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date: 05 March 2021

The Cocoa Trade in New Spain in the 18th Centuryfree

  • Guillermina del Valle PavónGuillermina del Valle PavónInstituto de Investigaciones Dr. José Ma. Luis Mora


In New Spain, cocoa was a staple food whose high demand at the beginning of the 17th century meant that cocoa beans were imported from Guatemala, Venezuela, and Guayaquil. The viceroyalty of New Spain became the largest world buyer of cocoa because it paid for the product with silver, which was the principal means of exchange at the time. The cocoa trade was monopolized by a small, powerful group of the Consulado (merchants’ guild) of Mexico City who contracted it, redistributed it to the rest of the viceroyalty, and shipped it to Spain. However, the Spanish Crown’s prohibitionist trade policy hindered the expansion of the cocoa trade to meet the demand in New Spain. As Spain intermittently suspended sailing between the viceroyalties of Mexico and Peru, the supply of Guayaquil cocoa was limited to shippers who could obtain special licenses and those who smuggled it. When the monarchy required extraordinary funds to finance its wars in Europe, it granted permits to move Ecuadorian cocoa through the Pacific routes. However, it preferred the supply of cocoa from Caracas for geostrategic reasons, a factor that was used by Caracas shippers to raise prices.

Mexican merchants preferred to import Ecuadorian cocoa because of its higher profitability. Trade in cocoa from this source was based on a confluence of complex kinship, community, and friendship networks. Finally, in 1789, the Guayaquil cocoa trade was authorized without restrictions, which significantly reduced the demand for Caracas cocoa. In addition, cocoa from Tabasco, Guatemala, and Maracaibo was traded in New Spain. The relationship between the Crown and the commercial elite of Mexico was characterized by a policy of continual ongoing negotiations. The cocoa trade was privileged in exchange for merchants’ contributions over and above regular fiscal payments.

The Emergence of a Spanish American Cocoa Market

Cocoa has been highly prized since pre-Colombian times when it was used to prepare drinks and other foods; moreover, it was used as currency and for the payment of tribute. Following the Spanish conquest, both cultivation and trade of the cocoa bean increased notably. Although at first the Spaniards did not find the drink prepared with cocoa and water pleasing, they modified it to their taste by adding milk and sugar. Because of its flavor and the energy it provided, chocolate was consumed in large quantities from the mid-16th century on and was one of the main foods of the residents of Mexico City and the surrounding region. Cocoa was a substantial part of the Mexican diet not only in institutions such as convents, schools, hospitals, and prisons, but also among residents; it was sold in most of the shops and streets of Mexico City. In the countryside, people drank chocolate in village markets and at feasts and served it when entertaining alcaldes mayores, the local viceregal administrative officials.

The high demand for cocoa beans led the Spaniards to cultivate them. Labor for harvest was provided by the indigenous people, and the cocoa haciendas were located close to where they lived. With the sharp demographic decline of the native population, most of the cocoa production was in the hands of the Spaniards, who recruited African slaves for growing cocoa in tropical regions near the coasts of the South Pacific and in those regions of Tabasco and Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico. From 1540 to 1580, cocoa farming increased in Guatemala, from where it was shipped to New Spain and to Europe.1 However, toward the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th, the cocoa crops of New Spain and Guatemala were insufficient to meet the demand. Cocoa from Guayaquil (Ecuador) entered the market in the 1610s and from Caracas (Venezuela) in the following decade. From that time forward, merchants in those regions struggled to exchange the agricultural products of their provinces for the silver of New Spain, which was the main means of exchange at the time. In this way, New Spain became the main international cocoa market.

Mexico City was the largest center for the consumption, storage, and distribution of goods to the regional markets of both the viceroyalty of New Spain itself and abroad. Merchants belonging to the consulado (merchant guild) soon monopolized the cocoa trade. The cocoa trade in Guayaquil was part of the commercial traffic between the viceroyalties of New Spain and Peru carried out by the shippers in Lima, called peruleros, who sailed to Acapulco and other Pacific ports to exchange silver, quicksilver, and wine and other agricultural products for pitch, indigo, and cocoa. The primary use of this trade route was to exchange Chinese and European goods from Peru for silver and cocoa. The Spanish Crown prohibited this exchange in 1587 and 1588 because it was causing silver to drain to the Far East, since Chinese textiles were competing with Spanish goods and the Peruvian traders were avoiding the Panama feria exchange market held upon the arrival of the European fleet, where they were supposed to acquire goods from Europe. Despite the prohibitions, this trade continued because the merchants could count on the complicity of royal officers and other senior officials—even the viceroys.2

To put an end to the smuggling of Asian and European goods, the Crown took a radical step: it closed the routes between the New World viceroyalties in the late 1630s. Nevertheless, the Crown was unable to stem the merchants’ lust for profit, even less so given the strong demand for Ecuadorian cocoa in New Spain. Once the ban was in place, the merchants of Lima and Guayaquil resorted to running a clandestine cocoa trade, smuggling cocoa from Panama and Guatemala.3 It is likely that they used previously established networks to set up these trade routes. The fact that the illegal supply of cocoa was from Guayaquil is confirmed by the reduction in imports of Caracas cocoa following the closing of the inter-viceroyalty trade.4

In the final decades of the 17th century, shipments of Peruvian mercury to New Spain informally reactivated the Guayaquil cocoa trade pipeline. Merchants of the Mexican consulado, whose main activity was financing mines and buying silver, paid the remittances for mercury as soon as it reached the viceroyalty. This guaranteed the supplies of both Guayaquil cocoa and quicksilver. Despite the prohibition on trade, the viceroys, the castellan (port authority) of Acapulco, and the royal officers agreed to allow ships loaded with cocoa into the Pacific ports. Part of the cargo was sent to Seville and Cádiz, from where it was redistributed to the main ports of Europe. The increasing supply of low-priced cocoa from Guayaquil displaced the crop grown on New Spain’s southern Pacific coasts from the New Spain market.5

The large amounts of Ecuadorian cocoa being smuggled into the port of Veracruz brought down the price of Venezuelan beans. According to the data provided by Arcila Farías, the price of cocoa reached its highest level in Caracas in 1680: 40 pesos a bushel; but by 1686 it had fallen to 10 pesos due to competition from Guayaquil. From 1692 to 1693, it increased to 25 pesos, and at the turn of the century the price was 15 to 19 pesos. Subsequently, the price of cocoa maintained a downward trend, reaching its lowest level from 1713 to 1715, when the bushel commanded only 7 to 8 pesos.6 The Caracas city council sent several delegations and agents to the royal court on a number of occasions to complain about the serious damage being caused to their jurisdiction by the illegal flow of cocoa from Guayaquil. The economy of Caracas depended on silver earned from the sale of cocoa, as did the security of the region, since the city council financed the militias and the garrison at the port of La Guayra. In response to these petitions, the viceroys of New Spain and Peru were ordered to forbid the traffic of cocoa under any circumstance. If authorities discovered illegal cocoa, the cocoa beans should be confiscated and burned and penalties were to be imposed on the captains and royal officers involved to deter other potential offenders. Nevertheless, these orders were not followed even though they were reissued numerous times.

The Struggle for Control of the Cocoa Market

In the first decades of the 18th century, cocoa beans from Caracas, Maracaibo, Guayaquil, and Tabasco were sold in Veracruz, which was the only port in New Spain authorized to trade with the other Spanish possessions in the Americas. Cocoa from Guayaquil was sold at a much higher price in Veracruz than cocoa arriving through Acapulco because the former was charged various taxes as it passed through several fiscal territories and it included the cost of mule transport to cross the isthmus from Panama to Portobelo.7 Cocoa from Tabasco was contracted by Mexico City shopkeepers and wholesalers through their agents: the alcaldes mayores, priests, and other local merchants who granted credit to the producers through a merchandise distribution system. Farmers from Villa Hermosa, Tabasco, traveled to the port of Veracruz along rivers and land routes to trade Tabasco cocoa for other products.8 Little is known about how much cocoa could have been contracted from the Soconusco region (in the present-day state of Chiapas in Mexico) or the rest of Guatemala. Cocoa was transported from this region by mule to the cities of Puebla and Mexico or to the port of Veracruz (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. The Mexico-Veracruz road through the Orizaba route in the 18th century.

Graphic courtesy of G. Del Valle and Mapping, O. Jurado.

During the 18th century, the viceroys of Peru continued to grant special permits to import cocoa from Guayaquil directly into Acapulco, mainly while the Anglo-Spanish wars were disrupting Spanish trans-Atlantic trade routes. Cocoa smuggling, nonetheless, continued during times of peace. Boats loaded with cocoa beans left from the port of Callao with permits to sail to Panama, Realejo, and Sonsonate (see fig. 2). From there, they continued on to Acapulco or other ports in New Spain on flimsy pretexts. The captains would claim that they had been driven there by storms or that their ships had suffered damage while at sea. While recovering from the storm or repairing the supposed damage, they would unload the cocoa with the collusion of royal officers and the castellan of the port of Acapulco. Often the merchants received authorization from the viceroys to take their cargo to Mexico City by paying a fine and double import fees. There were also cases in which the cargoes of ships arriving without a permit were seized.9 The route from Guatemala to Oaxaca, Mexico City, Puebla, and Veracruz was also used to transport smuggled cocoa from the ports of Realejo and Sonsonate.

Figure 2. Coastwise trade through the ports of the Spanish American Pacific.

Graphic courtesy of G. Del Valle and Mapping, O. Jurado.

New Spain was also the largest market for Caracas cocoa in the period from 1684 to 1729. Nevertheless, to combat the growing economic power of smuggled cocoa, in 1728 the Guipuzcoana Company was founded and granted a monopoly on the cocoa trade with Spain in order to ensure a regular supply to Mexico City at low prices. As can be seen in table 1, from 1731 to 1740, imports of Venezuelan cocoa increased by 561 percent in Mexico City, most likely to the detriment of cocoa smuggled from Curaçao—at the time a Dutch possession—while shipments to Veracruz increased 10.4 percent, since high profits were obtained in the New Spain market. In order to guarantee the Guipuzcoana Company its monopoly, in 1734 the Crown tried to restrict the supply of cocoa to 21,000 bushels per year, but this proved impossible.10 Of total Venezuelan cocoa exports, legal and illegal, between 1700 and 1756, 42.5 percent went to New Spain, 27 percent to Spain, and 30.5 percent to Amsterdam via Curaçao.11 In fact, New Spain’s need for currency maintained it as the main market for Venezuelan cocoa. Once cocoa from Caracas could be sent to Spain, the Caracas city council stopped blocking the Guayaquil–Acapulco route.

Table 1. Exports of Venezuelan Cocoa from 1691 to 1780 (in Bushels)


New Spain







































Source: Ruggiero Romano, Mecanismos y elementos del sistema económico colonial americano: Siglos XVI–XVIII (México City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2004), 300.

Different kinds of cocoa had different flavors and prices; buyers chose to purchase them according to their needs, tastes, and ability to pay. However, when some types of cocoa were scarce, they could be substituted by others, even if they were of different flavor and quality.12 Guayaquil cocoa was in greatest demand because of its low price and because its bitter taste enabled it to be mixed with sugar. Since sugar was cheaper than cocoa, this made the resulting product more profitable. It was consumed by the Indians, the rest of the poor, and middling sectors of society, who were the most abundant in the viceroyalty of New Spain. An effort was also made to “till” the lowest priced chocolate. It may be assumed that it was cocoa from Guayaquil that was used as a medium of exchange because it was the most affordable. The cocoa beans of Caracas, Maracaibo, and Tabasco, with their sweet taste and buttery consistency, were used to make a pure chocolate that “was prized by the most discerning palates of the era.” Consumption of these quality cocoa beans was restricted to those who had the most buying power. Cocoa from Venezuela was more expensive due to its cost of production, because the supply was restricted, and because the Caracas shipping companies held back the vessels headed to Veracruz to raise the price. This resulted in the merchants of Mexico competing for cocoa with the Andalusian encomenderos in Veracruz.

As the 18th century drew toward its midpoint, the Guayaquil cocoa harvest gradually increased due both to rising demand from abroad, particularly New Spain, and to the people’s need to generate income.13 Mexico continued to be the main buyer of cocoa worldwide and demand increased, mainly due to population growth. Sales of Tabasco cocoa also grew, principally as a result of the Bourbon reformist policy that encouraged increased production of tropical goods. As a result, the cocoa trade grew overall in Mexico City, as well as in the other larger urban and mining markets.14

The Guayaquil cocoa trade was controlled by the merchant shippers of Callao, who were members of the Lima consulado. They had the business experience, the networks, and the capital to contract large loads of cocoa and to build and maintain large ocean-going vessels that crossed the Pacific.15 However, the Guayaquil cocoa trade was not limited to the exporters in Lima. As already noted, the merchants of Guayaquil also sent significant amounts of cocoa to the port of Acapulco on their own initiative.16 The South Sea trade, as the Pacific trade was called, was controlled by a few merchants of the Mexico City consulado, who had ample capital and relied on complex business networks based on kinship, community, and friendship ties. Unlike the Atlantic trade in which they operated mainly as commission agents for Seville and Cádiz shippers, in the Pacific they operated with full autonomy and obtained much higher profits.

According to tax and accounting records of Royal Customs of Mexico, from 1750 to 1773, a handful of merchants specialized in contracting different varieties of cocoa in large amounts. In a single year, they bought from one thousand five hundred to three thousand one-third shiploads of cocoa from various sources, including Guayaquil, Maracaibo, Caracas, Tabasco, and Cuba, with total values of from one hundred thousand to two hundred thousand pesos. According to various notarial records, in the 1750s, some merchants made high-interest loans with solid guarantees to shippers from Callao and Guayaquil due to the high risks involved in the Pacific routes. Since trade with Acapulco was illegal, the authorizations granted to Peruvian merchants specified that if they had to unload in Guatemala, they would deliver the money they owed to Mexican merchants to their representatives there. These wealthy merchants resold cocoa wholesale to other merchants, both directly and through brokers. They also retailed cocoa at their stores and warehouses in Mexico City and sent it inland and to Cádiz, from where it was shipped to other European ports, most notably in Italy, France, and Great Britain.

Limited Trade Liberalization

Following the 1762–1764 occupation of Havana and Manila by British naval forces, King Charles III of Spain implemented a series of reforms in order to stimulate trade exchanges, legalizing what had been an illegal trade route, and, above all, to increase the tax income needed to strengthen Spanish military forces in the Americas. It is very likely that this move toward trade liberalization was also influenced by the growing illegal trade and lawsuits against Spain’s prohibitionism. In 1774, the viceroyalties of Peru, New Spain, Guatemala, and New Granada were authorized to exchange the local products through their Pacific ports. Specific mention was made of cocoa from Guayaquil, but the ban on landing Asian and European goods from Mexico and Guatemala in Peru was maintained. To stimulate the production and trade of specialized agricultural goods, port fees were reduced to a little less than half of what they had been. In spite of the cut in fees, the royal treasury benefited from increased revenue because of reduced tax evasion.

With the decrease in tax burden, enormous amounts of cocoa flowed from Guayaquil to New Spain, proof of the scale of the former smuggling trade. During the period 1774–1778, the influx of Guayaquil cocoa by way of Acapulco ranged from 53,714 to 71,378 bushels.17 The reduction in port fees lowered the price of Guayaquil cocoa, and consequently the demand for cocoa from Caracas fell considerably, as can be seen in table 1. From that point on, the traders in Caracas could not exert more pressure to increase the price of the cocoa they sold. Moreover, the merchants in Mexico were much more interested in buying Guayaquil cocoa because it encouraged the consumption of sugar, a product on which they also had a near monopoly. After the trade opening, both the demand for sugar and its price increased, which led some of the main cocoa dealers to increase their investments in sugar production and trading.

The vigorous trade generated by the trade opening in Guayaquil resulted in the merchants who traded in Spanish America becoming more mobile. A representative example was the Icaza brothers (Isidro Antonio, Martín, and Nicolás Francisco), merchants of Biscayan origin who moved to the port of Guayaquil. Another one of their brothers, José Gabriel, who served as lieutenant governor and judge, also lived there. When the demand for chocolate—already converted into a consumer good (commodity)—increased, the Icazas contracted Ecuadorian cocoa and other goods in Guayaquil, Callao, and Acapulco in addition to indigo from Realejo and Sonsonate.

In 1777, the mayor (intendente) of Caracas raised a representation to King Charles III in which he reported the harm the province had suffered because Caracas and Maracaibo cocoa had been displaced in New Spain by the product from Guayaquil, which entered through Acapulco because of the reduction in port fees. The duties charged on Caracas cocoa at the port of Veracruz were 5 percent, while in Acapulco, Guayaquil cocoa was only taxed at 2.5 percent. In order to resolve this inequality, the mayor made three alternative proposals: either prohibit trade of Ecuadorian cocoa, reduce taxes on Caracas cocoa in Veracruz, or extend free trade to Caracas. He emphasized the need to strengthen the economy of Caracas which, due to its location, could be invaded if a war broke out in the Caribbean. Guayaquil, however, was not vulnerable to this threat. Nevertheless, the Royal Guipuzcoana Company’s monopoly, paradoxically, constituted a serious obstacle to deregulation.

At the request of the monarch, Viceroy Antonio María de Bucareli conducted an investigation into the cocoa trade with Venezuela. Mexico’s consulado, which had a keen interest in the cocoa trade in Guayaquil, maintained that cocoa was a staple food for the low-income population, so its abundant supply and low price should be guaranteed. They said that if the cocoa supply was interrupted, there would be a serious shortage and Spain would be at the mercy of the Caracas monopoly. The royal officials in Veracruz realized that restricting the trade of cocoa from Caracas, Maracaibo, Tabasco, and Soconusco would result in scarcity and make the product more expensive, while the poor would suffer food shortages, as had happened in the past. The Court of Audit, the royal officers of Acapulco, and the Prosecutor of New Spain argued that Caracas cocoa could bear the import duty required to land the product in Veracruz because it was sold at higher prices. Yielding to Caracas municipal authorities, in late 1778, King Charles III restricted the importation of Guayaquil cocoa in Acapulco to a limit of ten thousand bushels per year. However, once again, this decree remained in force for a very short time due to Spain’s entry into a new war when, in 1779, Charles III declared war on Britain in support of the American colonies in their war of independence. At that juncture, a judge of the appellate court (oidor de la audencia) who had been an advisor and agent of the consulado determined, based on an old royal order authorizing trade in Chinese silk during military conflicts—to avoid shortages and to maintain fiscal revenue—that “all types of cocoa without any limitation”18 could be allowed into the viceroyalty of New Spain. From that point on, imports of Guayaquil cocoa, which had been so controversial, accelerated, while purchases of Venezuelan cocoa once again fell because of the English threat in the Caribbean Sea.

The high profit rates of the cocoa trade during the Anglo-Spanish War prompted some merchants to change their place of residence. Isidro Antonio de Icaza, having heard the news about the opening of the cocoa trade, partnered with Francisco Ignacio de Yraeta, a wealthy Mexican merchant of Biscayan origin who some years earlier had contracted significant quantities of cocoa and built a solid business network in the Pacific ports. Icaza moved to Mexico City and brought his brothers into the business, who had, as noted earlier, established themselves in the port of Guayaquil. In Mexico City, he concentrated on trading cocoa. The ties between Yraeta and Icaza were strengthened by their common origin and further consolidated by marriage between their families. The two merchants and their families held a near monopoly on the cocoa trade in New Spain until shortly after Mexican Independence in 1821.

When the British blockade on Spanish maritime trade forced the Crown to legalize trade with the neutral colonies, in 1781, the Guipuzcoan Company lost the monopoly on selling cocoa from Caracas and Maracaibo. Municipal authorities of Caracas remained firm about the limit on importing Guayaquil cocoa, so the king repealed the limit in mid-1782. Once again, the royal officials of Acapulco denied merchants permission to land Ecuadorian cocoa. The Guayaquil merchants were increasingly discontent because the king continued to grant cocoa trading permits to shippers and wealthy subjects as rewards for the financial and material services they had provided Spain during the war. However, in early 1783, ships with large loads of cocoa again began to land in Acapulco. The restoration of the Acapulco–Mexico route was funded by the cocoa merchants.

During the Anglo-Spanish conflict, imports of Ecuadorian cocoa to New Spain soared from 53,714 bushels during the half-decade that followed the trade opening (1774–1778) to 165,600 bushels during the 1779–1783 war. This growth was also due to the trade in Asian, Castilian, and European textiles that took place during the period.19 Shortly before the outbreak of the war, the Spanish king, aware that the English threat would limit Atlantic traffic, authorized Filipino merchants to ship clothing and merchandise from China to the ports of Spanish America in order to guarantee the supply of goods and income for the Royal Treasury. By early 1780, the British blockades and privateers had effectively reduced traffic between Spain and its possessions in South America, reducing the supply of European goods and increasing their price. In response, Spanish American merchants began to contract Asian and European textiles from Spanish possessions in the Southern Sea, under the auspices of the authorization the king had granted to Filipino merchants. This was made possible by collusion with the port authorities. Illegal traffic was not always successful; some ships had their cargoes confiscated, whether in Acapulco before sailing or upon arrival in the port of Callao.

Figure 3. Mexico City collection and distribution center for Spanish American cocoa.

Graphic courtesy of G. Del Valle and Mapping, O. Jurado.

The Rise of the Pacific Inter-Viceroyal Trade

As a result of the limited trade opening, New Spain had become oversupplied with foreign textiles. And during the war, Anglo-American privateers, the French navy, and friendly nations supplied the port of Veracruz, while the British continued to smuggle from Jamaica. At the same time, large amounts of Asian goods were arriving from the Philippines. The Mexican merchants who contracted cocoa invested large amounts in the purchase of Far Eastern and European goods to sell to merchants in the South Pacific who supplied them with cocoa, using the networks they had built years earlier. In 1782, these merchants were able to legalize this trade, obtaining a license from the viceroy to ship goods from Castile and China, which were plentiful in Mexico, out of Acapulco. To conduct this lucrative trade, the Mexicans partnered with merchants from Guayaquil and Peru. For this reason, cocoa continued to arrive in Acapulco in large amounts.

Shortly thereafter, the viceroy asked the Mexican merchants for interest-free loans to send money to Havana in order to fund the armed forces fighting the English. The Guayaquil merchants contributed generous loans. And when the viceroy asked the consulado for a loan of one million pesos to make a new payment to sustain the war, these traders also contributed large sums. Nevertheless, at the beginning of 1783, the consulado and the prosecutor of the Royal Treasury warned the authorities that the growing removal of Asian and European goods to Peru would generate shortages and raise prices, so in August 1783, this trade was suspended once again. There is no information on the amount of cocoa that entered the viceroyalty of New Spain in 1783, but it is possible that it was lower because in 1784 the price of Guayaquil cocoa was raised.

In the mid-1780s, the king restored the 1778 decree that limited the import of Guayaquil cocoa at Acapulco to ten thousand bushels. From that point on, the Acapulco authorities rejected most of the authorizations requested by the Guayaquil cocoa producers and traders. In Guayaquil, royal policy did not prevent traders from continuing to trade cocoa in Acapulco, particularly because of the difficulties they faced in sending it to Spain due to the British threat. To avoid the eyes of the authorities, the Guayaquil merchants shipped the cocoa to Acapulco in a series of “small boats” that arrived daily. Members of the consulado of Mexico and Lima continued to trade Ecuadorian cocoa in large quantities. At times, the Peruvians asked Mexican traders to send the earnings of their sales to their shipping agents in the port of Cádiz, in cash or in cocoa. The arrival of increasing quantities of cocoa from Guayaquil brought its price down to the lowest levels ever. Some merchants from Mexico postponed their sales of cocoa, waiting for the price to increase and for the Peruvians to sell it in Lima.20

In 1789, the Reglamento para el comercio libre de España a Indias of 1778 [regulation for free trade from Spain to the Indies] was extended to New Spain, which did away with the fleet system that had allowed the Mexican merchants a monopoly on these European goods. Shortly after, trade of Guayaquil cocoa was authorized without restrictions, causing imports of Caracas cocoa to fall to levels from which it never recovered. Guayaquil cocoa flooded the Mexican market, to the detriment of Caracas. However, purchases of cocoa from Maracaibo and Tabasco increased, the former from 1784 on when the monopoly of the Guipuzcoana Company was abolished, and the latter from 1786 on.

Free trade being established in New Spain, the consulados of Mexico and Cádiz faced a disastrous scenario over the Atlantic trade. At the request of King Charles III, the Second Count of Revillagigedo, an active promoter of protected trade opening, carried out extensive research on commercial activity. The consulado of Mexico and its main members protested the new trade system on the grounds that the viceroyalty had oversupplied goods, so there was a shortage of money. Free trade was only supported by Francisco Ignacio de Yraeta and Isidro Antonio de Icaza, who, as noted, obtained high profits from the movement of Guayaquil cocoa through Acapulco. Inter-colonial trade in the Pacific represented a profitable alternative to the strong Atlantic trade.

In 1794, the Second Count of Revillagigedo fought to reduce the taxes imposed in Acapulco on the trade of Castilian goods with Peru in order to stimulate the exchange of Mexican manufactured goods for Peruvian cocoa. The viceroy explained that most of the trade with Peru was reduced to Guayaquil cocoa, of which twenty-five thousand to thirty thousand shiploads were brought in annually, with a value estimated at approximately three hundred thousand pesos, paid almost entirely with silver coin.21 The viceroy intended that deregulatory policy should continue to favor the Pacific trade.

Francisco Ignacio de Yraeta, Francisco Antonio de Icaza, and Gabriel de Yturbe also made efforts to increase the movement of sugar through the South Sea ports. By concentrating their business on sugar production and on buying and selling sugar along with Guayaquil cocoa, these merchants more effectively controlled the supply of both profitable items. Since 1785, the product most sold in Spain by Yraeta had been cocoa. Isidro Antonio de Icaza, who served as the proxy for the province of Guayaquil, was the merchant who was buying the greatest quantities of cocoa in the 1790s. Other members of the consulado appointed their relatives and countrymen in Guayaquil and Lima to facilitate the movement of cocoa. Some entered into contracts to receive cocoa regularly and acquired ships to trade in the Pacific on their own behalf. A significant proportion of these cocoa shipments were sent to Spain. The extraordinary acceleration in imports of Guayaquil cocoa during the aftermath of the viceroyalty meant that it came to account for more than half of the cocoa market in New Spain, while the rest of the beans came from Tabasco, Guatemala, Maracaibo, and Caracas.22

The analysis of the cocoa trade in New Spain reveals that the protectionist and regulatory measures of the Spanish Crown did not represent a consistent, homogeneous body of regulations and ideas. Rather, the Crown’s policies were characterized by pragmatism to obtain fiscal resources to cover the expenses for its own survival besides dealing with the challenges posed by its English, French, and Dutch rivals. In this context, Spain received strong support from the merchants of Mexico, with their extensive commercial networks in Central and South America and their deep pockets.

Discussion of the Literature

In the 1950s, Eduardo Arcila Farías began his pioneering research on the commercial relationships between Venezuela and New Spain, which were based on the exchange of cocoa for silver from 1622 to 1789. He studied, among other topics, cocoa prices, their role in the monetization of the Venezuelan economy, and cocoa buying and selling in the port of Veracruz. He showed how the Spanish Crown protected Venezuelan cocoa production by granting it a monopoly in the market of New Spain in the face of unfair competition from Guayaquil cocoa, which entered the New Spain market through the viceroyalty’s Pacific ports. Arcila Farías showed how the geostrategic goal of the imperial prohibitionist policy was to reserve the New Spain market for Venezuelan cocoa due to the viceroyalty’s location on the Caribbean, where other European powers smuggled goods and represented a threat to Spain’s possessions.

In the 1960s, Dora León-Borja and Adam Szászdi studied the history of Guayaquil and the prohibitionist measures imposed by the Spanish Crown in the Pacific, as well as the exceptions to these regulations and their infringements. In the early 21st century, approaching the topic from a circulationist perspective, Mariano Bonialian found that the reason Peruvian and Guayaquil merchants sought to contract Ecuadorian cocoa was to obtain Mexican silver as well as Asian and European goods. As this trade favored the flow of silver to the Far East and limited the participation of Peruvians in the Portobelo ferias, the Spanish monarchy strove to prevent inter-viceregal traffic in the Pacific. According to Bonialian, the introduction of Guayaquil cocoa was possible in spite of the prohibitions because of the networks of corruption that existed between the merchants and officials of New Spain.

Once the Pacific ports were again authorized, in 1774, to participate in the cocoa trade, the increase in cocoa imported from Guayaquil to New Spain occasioned controversy, even more so as Venezuela continued under the control of the Guipuzcoana Company. The documents on this issue have been analyzed by the majority of scholars of the cocoa trade, such as Arcila Farías, Manuel Miño, and Guillermina del Valle. It was found that Guayaquil cocoa was traded in increasing quantities due to its low price. Because of its bitter taste, it was mixed with sugar, yielding a cheaper product, in addition to trade in this cocoa being monopolized by merchants of the consulado of Mexico.

According to Guillermina del Valle, trade in different varieties of cocoa was monopolized by a small group of powerful merchants from the consulado of Mexico. This was possible because of the financial power they held, which enabled them to contract cocoa in large amounts and finance the shipments sent by some Peruvian and Guayaquil merchants. Del Valle also thoroughly examined the effect of the Anglo-Spanish war of 1779–1783 when imports of cocoa from Guayaquil continued with extraordinary vigor, largely because it was exchanged for Asian and European goods. This work is also important because it illustrates the way in which authorizations to trade Guayaquil cocoa may have been granted in exchange for financial services during other military conflicts. Manuel Miño studied the cocoa trade following the legalization of trade between New Spain and Peru, highlighting the monetary and integrating role that cocoa played in the colonial economic system.

Cristina Torales, Consuelo Soler, Stanley Stein, and Guillermina del Valle studied the history of the enterprises and business dealings of Francisco Ignacio de Yraeta, Antonio Isidro de Icaza, and Gabriel de Yturbe during the last quarter of the 18th century when they became the main traders of Guayaquil cocoa in New Spain. They found that the success of these entrepreneurs stemmed from a fabric of complex social networks (kinship, friendship, and community), from the interpersonal relationships they established with the viceroys, and from the way they integrated the selling of sugar and cocoa.

In summary, research on the cocoa trade has led to an improved understanding of the economic and social history of the Spanish-American viceroyalties as well as of the behavior of the interconnected international markets where cocoa was purchased. In particular, recent studies have contributed to a better understanding of the complexity of protected trade and colonial finances, which functioned along two axes, the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Primary Sources

The mandates of the Spanish king on the cocoa trade are an essential source for learning about trade policy during the period under study. These records are located in the Real cédulas (Royal Decrees) of the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) and enable us to understand Spanish mercantilism from the institutional perspective. However, to study the smuggling trade in the Pacific, the fundamental source is the files on cocoa seizures made by the Acapulco juez de arribadas that are in various branches of the AGN: the Indiferente Virreinal, Archivo Histórico de Hacienda (AHH), Consulados y Marina, and other branches, as well as in the Archivo General de Indias (AGI) in Seville, Spain in the Virreinato de México branch. For information about commercial traffic, about legalization of trade, the different types of cocoa, and about Guayaquil, the files located in the AHH, Consulado, Marina, and Aduanas branches of the AGN are useful, as well as the Libros de alcabalas tax records of Mexico City that are located in the Ultramarinos branch and in the Gazeta de México. Based on these collections of records, it has been possible to reconstruct certain mechanisms of the Bourbon centralization mechanisms that implied an “internal decentralization” (free and illegal trade) with the same purpose: to collect funds in silver.

The Industria y Comercio branch contains some files on the monopolist trade in cocoa and the measures taken to prevent it. The Correspondencia de Virreyes branch holds authentic copies of the edicts relating to the reduction of duties paid for Caracas cocoa in the Port of Veracruz in 1778 and 1779. The AGI has files on returns of the general average due to purchases of Guayaquil cocoa in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which give an account of the trade in this product. The Portal de Archivos Españoles (PARES website) is a convenient way to access the AGI. The minutes of the Cabildo de Caracas contain numerous representations sent to the king of Spain, the viceroys of New Spain, and the governor of Caracas. These can be read in Cacao by Bernardo Núñez, published by the Central Bank of Venezuela in 1972. In addition, the Archivo General de Notarías de la ciudad de México (AGNM) has the deeds of obligation or loans for cocoa transactions granted by merchants of the Consulado of Mexico to merchants in Peru and Guayaquil.

For analysis of the complex business networks built by Mexican merchants Francisco Ignacio de Yraeta, Isidro Antonio de Icaza, and Gabriel de Yturbe e Yraeta, the Archivo de la Compañía de comercio de Francisco Ignacio de Yraeta was used. This is part of the archive of business records held at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City. It contains the books that hold copies of the correspondence these merchants sent to their correspondents in New Spain, other places in Spanish America and Spain (1767–1850), and their accounting books (1740–1821). The correspondence between Yraeta and his nephew, Gabriel de Yturbe, is located in the Manuscripts Division of Princeton University.

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

  • Arcila Farías, Eduardo. Comercio entre México y Venezuela en los siglos XVII y XVIII. México, DF: Instituto Mexicano de Comercio Exterior, 1975.
  • Bonialian, Mariano. El pacífico hispanoamericano: Política y comercio asiático en el Imperio Español,1680–1784. México, DF: El Colegio de México, 2012.
  • Hernández Jaimes, Jesús. “El fruto prohibido. El cacao de Guayaquil y el mercado novohispano, siglo xvi–xviii.” Estudios de Historia Novohispana 39 (July–December 2008): 43–79.
  • León Borja, Nora, and Adam Szászdi. “Comercio de cacao de Guayaquil.” Revista Historia de América Instituto Panamericano de Historia y Geografía 57–58 (1964): 1–50.
  • Miño Grijalva, Manuel. El cacao Guayaquil en Nueva España, 1774–1812 (Política imperial, mercado y consumo). México City: El Colegio de México, 2013.
  • Soler Lizarazo, Luisa Consuelo. “Redes de redes entre las dos américas: contratos y circuitos de comercio globales de Francisco Ignacio de Yraeta y sus corresponsales a finales del siglo XVIII.” Colonial Latin Américan Historical Review 2, no. 1 (2014): 27–48.
  • Valle Pavón, Guillermina del. “Redes empresariales de Francisco Ignacio de Yraeta e Isidro Antonio de Icaza durante el periodo de expansión del tráfico de cacao de guayaquil, 1774–1783.” Revista del Instituto Riva-Agüero, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Lima 4, no. 1 (2019): 151–196.
  • Valle Pavón, Guillermina del. “Tráfico de cacao de Guayaquil en Nueva España en la segunda mitad del siglo XVIII.” In Redes imperiales y negocios globales en el mundo ibérico, siglos xv-xviii: comerciantes, financieros y corporaciones [Imperial networks and global business in the Iberian world, XVth to XVIIIth centuries: Merchants, bankers and corporations]. Edited by Nikolaus Böttcher, Bernd Hausberger, and Antonio Ibarra, 239–268. Madrid: Instituto Ibero-Americano de Berlin, Vervuert-Iberoamericana, 2011.
  • Valle Pavón, Guillermina del. “Comercialización de cacao de Guayaquil por los mercaderes del Consulado de México en la segunda mitad del siglo XVIII.” Mexican Studies 26, no. 2 (2010): 181–206.