The Inca regarded cocoa as a drink of the gods, and it was reserved for the high nobility of this empire that once existed in the cloudy mountaintops of the Andes.
South America’s great jungles with their vast river systems of the Orinoco and the Amazon are the true home of the ‘Golden Bean’.
In Trinidad, cocoa has been cultivated since Spanish times, with varying degrees of success. After the abolition of slavery and the collapse of the French planters’ cane economy, the planters turned to cocoa cultivation so as to save the day. In the 1840s, when the nearly bankrupt planters, who were by now in their second generation, moved deeper into the valleys of the Northern Range, Grand Couva and the Montserrat Hills, cocoa was only moderately successful.
But little did those ‘cocoa pioneers’ know how right their timing was! Within another decade cocoa became a staple in Trinidad’s export market. Cocoa is a different crop than sugar: whereas cane is only viable with vast acreages, people with small plots of land were able to participate in cocoa cultivation.
The effect this had on the structure of the society was very positive: the middle classes of all races became if not wealthy but really very comfortable. Country people, the Hispanic-Amerindian population, also benefitted from the cocoa economy, clearing the forest and cultivating with loving care the cocoa fields.
The cocoa industry in these islands played a key part in the socio-economic development between the 1860s and the 1920s. It was driven by the manufacture of eating chocolate which had been introduced by the Cadbury Brothers in Great Britain, as well as by technological advancements made in the production of cocoa as a drink.
The industrial revolution and the emergence of Europe’s middle class with its predilection for the ‘finer things of life’, served to create a very large market for cocoa and chocolate. For nearly three-quarters of a century, the Afro-Franco creole culture, together with its older ‘cocoa pagnol’ cousinage, boomed. Many small and medium businesses blossomed as a result of exporting cocoa and importing and distributing goods. Many families of the coloured lower and middle classes were able to own small cocoa estates, live comfortably, educate their children, and maintain the values and morals of that respectability so vital in colonial life in those years. In fact, the cocoa boom is what is referred to as the ‘good old days’, the longtime days of the collective memory of Trinidad as it has come down to us over the years.
Hon. Arthur Hamilton Gordon C.M.G., who was governor of Trinidad from 1866 to 1870, encouraged the opening up of crown lands for the cultivation of cocoa. As much as two thirds of the land were utilised, and by the 1870s, cocoa exports exceeded that of sugar. By 1884, with the depression of sugar releasing land, labour and capital, cocoa development increased in profitability.
In Port-of-Spain and the other main towns, development became increasingly apparent. New neighbourhoods came into existence. One could even say that the pretty little gingerbread houses of Woodbrook, Belmont, in San Fernando south of the Paradise cemetery, moving towards Rushworth Street, at St. Joseph and in Arima came about as the result of the ‘Golden Bean’.
The ‘cocoa pagnols’ were in fact the pioneers of the industry. They established the estates in two ways: one approach was for a family to acquire crown lands, fell the trees and plant the cocoa. Upon maturing of the trees, the family would sell the estate at a good profit, and go to repeat the process somewhere else. In so doing, they were making a small fortune over two or three genereations.
The other approach for plantations to be established was through the contract system. These contracts would last about five or seven years, with an agreement made by the owner with peasant families to develop an area of forest into a plantation. The family had free usage of the land, with the stipulation to plant and care for a certain amount of cocoa trees per acre, and plant and sell their own market garden crops. When the trees reach maturity, the owner would take over the land and paid an agreed amount for each bearing cocoa tree to the family.
Cocoa served to develop Trinidad in those years in a variety of ways. New villages came into existence, with schools, churches, chapels, masonic lodges and friendly societies, post offices and warden’s offices, markets and shops. Old towns like Arima and Sangre Grande, Princes Town and San Fernando became active, busy and prosperous. The island’s population moved out of the original centres of settlement which had formed after emancipation. There was prosperity in the countryside. A new verve in the folk arts of the patois-speaking people expressed itself in dance and song. For the first time, it became possible for people of all races and combinations of races, to enjoy the benefits of the economy.