally, chocolate is a billion-dollar industry, and some of the best chocolate comes from the Caribbean. This is because cacao farmers in the Caribbean primarily cultivate Criollo and Trinitario cacao trees that produce cacao pods and beans which eventually become fine cacao or flavor cacao. Fine cacao produced almost exclusively in the Caribbean region is used to create premium chocolate and to discover the history of chocolate is to understand its connection to the Caribbean region.
The History of Chocolate – Ancient Mesoamerican Civilizations
The earliest history of chocolate can be traced back to ancient Mesoamerican civilizations living in the heart of Central America. And according to The Chocolate & Coffee Bible, historians now believe that the Olmecs were the first civilization to cultivate the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) and not the Aztecs, as had been commonly thought. This is because linguists studying the ancient Olmec vocabulary and culture discovered that it includes the word cacao. Also, vessels and pots uncovered from this ancient civilization show traces of the cacao chemical theobromine. These discoveries coupled with the fact the area where the Olmec people lived 1500 BC to 400 BC was hot and humid with cool conditions which are ideal for cacao cultivation strengthens the theory.
Then, around the fourth century AD, many centuries after the fall of the Olmecs Empire, the Maya people picked up the mantle and cultivated cacao trees which they called cacahuaquchtl. The Mayan people believed that cacao trees belonged to the gods and that cacao pods were an offering from the gods to man. Carvings into the scared walls of their magnificent stone palaces and temples show images of cacao pods which they also believe to be a symbol of life and fertility.
When the Mayan empire fell around 900 AD, the Toltecs and later the Aztecs who came from Mexico and settled in the former Mayan territory took up the mantle of cultivating cacao trees. Legend has it that the Toltec King, Quetzalcoatl who his people believed was the god of air, had a critical mission to teach his subjects how to cultivate various crops including cacao. But following an uprising, mysterious illness, and eventual exile of King Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec legend goes that astrologers predicted that in 1519 a white-faced king would return to release his people. What came instead were European colonizers who would bring about the fall and demise of the Aztec Empire.
The History of Chocolate – European Colonizers
In 1502 on his fourth voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus had the first interaction with cacao, known to the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations as the drink of the gods. Upon arriving in Guanaja an island off the coast of Honduras, he traded with the Aztecs who offered him a sack full of what he thought were almonds. The Aztecs then went on to explain that the cocoa beans would make a cacao drink which was dark and bitter.
Christopher Columbus did not realize the economic worth of cacao beans since he did not like the cacao drink, but the Aztec people used them as currency. If you visit the House of Chocolate, a small museum and shop in Grenada, you will be able to see a display showing the Aztec value for cacao beans. For example, one cacao beans would get you a ripe avocado or large tomato or five long narrow green chilies. Three hundred cacao beans could get you a turkey-cock or one quachtli (large cotton cloak or one dugout canoe. At the high end, 30,000 cacao beans could purchase a feather cloak, and 180,000 cacao beans would get you one string of jade beads. But it wasn’t just food, household supplies and trinkets that were traded for cacao beans. Shockingly in Aztec society, a slave could be purchased for one hundred cacao beans and a child for six hundred cacao beans.
The history of chocolate continues seventeen years after Christopher Columbus when Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés was warmly received by the then Aztec Emperor, Montezuma II who believed him to be a reincarnation of King Quetzalcoatl. As part of the celebrations, Hernán Cortés received various gifts including a cacao plantation. Sometime after the festivities, Montezuma II realized that Hernán Cortés was not the reincarnation of King Quetzalcoatl and tried to oust the Spaniard. Surprisingly, Hernán Cortés was able to win over some Aztec sympathizers who helped him imprison Montezuma which ultimately led to the destruction of the Aztec Empire in a few years.
Hernán Cortés, a Spanish Conquistador, brought about the destruction of the Aztec Empire in the 16th-century because of greed. He immediately recognized the potential of cacao beans as not only a food source but currency which was not surprising since his original reason for being in the Americas was to find and pilfer Aztec gold. Failing to unearth Aztec gold, he seized the next best thing cocoa plantations and cacao beans which produced what he considered to be liquid gold. To capitalize Hernán Cortés and other Spaniards, set up cacao plantation in Mexico, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru and the island of Jamaica plus the island of Hispaniola with Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The expansion of cacao plantations in Central America and also the Caribbean was driven in part by European demand for chocolate. Though when initially introduced in Europe first in Spain, chocolate was deemed to be an exotic luxury and was only consumed by Kings, noblemen and the upper ranks of the church. As chocolate spread from Spanish nobility to European nobility and eventually the masses, there was increasing demand for cacao beans. This lead to an increase in the trade of African slaves to the Caribbean as just like on cotton, sugar and coffee plantations, African slaves were used to harvest cacao pods from the cacao trees which flowers in two cycles of six months for the year.
As chocolate fever spread across Europe, its consumption in Britain rivaled that of tea from India and coffee from Africa. Like Chocalterias, chocolate houses in Spain, the first Chocolate House in Britain opened in London circa 1657. More chocolate houses soon followed to meet chocolate consumption, and with the exploding number of cacao plantations in the Caribbean along with technological advances in the 1800s, chocolate factories increased throughout Europe though it was still only consumed as an extremely rich beverage. It should be noted here that an Irish botanist Sir Hans Sloane gets the credit for inventing chocolate milk, but according to historian James Delbourgo, that honor actually goes to African slaves in Jamaica where Sloane spent time during the late 17th-century. They were the ones who introduced Sloane to the drink and he merely popularized chocolate milk when he brought it back to Europe and promoted as a health drink.
That being said, Europeans did make many contributions to the development of the cacao drink as it was still rather primitive in presentation as cacao butter would rise to the top of the drink in a very unappealing manner. Then around 1828 Dutch chemist, Coenraad Van Houten found a way to extra the greasy cacao butter leaving just a brittle cake-like residue that could them be pulverized to create cacao powder. These advancements make the cacao drink even more accessible to the masses as prices dropped and led to further developments in the cacao industry ultimately leading to the first block of chocolate being molded in 1847 by the House of Fry in England. In 1875, the Swiss Daniel Peter created the first solid milk chocolate using Nestle powdered milk. Another significant development in the history of chocolate was the creation of the first chocolate bars in table shape of 30g to 150g in Belgium circa 1920.
It should be noted that another reason for the popularity of chocolate was for its perceived health benefits. The Aztecs believed that chocolate which they drank cold with spices could improve one’s health by increasing energy levels and sexual powers. As a result, Military men in Aztec society were often rewarded with chocolate as an energy stimulant and to fight fatigue. They also used cocoa butter to treat wounds. Europeans embraced the health benefits of chocolate, and whereas the Aztecs would drink it cold, they began drinking it hot, also flavored with spices later sugar to get rid of the bitterness.
The History of Chocolate – Caribbean Cacao Plantations
While cacao plantations spread across the Caribbean with the arrival of European colonizers, chocolate wasn’t produced in the region. Instead, the majority of cacao beans from the Caribbean region were exported to Europe and elsewhere across the globe. For example, in 1772 Grenada exported over 343,400 pounds of cacao beans. Trinidad & Tobago at the peak of cocoa production in 1921 exported 75 million pounds (34,000 tons) of cacao beans. Today, Grenada produces 800 tons of cacao beans and Trinidad & Tobago only produce 500 tons.
So why the drastic drop in cacao production? Well with the end of slavery in the Caribbean, plantation owners no longer had access to free labor and profit margins dropped. Also, the Dutch had transplanted the cacao tree to India, and from there it spread to the Philippines, New Guinea, Samoa, and Indonesia. Cacao production eventually spread to Africa which now produces a large portion of the bulk cacao beans from Forastero cacao trees. Forastero cacao beans are what is used to make most of the world’s chocolate.
So while cacao cultivation continued in the Caribbean, production drastically decreased and is only now on the rise. Globally, only 5% of the world’s cocoa industry valued at more than US$100 billion annually is fine cacao or flavor cacao. And 80% of the 5% comes from the Caribbean and Latin America. For the Caribbean region, the International Cocoa Council has certified Dominica, Grenada, Saint Lucia, and Trinidad & Tobago as 100% producers of fine flavor cacao. Jamaica is certified for 95% and Belize for 50% of their output being fine flavor. For the Dominican Republic another major producer of cacao in the Caribbean region, 40% of their cacao output has been certified as being fine flavor.
Production is increasing in these countries but is still somewhat sluggish. Production is sluggish because smallholding cacao farmers who cultivate the majority of fine flavor cacao beans from growing Criollo or Trinitario cacao trees have traditionally achieved low profits, even though fine flavor cacao is a premium product and often sells for two to four times more than bulk or ordinary cacao.
Beyond low profits, according to a report from the Caribbean Export Development Agency titled “The Cocoa Industry in CARIFORUM,” the growth of fine flavor cacao in the Caribbean has been limited due to an aging farmer population, high labor cost and also lack of interest by young adults in farming. Other challenges include limited knowledge by many cacao farmers of modern farming techniques, diseases, and pests, declining soil fertility, aging cocoa fields, dwindling cocoa acreage and climate change which results in rising temperatures and drought. Also, limited understanding of the business of cocoa and international markets results in a disconnect within the chocolate industry.
Despite these challenges, there is an increasing number of artisan Caribbean Chocolate brands. A significant reason for this is that a growing number of cacao farmers in the Caribbean are no longer exporting their premium cacao beans to international chocolatiers but now producing their own bean-to-bar products or selling locally to chocolatiers. Reducing the number of players in the supply chain has helped to increase profits for many cacao farmers. The bean to bar model was pioneered by The Grenada Chocolate Company and has paved the way for new entries like the Trinidad & Tobago Fine Cocoa Company working to not just produce fine chocolate but also improve the economic model for Caribbean cacao farmers.
Another reason for the upward trend is that many Caribbean cacao plantations now offer chocolate tours of their fields, processing facilities and their chocolate factory. Also, annual festivals like the Grenada Chocolate Festival are helping to raise the profile and demand for the growing range of chocolate products like chocolate liqueurs from the Caribbean region. Finally, the upward trend can be linked to a wide variety of cacao initiatives from organizations like the International Fine Cocoa Innovation Centre, the Caribbean Fine Cocoa Forum, the Cocoa Research Centre at the University of West Indies and the Caribbean Export Development Agency. There is still some way to go, but many of these initiatives focused on studying cacao farming, sharing best practices to produce a quality niche product have also helped to reinvigorate the cacao industry in the Caribbean.
Note: This blog post/article is part of a series featuring Caribbean entrepreneurs and businesses sponsored by the Caribbean Export Development Agency. Working together with the European Union, the Caribbean Export Development Agency supports the sustainable development of Caribbean brands ultimately to increase employment in the region, inclusiveness, particularly for youth, women and indigenous groups, and secure overall poverty reduction.
Ursula Petula Barzey
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