The cacao bean (theobroma cacao) comes from the large fleshy pod of a tropical bush or small tree. The plant is American, probably Amazonian in origin, and by the time of the European conquest had long ago diffused by unknown means to other parts of tropical America.
The bean yields chocolate, a nutritious fatty food or drink. In Mesoamerica cacao was domesticated many centuries before the Europeans arrived, and although tended groves grew on various parts of the Caribbean coast, such as the Gulf of Honduras and Tabasco, it was on the Pacific coastal plain, stretching all the way from Colima to the Gulf of Fonseca, that most production concentrated. Cacao beans were used for coinage, even into the Spanish colonial period, but it was as a drink that it found most favor, and the areas where it was cultivated were coveted by merchants and military states. Large quantities were collected as tribute and traded, and the drink enjoyed considerable prestige, so much so that in at least some areas only the aristocracy was permitted to drink it.
Whatever limits that were placed on its production and consumption disappeared after the European conquest, and cacao became a drink of mass consumption among the Mesoamerican native peoples, especially those of Central Mexico. Spaniards at first found the various chocolate concoctions, most of which contained maize gruel, chiles, and annatto for coloring, to be unpalatable, but they quickly seized the business opportunities involved, and merchants and encomenderos dominated cacao plantations and sales.
Soconusco, a satellite of the Aztec Empire, was the first area of extensive growth and export in the sixteenth century, but as it declined Izalcos, in present-day El Salvador, became the main producer. It, in its turn, was challenged and surpassed by the area around Guayaquil in Ecuador and then by the tropical valleys of Venezuela, and these two regions remained the main rivals for and suppliers of the Mexican market throughout the colonial centuries.
Europeans found that the addition of sugar and vanilla made chocolate tasty, and its consumption spread from Spain all over western Europe. Although eventually surpassed by coffee and tea, it remained entrenched in Catholic countries because although nutritious and filling, it was not prohibited during fasts.
As its use increased, the Dutch, who had captured the offshore island of Curaçao in 1634, began to trade illegally for Venezuelan cacao. Plantations then sprouted in Trinidad, Jamaica, Santo Domingo, and in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. In spite of these rivalries Guayaquil supplied most of Mexico's needs, and Venezuelan cacao dominated the European market throughout the eighteenth century.
Venezuelan production began to decline around 1800, and the destruction caused by the wars of independence further weakened the industry. Amazonian Brazil, long a producer of wild Marañón cacao, filled some of the gap, but Guayaquil, where production quadrupled in the second decade of the nineteenth century, was the main beneficiary.
In the 1820s, with Guayaquil still dominant, important changes in chocolate manufacturing and consumption pushed demand to new heights. In Holland, Conrad Van Houten developed a process for extracting cacao butter, and for manufacturing oil- and fat-free cocoa, a more digestible drink for children. About half a century later the Swiss pioneered the production of milk chocolate and, by the end of the century, hard chocolates, with cut flowers, had become the gifts associated with courtship.
Chocolate soon passed from being a luxury product for women and children to being an item of mass consumption. The emergence of giant firms such as Hershey in the United States; Fry, Cadbury, and Rowntree in Great Britain; Lindt and Tobler in Switzerland transformed marketing and consumption and created massive demand and new areas of production. The growth of the chocolate industry in the twentieth century has been spectacular. Concentrated in New York and London, the cacao market is now worldwide and highly competitive.
Ecuador, the leader in the 1820s, was the first producer for the world market, and the Guayaquil basin, supplied with labor from the depressed sierra, produced about 7,000 tons per year by the early 1840s. There it stagnated. Yellow fever and political turbulence hampered Ecuadorian growth until the 1870s, when a new spurt sent annual export to twenty thousand tons by 1900, a trade which supplied almost two-thirds of state revenues.
Venezuelan cacao, while it never regained the prosperity of 1800, remained in second place among Latin American producers until it was passed by Brazil and Trinidad around 1870. Coffee had become Venezuela's leading export.
Competition among Latin American states was not the main problem, however. From early intensive plantations on the islands of São Tomé and Principe, the leading suppliers of cacao in the world in the first decade of the twentieth century, intensive cultivation spread to the African mainland, where Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, and, more recently, the Ivory Coast became the world leaders.
Ecuador more or less kept its place until the end of World War I, although competition was affecting prices. Then the groves were hit by witch broom disease. Ecuador converted gradually to bananas, as Venezuela had to coffee, although Ecuador still exports large quantities of cacao. Brazil's cacao, most of which went to the United States, had ceased to be of the "wild" variety, and was now produced in southern Bahia. The Hershey company grew its own cacao in Cuba until its plantations were confiscated by the Cuban revolutionary government in the late 1950s. The Dominican Republic and Venezuela also export considerable quantities.
The great days of American cacao seem to have gone, however, and this American cultigen, which moved through so many Latin American tropical regions and which supplied Latin America with a major trade and export commodity for about four centuries, has now retreated to a minor role. In the early twenty-first century, the Ivory Coast supplies about 40 percent of the world's cacao. Ghana and Indonesia each have roughly 15 percent of the market. Latin American countries have begun to compete in the expanding premium chocolate market by producing organic crops, and farmers have started to produce cacao according to Fair Trade Standards, which stipulate living wages and good working conditions.
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Murdo J. MacLeod