From Maya To Market
NI traces the history of the growing passion for chocolate
and the shifting source of the magic bean from which it springs.
Illustrations by Ato de Graft-Johnson
Oh, divine chocolate!
The first known use of the cocoa bean to make a spicy (not sweet) chocolate drink dates back to the Mayan empire of what is today Southern Mexico and Guatemala. Here the cocoa bean can still be found growing wild in the bush of coastal Chiapas and neighbouring northern Guatemala. For the Maya cocoa and the thick ‘chocolatl’ drink that it rendered were a symbol of sanctity, evoking both fertility and prosperity. Mayan priests are the first to have made the drink during the classical Mayan period from about AD 250 to 900. The bean was so highly valued that it was used as a form of currency at a fixed market rate — you could get a rabbit for ten beans, a slave cost a hundred
and a prostitute went from eight to ten
‘according to how they agree.’
Spoils of war
With the inexplicable and much-debated collapse of Mayan civilization the use of chocolate spread north (probably carried by Mayan traders) to the hierarchical Aztec Empire of central Mexico. Here the drink was restricted to the élite of warriors, merchants and priests who held sway over Aztec life. It is interesting that Aztec warriors carried light high-energy chocolate on military campaigns and that later chocolate gained its post-World War One popularity after it was used in soldier’s ration kits. Cocoa beans continued to be used as a currency (there were even bean counterfeiters!) so those who could actually afford to ‘drink money’ were privileged indeed. The Aztec emperors stored beans as a way of hoarding wealth and are reported at one point to have had some 960,000,000 beans in the royal coffers. Much of this was undoubtedly tribute from subject peoples invaded by the warlike Aztecs. When chocolate was prepared it was with great ceremony, paying careful attention to the foaming process and adding a delicate mixture of spices, honey and flowers to get a recipe correct.
Unlike the Aztec’s gold, chocolate was not immediately to the taste of the barbaric Spaniards who slaughtered any Amerindians who would not accept the domination of the Spanish crown. One commentator at the time shook his head at the bitter-tasting drink, claiming it was more fit for pigs than people. But innovation through the adding of sugar transformed chocolate for the sweet European palate and it grew in popularity, particularly with the ladies of the Spanish court. Other innovations included taking the liquid hot rather than cold and producing it as a tablet that was readily transportable and crumbled into a powder from which the chocolate drink could be concocted. For nearly a century chocolate remained a secret of the Spanish aristocracy virtually unknown in the rest of Europe. Rumour had it that the strong taste of chocolate was useful for covering up poisons. The fanatical Charles the Second of Spain is reported to have sat sipping chocolate while observing victims of the inquisition being put to death.
When chocolate finally escaped the Iberian peninsula it remained an item of luxury consumption to be consumed only by people of means. Even with the establishment of chocolate houses in London, a tax of 75p a pound kept the price out of reach of most ordinary folk. The spread of chocolate led to a debate as to its medical and temperamental value that still rages to this day. Early theories of human metabolism were based on the balance of hot and cold ‘humours’ and various experts disputed whether chocolate would cool the overheated ardour or heat normally cooler passions. This anticipates later debates as to the aphrodisiac nature of chocolate and its effects as a dangerous stimulant to the emotions or relatively harmless substitute for alcohol and other drugs. The Marquis de Sade’s status as one of the earliest-known `chocoholics’ adds a certain spice to such speculations.
Chocolate for the masses
For some twenty-eight centuries chocolate had been a drink of the élite from Aztec emperors to French courtiers and the English bourgeois. But with the invention of a cocoa press by the Dutchman Van Houten in the late 19th century that extracted the cocoa butter out of the beans leaving a powder of cocoa solids — all that changed. Not only was the noble trade of cocoa grinder put into jeopardy (over 150 such grinders plied their trade in Madrid alone where they formed their own guild) but a vast new confectionery industry came into being. The Cadbury company which brought the press to England was soon churning out both powder and candy bars as fast as the machinery would work. They were quickly joined by Rowntree in Britain and Milton Hershey and later Forest E Mars who set up plants in Pennsylvania and Chicago respectively. To this day these and a few other firms from continental Europe, most prominently the gigantic Nestlé corporation based in Switzerland, dominate the growing global chocolate market.
If you want to send your children to school, it is cocoa
Source of the bean
Despite all the talk of Swiss chocolate the source of cocoa has always been in tropical or semitropical agriculture. The Spanish empire in the Americas initially used Amerindian labour in first Mexico and Guatemala and then Ecuador and Venezuela to provide the raw material for the favoured drink of the European aristocrats. But by the end of the 17th Century all but 10 per cent of the original native population had succumbed to a combination of harsh repression, disease and slave labour imposed by their Spanish overlords. The new source of agricultural labour was slaves ripped from their societies in West Africa and transported across the Atlantic in the now infamous `triangular’ trade by which shiploads of cocoa eventually arrived in Spanish ports. Nor were the Spanish alone in this dark enterprise as the French, English, and Portuguese used African slaves to expand cocoa and other agricultural raw-material production in their New World colonies.
The Dutch brought as many as 100,000 unfortunate slaves
a year through their tiny Caribbean colony in Curacao.
Today less than 2 per cent of cocoa comes from Mexico where the Mayans first sipped their sacred but bitter concoctions. In a rich historical irony and a major prefiguring of today’s global economy, world cocoa production shifted to West Africa at the end of the 19th century. The region that had once provided the slaves to grow the New World’s cocoa now became the major source of global supply. From the island colonies of Portuguese Africa São Tomé and Fernando Po cuttings of the cocoa tree were transported first to the Gold Coast and then Nigeria and finally in 1905 to the French colony of Côte d’Ivoire which is today’s largest producer. In Ghana it is held that the cocoa seedlings were not an imposition of colonial merchants but were smuggled into the country by a Ghanaian carpenter named Tetteh Quarshie in 1878. Ghana was to be the world’s largest supplier of the bean from 1910 to 1979 when poor prices combined with other circumstances to disillusion many of the small farmers who were the backbone of Ghana’s cocoa economy.
Price and quality
In colonial times the British-based companies who purchased Gold Coast (the rather wishful British name for their colony in Ghana) cocoa beans such as the United Africa Company also held the monopoly for the sale of industrial goods in the local market. This provided a significant advantage to these firms who could profit by high charges for what they imported and the lowest possible price to the farmers. The beans were then sold on to the big chocolate manufacturers. Under this system there was naturally increasing resentment amongst farmers who seldom benefitted from increases in the international price but were made to pay for any price drops. In an attempt to resist arbitrary price-setting farmers simply refused to sell their beans to buyers. One such boycott following the 1929 depression led to the formation by Tete-Ansa of the West African Co-operative Producers Association as an alternative marketing channel that would break the expatriate stranglehold. Another boycott in the late 1930s held cocoa beans off the market for many months and led to the establishment of the Nowell Commission to investigate pricing policies. Also at this time there was a struggle between Cadbury and the United Africa Company over the quality of beans. In those days Cadbury wanted high quality for their chocolate while the United Africa Company was primarily interested in quantity and price as there was a market for all grades of beans. To this day Ghanaian beans earn premium price for their high quality.
Nkrumah and cocoa
The late 1950s and early 1960s were exciting days in Ghana as the country became the first independent state in sub-Saharan Africa. The leadership of Kwame Nkrumah with his radical nationalism and Pan-Africanism pushed an ambitious vision of Ghana’s future. Plans for industrialization, electrifi-cation, import substitution and a revolution in education had to be underwritten by the foreign exchange earned from minerals, timber and most importantly cocoa. Given the boom prices of the 1950s (although most profits never made it back to the Gold Coast) this did not seem unrealistic. But although production increased by a third, the international price fell by more than this. Newly independent Ghana’s first seven-year economic plan was based on an international price of £180 a ton but by 1965 the price of cocoa had fallen to £65 a ton. Enemies of Nkrumah’s radical model for Africa were quick to bring massive pressure to bear. The Ghanaian Cocobod ( the national marketing board) was forced into unpopular cuts in the price paid to farmers. Poor prices not only undermined Nkrumah’s ambitious economic program but helped sap his political support leading to the military coup which eventually was his downfall.
The price roller-coaster
After Nkrumah’s fall the revenue earned from cocoa became an ever-more important source of financial support for the Ghanaian state. As a result the percentage of the price paid to farmers went into steady decline until the early 1980s. A low world price in the early 1970s gave way to a boom by the end of the decade with prices peaking at nearly £3,000 a ton in 1977. This was partly due to poor weather conditions affecting supply and partly due to speculation. But with internal purchase and price controlled by the powerful Cocobod, farmers ended up suffering far more from low prices than they ever benefited from the price boom. As a result many Ghanaian farmers voted with their feet, cut down their trees for timber and planted food crops instead. This combined with very dry weather and a disastrous series of bush fires resulted
in a plunge of Ghanaian cocoa production from about 30 per cent of the
world total to less than 12 per cent by the early 1980s.
The era of liberal competition
After a more modest price boom in the mid-1980s the chocolate companies, wholesale buyers and aid agencies encouraged a number of new countries to get into cocoa production as a high-value `miracle’ commodity. As a result a number of Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia (and soon Vietnam) set up large cocoa plantations and Brazil and other Latin American countries increased their production. The result was as intended — an increase in supply and a drop in price. In West Africa, particularly Ghana, cocoa remains a small-holder crop and massive agrochemical plantations are rare. A regime of liberal market economics, according to recipes developed in the Washington kitchen of the International Monetary Fund, is now the economic orthodoxy of the region. While this has resulted in a better internal cocoa price for Ghanaian farmers, new health and education charges, skyrocketing prices for
agricultural chemicals and a stagnant world price have mostly
undermined any improvement.
Ato de Graft-Johnson is a Ghanaian illustrator who teaches at the College of Art in Kumasi.