Chocolate, Subsistence, and Survival in Early English Jamaica
Keywords:Chocolate, cacao, Jamaica, seventeenth century, English colonization, commodity, subsistence, survival, climate, indigenous knowledge, maroons, plantation, counter-plantation, ecology
This article traces the history of chocolate in seventeenth-century Jamaica to show that it initially promised to fulfill English desires for a commodity crop and subsistence good. Chocolate never became a major export for Jamaica and thus has not been the subject of a commodity history of the island. The focus instead has been on sugar, which became the basis for the large-scale, monocultural plantations that dominated Jamaica’s landscape. Nevertheless, as they tried to identify the most effective means of making a profit, early colonists experimented with a wide variety of crops, including cacao, the source of chocolate. Chocolate also attracted attention as a potential subsistence good: becoming convinced that it was an Amerindian superfood, Anglo-Jamaicans hoped that its consumption would help them survive in an unfamiliar and potentially dangerous climate. Whether English colonists could appropriate indigenous traditions and knowledge came into question, however, with the failure of the island’s cacao crops in the 1660s. This failure also raised the prospect of African resistance, as planters imagined that their enslaved labor force was using chocolate to practice marronage or escape from the plantation system. Looking at chocolate thus reveals a history of counter-plantations and alternative ecologies in early Jamaica.