The Beginnings of Caribbean Cacao

Theobroma cacao is indigenous to Central America as it falls in the cocoa belt which is an area where the chocolate tree prefers to grow and flourish. The cocoa belt falls exactly twenty degrees both north and south of the equator. Theobroma cacao can grow in other areas, but it will not flower. No flowers mean no cocoa pods. It is believed that the cacao has been grown in the country of Belize for over 3,000 years. Actual farming began in the year 250 BCE. Today, cacao is still grown by the Mayan Indians (yes there are still Mayan Indians) in the Toledo area of Belize. Interestingly enough, Hershey’s, a United States company, is working with them along with the United States government for commercial export.

Green and Black’s, a company of the United Kingdom, was the first to export organic cocoa out of the Belize in 1992. It was the first Free Trade commodity in the United Kingdom. Green and Black’s sold the cocoa under the label of Mayan Black. Since then the growth of cacao has diminished due to lack of government subsidies for cacao, high-cost production, improvement of job opportunities in other sectors and the damage from Hurricane Iris in 2001 that virtually wiped out Theobroma cacao.

Another country producing substantial amounts of cacao was Costa Rica. Theobroma cacao was brought to Costa Rica in the 1800s by the Jamaicans who were working on the railroads and were already successfully growing cacao. Costa Rica already had large crops of banana trees which were perfect cover trees for the Theobroma cacao as the cacao likes to be shaded from direct sunlight. The cacao plantations thrived and cacao farmers prospered. In the 1960s, pod rot hit the entire country of Costa Rica resulting in the loss of 95% of the country’s cacao.

From the 16th century through the end of World War I, the farming of Theobroma cacao was dominant in the Caribbean islands. During this time, the islands producing the most cacao were Jamaica, Trinidad and the Windward Islands which include Dominica, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, the Grenadines and Grenada. After that time, West Africa took over as the leaders in cocoa production.

Theobroma cacao was introduced to the Caribbean islands by the Spanish in the early 16th century. The Spaniards brought the tree from Venezuela and records indicate that the first planting of Theobroma cacao was in Trinidad. There is a rumor that the British burned a ship to the ground in the late 16th century thinking the cocoa beans were sheep’s droppings. Oops! At the turn of the 17th century, Spanish physicians noted the medicinal qualities present in chocolate, many of which are still valid for dark chocolate today, and chocolate as medicine was brought into England. Cocoa demand increased.

Venezuela was the largest producer of cacao in the 18th century. The Caribbean began to increase cacao in both the amount of trees they were growing as well as the amount of cocoa beans they were exporting. Spain tried to prohibit the export of the Venezuelan raw cocoa beans to create a monopoly. From 1728 through 1780, they succeeded. A group of Spanish noblemen controlled the entire Venezuelan crop of cocoa. Cocoa started coming from the Caribbean and other countries, mostly illegally, during this time. Privateers flourished in these years basically taking over control of the cocoa trade which some say lasted until the 18th century. Pirate ships were seen all over the Caribbean waters making a lucrative living bringing cocoa to Europe. A lot of the ships carrying cocoa were often either seized or burned to gain control of the cocoa trafficking. People wanted their cocoa!

More next week on the various Caribbean islands and their contribution to the world of Theobroma cacao.  Signing off for this week…

Annmarie Kostyk, Chocolate Goddess

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