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A Short History of Cocoa

Cocoa was a well-established crop and article of commerce in the early 16th century in Central America. In 1520, when Cortés discovered Mexico City (then the capital of the Aztec peoples) and met their leader (Montezuma), he found that cocoa beans were used in the preparation of a luxury drink “chocolatl” made by roasting the whole cocoa beans, grinding them and mixing with maize meal, vanilla and chilli. They were then stirred with a special whisk, rather in the fashion still adopted today in Colombia, the Philippines and elsewhere. These cocoa beans had not been actually grown by the Aztec peoples but by Mayas who gave them as tribute to Montezuma. At that time cocoa had more significance than merely being the main ingredient of a drink; as the cocoa beans were easy to count and were relatively valuable, they were widely used as currency. In Mexico, this use for cocoa beans appears to have continued until at least 1840.

From 1520 through to the middle of the 17th century, the main cocoa areas were all in, or around, present-day Mexico, extending as far as Honduras. All the cocoa cultivated at that time was Criollo, probably as this type gives a palatable drink with little fermentation. Columbus encountered cocoa from Honduras in 1502 and this represented the first contact of the Old World with cocoa beans. He transported some to Spain and introduced cocoa drinks to the Spanish court, where it was much valued. The drink soon became popular amongst the aristocracy in Spain, later in Italy, Flanders, France and England. Spain maintained a monopoly on the trade in cocoa until the Dutch took over Curaçao in 1634, enabling the trade and use of cocoa beans to then expand rapidly, though still only amongst the most wealthy as the duties and cost of transport were very high.

In the mid-16th century, cocoa cultivation of Criollo types spread in the West Indies (Jamaica, Martinique and Trinidad), having in addition been transported in about 1560 across the Pacific to the Philippines, thence a little later to Sulawesi and Java, and perhaps as well to India and Sri Lanka. By 1700, cocoa was being grown throughout Central America, in many of the Caribbean Islands and in areas adjacent to the Andes in South America, but it still remained a great luxury.

Early in the 1800s, duties were reduced and consumption increased, though only as a chocolate drink high in fat, being still made from the whole cocoa bean. In 1828, Van Houten designed a press to remove some of the fat and opened up a vast range of new products including chocolates as we know them today! This was the first of many major technical advances that have led to the wide variety of products based on the cocoa bean now available. Very modest quantities of cocoa are used in cosmetics, the rest being as chocolate and other foodstuffs.

There was considerable trade between Brazil and West Africa in the 19th century and so the introduction of cocoa into Africa could be seen as inevitable, and 1822 seems to be the date generally given for the movement of cocoa to Principe, a small volcanic island just off the West African coast, then under Portuguese control. Plants were then soon moved to all the other islands off that coast, but large-scale cultivation in West Africa only started in Nigeria in 1874 and Ghana in 1879. However, from 1857 missionary groups had been attempting introductions into Ghana although with almost no success.

In 1876, Daniel Peter mixed milk solids with cocoa and sugar to make milk chocolate and this led to very rapid growth in chocolate popularity from the start of the 20th century. With this, cocoa plantings on a significant scale began and there was a shift in the balance of production from South America and the Caribbean to West Africa. The other great change then was the move from plantings of the Criollo types to the Forastero types, because of their higher yield potential and greater resistance to pests and diseases. In the 1850s, beans from Criollo types accounted for almost 80% of total global production of cocoa, by 1900 it had fallen to 40-45% and since then it has continued to fall steadily to perhaps only 1 or 2% in 1998.

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