The History of Cocoa in Trinidad and Tobago

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 and Tobago, cocoa production has contributed to the socio-economic development of the country for over 200 years and more, as it is undoubtedly stated about the local cocoa industry on the island. The Spaniards first planted the Criollo (native) variety in Trinidad in 1525 which was introduced from Mexico. In 1716, which will go down in the history books, as the year, in which Edward Teach “Blackbeard” an infamous priate looted a brig loaded with cocoa bound for Span, setting fire to it in the Gulf of Paria, off ‘Port Espana’ known as Port od Spain today; for which the cocoa industry after that time and during 1727 was almost completely destroyed by a blast (a hurricane or Ceratocystis wilt or bark canker, a Phytophthora infection). Consequently, Forastero (exotic) cacao was introduced from Venezuela in 1757, and eventually inter-bred with the remnant Criollo to produce hybrid cacao referred to as Trinitario.

After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, there was a Crown Lands Utilisation programme in which Crown lands were distributed at low cost. Many freed slaves occupied these lands by virtue of squatter’s rights. Most of the Crown lands occupied in this way were cultivated in cacao.    By 1830, Trinidad and Tobago was the world’s third highest producer of cocoa, after Venezuela and Ecuador, producing 20% of the world’s cocoa.

The cocoa industry eventually dominated the local economy between 1866 and 1920 during which time the world demand for cocoa products increased, and cocoa prices remained stable and attractive. Subsequent to 1921, when local cocoa production peaked at 75 million lbs (34,000 tons), a combination of events led to the gradual decrease in production. World cocoa prices declined due to a glut on the market resulting from over-production, particularly in West Africa, then came the onset of the Great Depression of the 1920’s, the appearance of Witches’ Broom disease (WB) in Trinidad and Tobago in 1928, the increase in world sugar prices, and the development of the local petroleum industry, which competed for agricultural labour.

The local industry continued to prosper between 1870 and 1920.  In 1870, when the second phase of internal colonisation (this time by the English) began in the country, the annual production of cocoa beans was 6,800 tons. The demand for cocoa in Europe had increased along with the price, and the availability of labour was not a limiting factor in Trinidad due to the existence of the indentureship system. Cocoa soon replaced sugar, which entered a period of depression at this time (1884), as the leading agricultural commodity.  Much land was transferred from sugarcane to cacao cultivation. Thereafter, the cocoa industry expanded with the establishment of Trinitario plantings in several areas on the islands.

The rich and varied history of labour used on cocoa estates is worth recording since it was multi-cultural/ethnic. With the emancipation of slaves, a contract system evolved, whereby a contractor entered into a five-year contract with a large landowner, was granted cleared land and established cocoa estates of approximately 10 acres.  He was subsequently paid 24¢ for each bearing tree. Contractors were able to become small proprietors at the end of the contract period with the income generated by their service. At this time, cacao mortgages were also attractive investments. The Spanish peons (Cocoa Panyols), who came to Trinidad from Venezuela and undertook planting of cocoa, moved from area to area to select the best virgin soil in new districts for cacao cultivation. They sold the resulting estates when the highest yields were obtained. Previously unpopulated areas such as the valleys of the northern range, Sangre Grande, and parts of central and south Trinidad as well as some of the hillsides of Tobago were converted to cocoa production centres. High cocoa prices, high yields and low wages combined to make this period the Golden Age of the local cocoa industry.

Currently, there are approximately 1,700 farmers growing cocoa and coffee in Trinidad and Tobago. Many authorities have described the prospects for cocoa in Trinidad and Tobago as very promising, and numerous recommendations and several reports have been prepared over the years to demonstrate how the industry may be resuscitated, since there are many positive factors favouring the creation of a thriving cocoa industry.

Further reading link: Bekele, F. L. 2004. The History of Cocoa Production in Trinidad and Tobago.

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