Is Cocoa Colonialist? A Brief History and Attempt at Criticism

This article was previously published in Issue 20, ISLANDS (March 2019).

Islands have occupied much of my research interests since taking up Dr Emily Mann’s second-year undergraduate course: ‘Competing Ventures, Contested Visions: Constructing European Empires in the Early Modern World’. A lot of the scholarship on this period is concerned with the study of commodities and luxury items, charting their arrival and integration into European cultures. One of the products that arrived as a novelty to Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries and has since embarked on its own colonising journey of sorts is the cocoa bean. Without this humble and unassuming bean, we would not have the dessert or café scene that has become such an intrinsic part of our dietary and cultural identities.

Sacher Torte (Image: Aniko Petri)

We must first, however, mention the origins of this plant. Mesoamerican communities, especially the Mayans and the Aztecs, have eaten and traded cocoa beans for almost three thousand years. They revered the plant as the physical manifestation of Quetzalcoatl, God of Wisdom, using it not just for the pleasure of consumption and as a religious aid, but also, as the foundation of their economy. During his fourth colonising voyage to the Caribbean islands of Grenada, St. Vincent,