Chocolate as Currency

Posted on 15 June 2016

Chocolate as Currency

Chocolate can be worth a great deal of money - just visit any high-end chocolatier, and you can see firsthand how much cash for how little chocolate people are willing to exchange.

But chocolate also used to be money. Or at least the beans from which it is made were.

Cacao beans were used as currency in Mesoamerica for centuries. Peter Martyr, an early seventeenth-century Italian writer, referred to this as "happie money" in his book The New World. He was enchanted by the idea of a wealth that didn't have to be mined, but which grew on trees.

Perhaps there has never been such an unprepossessing coin, at least if one goes by looks alone. Cup a handful of coffee beans and you hold rich beauty. Cacao beans are possessed of none of this color, uniformity, or smoothness. They look like something an ardent pebble collector would leave, unnoticed, on the ground.

So unlovely are cacao beans, in fact, that in 1579, when English buccaneers captured a Spanish ship loaded with cacao beans, they set it on fire. They thought the beans were sheep droppings.

Nearly ten years later, the cargo of yet another Spanish ship loaded with cacao beans was destroyed. The British didn't know what it was -- the Spanish were keeping this treasure of the New World to themselves -- and it certainly didn't glitter like gold.

Years before these incidents, Columbus' son Ferdinand was wryly amused by the way some Mayans he observed treated "those almonds which in New Spain are used for money." If one of them dropped a cacao bean, "they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen."

"Those almonds" were worth scrambling for. You could buy a tomato or a tamale for one, an egg or an avocado for three. A small rabbit was worth 30, a large one 100. The company of a willing woman could be purchased for 10. Dropping a bean or two wasn't just losing the pennies from one's pocket.

Chocolate at this point was only consumed as a beverage, so it wasn't quite the same thing as trading chocolate chips for other items of value. True, the currency was perishable, but not something one might be tempted to simply pop into one's mouth.

Where there are horses, there will be horse-thieves; and where there is currency, there will be counterfeiters. Among the Aztecs, there were many ways of creating a fake cacao bean and making a profit off the unwary. Dough, wax, or broken pieces of avocado pits could be molded into the right shape and then covered with cacao hulls.

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