top of page

The Price of Chocolate

Queen's University Library, W.D. Jordan Special Collections and Music Library

Today, popular chocolate can be purchased for pocket change; however, that has not always been the case. And while the dollar amount tacked to a chocolate bar has fluctuated over time, the amount of work and exploitation that goes into growing the cacao tree has not. In John Chamberlayne’s 1682 treatise, “The Natural History of Coffee, Thee, Chocolate, Tobacco in Four Several Sections...” coffee, tea, tobacco, and cacao are all grouped into the same unofficial classification. Though the reason behind the similarities among the beverages--caffeine--was unknown at the time, these pleasures each found a place within English coffee-houses by the turn of the 18th century. Cacao was the last of these four commodities to be introduced to England through the writing of James Wadsworth, Thomas Gage, Henry Stubbe, and William Hughes, who each suggested that English involvement in cacao cultivation would be beneficial for the English economy. Following the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the English had begun establishing cacao plantations on the island of Jamaica. See last week’s post on William Hughes’ The American Physician for an overview of the horticulture that developed from this colonial occupation.

Known especially as the first translator of Philippe Dufour’s Usages du caphé, du thé, et du chocolate (1671) into English in 1685, John Chamberlayne was not a botanist by trade. Yet, in his own hand, he penned one of the first discussions of cacao focusing on its botanical properties. In it he references only English authorities and their findings on cacao, as if the product is native to England rather than an indigenous Mesoamerican commodity. A pre-existing foundation of knowledge about cacao had already been laid by authors such as Wadsworth, Stubbe and Hughes. Chamberlayne’s contribution to this foundation includes the documentation of detailed comparisons between the physical characteristics of the cacao tree and common English botany. Beneath the botanical comparisons, however, lies a sense of English entitlement and pride which can be identified in the way that the English invoked the use of slavery to mass produce the cacao crop.

Agricultural science plays a major part in the successful production of cacao, a crop that is extremely sensitive to the conditions in which it is planted. As a writer of natural history, Chamberlayne would have been especially interested in the agricultural conditions which support cacao and the regions of the world where those conditions were found. Today we know that cacao tree grows with 20 degrees latitude on either side of the equator. Chamberlayne, as Hughes before him, knew it by trial and error: “This Tree grows in several parts of America, as in Nicaragua, New Spain, Mexico, Cuba and in Jamaica, especially at Collonel [sic] Barrington’s Quarters, or Plantations; they prosper best in low, moist and far ground…”(14). The climate of these regions is indicative of the tree’s sensitive need for a certain level of heat, moisture and open space to grow. Though cacao could be, and was, transplanted into areas where it did not originally reside, it would have been impossible to bring the crop as far north as England. Although the tree had climate needs that could not be met in England, Chamberlayne uses analogy to describe the tree, “as large as our English Plumb-trees” with “fruit appears upon the branches as apples.” His analogy creates the illusion that it could be native to England even though it was not.

Since cacao could not be brought to England, England would have to insert itself into the parts of the world where it could grow. Colonel Barrington, an English figure of power, prosperity, and industry mentioned by Chamberlayne, oversaw a cacao plantation in Jamaica. The introduction of large-scale modern plantations into New World agriculture would completely change the future of cacao cultivation. Prior to the English presence within the Americas, cacao was elaborately cultivated at lower latitudes and at a much smaller scale. By moving the crop to Jamaica, the English were able to produce it at a scale that suited their global trade needs. The tree was planted on these plantations for the sole purpose of mass cultivation. With mass cultivation comes mass yield, and with mass yield comes the need for increased manpower within the field and along the trade route.

The demand for cacao quickly grew as the Old World learned of its many uses and benefits. Plantations and mass production within the Americas made it easy for farmers to fulfill that demand. However, a middleman was needed to oversee that the cacao was successful in its transportation: “Mr. Hughes [author of The American Physician] gives us very good advice, in telling us, that we may buy the best chocolate of Seaman and Merchants, who bring it over ready made from the West Indies...” (15). The dynamic between the Old World seamen and merchants and the New World cacao farmers is an important relationship to identify. In all reality, the Old World, England specifically, did not know as much about cacao as they would like to make it seem.

Only the people who had been to the Americas and had interacted with the farmers were well-versed on the topic of cacao; seamen and merchants fit this description. Without them, buyers in the Old World would have no idea whether or not they were receiving quality cacao because the seamen and merchants performed quality control on all product purchased. The act of building relationships with farmers and traveling to the farms in order to ensure the quality of their product, known today as direct sourcing, has its roots in the colonial economy built upon the New World around products that could not be grown in Europe. But this direct trade was not of the locally beneficial variety.

The English could easily source directly from the cacao plantations in Central America because the plantations were under the growing British influence in the Caribbean, one of the then most mysteriously fertile regions of the world. They quickly learned, as had their Spanish predecessors, that the New World held promise as a bounteous land; what could not be produced in England could be produced in the New World and shipped back, and money could be made off of these foreign-grown goods. The manpower that was required within plantations was high, and plantation owners were not willing to lose money just because they did not have the means to collect all of their crop. In 1682, the year that Chamberlayne wrote his treatise, the British had been shipping Africans to the Caribbean. Tens of thousands of ships carrying slaves voyaged across the ocean from the West coast of Africa to South America and the Caribbean from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.

Although Chamberlayne does not explicitly note in the treatise that these plantations were maintained through the use of slavery, people from a handful of the hundreds of ships that sailed from Africa for the Caribbean could have ended that journey at Colonel Barrington’s plantation or the others that grew up after it. Chocolate came to England at a price.


Chamberlayne, John. The Natural history of coffee, thee, chocolate, tobacco in four several sections: with a tract of elder and juniper-berries, shewing how useful they may be in our coffee-houses: and also the way of making mum, with some remarks upon that liquor. Vol. Early History of Food. London, 1682.

Long, Edward. The History of Jamaica. Or, General Survey of the Antient and Modern State of that Island. T. Lowndes, in Fleet Street, 1774.

Lloyd Library and Museum. The Chocolate Connection: Hans Sloane & Jamaica. 2010. Web.

bottom of page