Cocoa and Coins in Costa Rica
By Manuel Chacón Hidalgo, Numismatics Curator, MBCCR
Cocoa as a trade good in Costa Rica before Spanish arrival
The territory now known as Costa Rica was occupied by groups organized into cacicazgos, or extents of land ruled by indigenous leaders.
These groups were known for their relatively complex social and political organization, in which labor specialization ranks, made up of political and religious leaders, food producers, and specialized artisans. In terms of territory, cacicazgos, the political organization of a society around a cacique, or chief, were organized in confederations with power centers in main villages and smaller tributaries.
In general terms, villages were large and complex in design; main villages had infrastructure, such as mounds, aqueducts, roadways, squares, and retaining walls.
Political and religious leaders (caciques, shamans), the authority figures in the community, were in charge of distributing both goods crafted by the community and those exchanged with other territories under a different chiefdom.
The political and territorial organization, as well as the productive diversity and use of various resources led to the exchange of goods, such as foods (salt, cocoa, corn, plantains, cassava, beans, etc.), specialized tools, and other goods from other communities, among which ceramics, cotton, cloth, and gold objects. This bartering system between communities and productive specialization provided access to different resources.
Some researchers who reported on the history of coins in Costa Rica and the symbolism of cocoa have pointed out use of the latter as currency in pre-Columbian Costa Rican societies. Yet there is no clear evidence of it in the territories now known as Costa Rica. Its use as such has been inferred from writings by Spanish conqueror Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo on life in these societies on the 16th century, in what is now Central American territory, where he states that indigenous people in Nicaragua used cocoa as currency.
And, as the fruit ripens, so does the flesh of this fruit wash out between the seeds, leaving them loose in the box, to be put away because of the value and worth they place on them, much like Christians and others value gold and coins; Because this is the value of these seeds for these people, it is how they purchase other things. Thus, in the province of Nicaragua, a rabbit is worth ten of these seeds, (…) and a slave worth one hundred (…). That is to say, there is nothing that cannot be bought with this coin, that could not be purchased as Christians would with doubloons or ducats.
Historian Carlos Meléndez also points out that indigenous people in the territory now known as Guanacaste, “bartered goods, but also used cocoa beans as currency (…) ”.
Even if one were to assume that Costa Rica was also likely to have used cocoa beans as a coin, due to the closeness of both territories, we are more inclined to believe that said product was especially welcome when bartering.
Anthropologist and historian Eugenia Ibarra, in her work, Las sociedades cacicales de Costa Rica (siglo XVI), determines that cocoa beans were a good used in exchanges as a subsistence product of political, religious, and ritual significance. However, it does not mention that it was used as currency, except in Nicaragua and the isthmus of Rivas, based on the previously mentioned descriptions by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo.
Thus, we could assert that transaction of goods in indigenous societies in the 16th century took place in the form of bartering, or exchange. Although cocoa was a coveted good, it was, neither the only product used in exchanges, nor a value of worth when acquiring goods.
Exchange played a role beyond a mere means of acquisition in these societies; it also had socio-cultural meaning, since it allowed them to convey messages and relate to culturally diverse groups with different types of economies, based on the concept of reciprocity, of giving and receiving, the basis of any social relationship.
Cocoa as a Means of Exchange and Currency in Colonial Times
The arrival of Europeans to what is now Costa Rica caused a great change in the way of life of indigenous societies. Indigenous groups were displaced from their lands and places of residence; their customs changed according to Spanish interests, be it from a geographical, political, social, cultural, or economic point of view. This new order gave rise to the use of a metal coin, as well as the establishment of a monetary system of Spanish origin.
Early on in the Spanish contact period, inhabitants of what is now called Costa Rica, the first exchanges of Spanish goods were established with indigenous people, whose goods were valued according to the currency of the former.
In Colonial times, the population of the province of Costa Rica was characterized for its agricultural nature. The large majority of its inhabitants were spread out in rural lands, each family having to produce food for their own sustainability, among which, sowing crops, such as cocoa, as well as livestock breeding and tobacco production for commercial purposes.
The Colonial period and the first years after the Independence were marked by a shortage of currency. The lack of a mint meant currency influx depended on exports and wages of employees of the Spanish Crown and the Catholic church, which explains the co-existence of both currency systems during this period. Use of one over the other depended on the availability or scarcity of currency, or the trader’s convenience.
In several instances during Colonial times, coin shortage led to the use of cocoa as a means of payment for different goods, to the extent that it became official currency in 1709, when governor Lorenzo Antonio de Granda y Balbín declared cocoa beans an accepted form of payment in trade in all circumstances, since the inhabitants:
… have no money to support themselves, or to acquire the essentials needed for their subsistence, such as meat, corn, candles, lard, ham, salt, tallow, and other useful items, and given that the fruit of these lands is cocoa and no other, and whereas they are aware that, no money comes from losing wheat and crop fields with no yields for years, who would, upon steering toward the Province of Mainland, would take these flours to said city and that these places would in turn come to buy them, and given that the cocoa real would be more common than silver, and there would be no lament from the poor, upon whom weigh many a necessity, I command that, from now on, all residents, cattle farmers, those who sell candles, corn, lard, ham, tallow, and other articles pertaining subsistence, accept cocoa beans as a token of trade, or be fined ten pesos.
This allowance established a parallel monetary system to metal coins, although it kept a direct relation between both. A real — the unit of value of the Spanish monetary system and struck in silver — was worth two cocoa reales, or one hundred and sixty cocoa beans, since a cocoa real was usually made up of eighty beans.
Although use of cocoa as currency was forbidden in the late 18th century, its use in bartering continued for the greater part of the 19th century, due to its dietary and commercial importance.
The monetization process of the Costa Rican economy, which gained momentum with the development of the coffee trade and the subsequent economic boom starting in the 1830s, led to a higher use of coins as a means of exchange, in a context defined by a significant development of wage labor in the domestic market. Bartering as an important means of trade slowed down as the economy became more monetized in the 20th century, and currency shortage issues were resolved, and eventually became a sporadic practice.
How to cite this article?
Chacón Hidalgo Manuel. Cacao y moneda en Costa Rica. (2006). San José, Costa Rica: Fundación Museos del Banco Central. Available at: link
i Corrales Ulloa, Francisco. (1991). Costa Rica: Nuestra Primera Historia. San José, C.R: Museo Nacional de Costa Rica.
ii At this regard, please refer to the works of: Soley Güell, Tomás. Historia monetaria de Costa Rica. San José, Costa Rica: Imprenta Nacional, 1926, p. 9
iii Meléndez, Carlos. Guión Museo de Numismática. San José, Costa Rica: Museos Banco Central, 1990 (inédito), p. 31. Bozzoli de Willie, María E. Continuidad del simbolismo del cacao, del siglo XVI al siglo XX. In: Memoria del Congreso sobre el mundo centroamericano de su tiempo (V centenario de Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo). San José, Costa Rica: Editorial Texto, 1980, pp. 229-240.
iv At this regard, contrast with: Meléndez Chaverri, Carlos. Costa Rica vista por Fernández de Oviedo. San José, Costa Rica: Ministerio de Cultura Juventud y Deportes, 1978, pp. 71-72.
v Meléndez, Loc. cit.
vi Meléndez, Carlos. Guión Museo de Numismática. Op. cit.
vii Ibarra Rojas, Eugenia. Las sociedades cacicales de Costa Rica (siglo XVI). San José, Costa Rica: Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica, 1996, pp. 107-119.
viii Ibid, p.109.
ix Bozzoli, María E. Op. cit. p. 230. Cited in: Facio, Rodrigo. Estudio sobre economía costarricense. San José, Costa Rica: Editorial Costa Rica, 1975, pp. 33-34.