Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Cocoa - a New World Product

The impact of the New World on the old is hard to grasp in these times of globalisation, but may be glimpsed in the appreciation of the sweet potato as being highly praised. It was precious a delicacy that when Falstaff in Shakespeare's play thinks of the wonderful treat that he will give to the ladies of Windsor, he cries "Let the sky rain potatoes" and he meant sweet potatoes, the rare delicacy from the Americas.
Historians and social scientists often talk of the debt of the New World to the Old; of the crops that were brought in to supplement the cassava and the maize of the Amerindians: rice, oranges, lemons, bananas, the grapefruit and the sugar cane. But the New World also gave many new things to Europe. New words entered European literature, such as tobacco, potato, maize, hammock, savannah, cannibal, hurricane, pirogue, manatee, tomato, quinine, alpaca, guano and cocoa.
The metals that come from Mexico and Peru were the cause of a price revolution that took place in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and you will find countless references in English literature of the period to the silver, gold and jewels of the Americas. During this period, several references were made to gold, the bright red gold of the Guianas, and to the jewels and birds, the strange foods and fruit of the New World.
Some years ago, I went to Gran Couva to visit Mr. Louis de Verteuil, who had been in his time one of the great cocoa planters of Trinidad. Acres upon acres of cocoa trees surrounded the estate house, shaded by enormous immortelles, blazing a remarkable vermillion. He sat in his gallery, a wide-brimmed straw hat slightly tilted over his forehead. At first, I thought he was asleep. but as it turned out, he was listening to his cocoa growing. Later on, he told me about the "golden bean". He said that it was one of the really great gifts to the world. Europe, he said, knew nothing of the cocoa until the early years of the 16th century. Perhaps its first home was in the basins of the Orinoco and Amazon, but by the time that Columbus came to the Caribbean, it was known in Mexico and other parts of America. The tribes of Mexico thought that it was of divine origin, a plant from heaven. They used the beans as money, so that a province might pay some of its tribute to the chief in cocoa beans, and a man might pay ten beans for a rabbit and 100 beans for a slave.
He said that in South America long ago, in the time of Christopher Columbus and Herman Cortes, cocoa was prepared by boiling it with a mixture of ground corn and flavouring it with red pepper. The Emperor Montezuma is said to have been very fond of this drink and when his palace was taken, the Spaniards found vast amounts of cocoa.
The Spaniards, however, did not take to drinking cocoa until some nuns in Guanaco began to prepare it with sugar, vanilla and cinnamon. Louis de Verteuil said that by the beginning of the 17th century, chocolate was a popular drink with the Europeans. Chocolate houses were opened in Oxford and London, one of the most famous being White's Chocolate House, which became a famous London club.
You would have found some of these early recipes a little too rich, and certainly costly. One recipe called for 100 cocoa beans, two heads of chili, a handful of anise or vanilla, a dozen almonds and some hazelnuts, some cinnamon, half a pound of sugar and a little annatto (ruccou) for colouring.
Most of the cocoa for Europe at first came from Venezuela, but slowly Trinidad gained some of the trade. cocoa seems to have been grown in the island quite early, for the Spaniards reported finding it in 1617, but it does not seem to have been cultivated on any scale before the end of the 17th century.
By 1710, however, it was the staple crop of the island.  Cocoa groves began to spread through the fertile Santa Cruz valley and in the Maraval valley, and money began to flow into Trinidad. Up to that time, this island had no staple crop. It had been a stopping place for foreign traders and pirates, raiding the coast of the mainland to the south. It had been a base for adventurers like Don Antonio de Berrio and Sir Walter Raleigh, who used it as a forward camp for exploring the Orinoco in and attempt to find El Dorado. Now, the golden bean gave Trinidad a crop that was valuable.
Barbados had its sugarcane, Trinidad had its cocoa, and we were told that cocoa grown in Trinidad was of a much better quality than the cocoa grown in Caracas and other parts of the mainland. It fetched a good price. Settlers began to move into the island and the Catholic missions did much to pacify the cannibals so as to encourage the industry. But as soon as man begins to grow any crop on a large scale, he provides some pest or disease with opportunity. In 1727, a "blast" hit the cocoa industry in Trinidad and wiped it out. The cocoa planters were ruined. Those who could manage to do so moved to the mainland. The Amerindians who had been growing cocoa under the guidance of the missions went back to their subsistence crops of cassava and maize—the result was that in 1735, the total population of Trinidad exclusive of the Amerindians stood at 162.
What was the disease? One can only guess. We are told that "the trees were apparently healthy and vigorous, flowering abundantly, giving fruits". None of them came to maturity, as young pods dried up before the full fruits. Different reasons were given for the outbreak of the disease. One planter said it was caused by the north wind. Another thought that it was due to the long spell of dry weather, another that it was caused by the appearance of a comet. One of the priests, Father Gumilla, was quite sure that it was an act of God, a punishment sent on the planters who had not paid their church dues.
Some thirty years later, a new variety of cocoa was brought into Trinidad, the "forastero". However, the cocoa industry did not really begin to flourish again until the Spanish government published its famous cedula of 1783, offering very generous terms to those who would like to come to Trinidad to settle, providing they were Catholic and took an oath of loyalty to the King of Spain.
This opened the door to significant development and later prosperity. Cocoa became, especially from the 1860s, a source of wealth for Trinidadians of all classes, conditions and colours. From small farmers to very large estates, the demand for Trinidad-grown cocoa created a trickle-down of wealth. Everyone got something. Money from the cocoa economy allowed middle and lower class people to provide an education for their children, enabling a generation to become teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers and surveyors, and as such leave behind the prison of poverty and ignorance.
The cocoa economy provided disposable income which benefited the traders and commission agents who imported goods. This in turn provided employment to thousands of sales people, clerks and book keepers. It stimulated shipping, banking and insurance, and jobs in the growing government bureaucracy of this, the most prosperous island of the Lesser Antilles. Those were the good old days!

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