A tasty currency: cocoa  Share

Belgium is famous for its chocolate, a speciality that tourists never fail to enjoy when they visit Brussels. But what is the story behind such a strong link between Belgium and chocolate? While this is a very popular and widely consumed delicacy nowadays, that hasn’t always been the case. For the Maya and the Aztecs, cocoa beans served as a means of payment and the “divine beverage” was reserved only for the privileged few. Readers will find this month’s special topic mouth-watering!

Quetzalcóatl and his partner, painting of an Aztec manuscrpit, the Codex Borbonicus

Quetzalcóatl and his partner, painting of an Aztec manuscrpit, the Codex Borbonicus

The first people to grow cacao trees were the Maya, one of the oldest civilisations on the American continent. They used the cocoa beans as a barter currency to exchange for food or clothes, as well as for preparing a bitter drink, known as Xocoatl, which was nothing like the hot chocolate that we drink today. This beverage was made of roasted and ground cocoa beans, mixed with water and spices. The chocolate-flavoured drink was reserved for the nobility and for warriors. Up until the XVIth century, chocolate was unheard of on the European continent. It was not until the Spanish, led by Hernán Cortés in 1519, invaded the Aztecs’ land (now Mexico) that they discovered this commodity. When the Spanish conquistador, acting for Charles V, arrived in America, the Aztecs mistook him for god-king Quetzalcoatl, whose return they had been waiting for. Quetzalcoatl, symbolised in the form of a feathered snake, was the most deified god of the Aztec culture, considered as the one responsible for putting cacao trees on Earth, and in honour of whom Xocoatl is prepared. This god had promised to come back on eday to save his people, and quite by coincidence Hernán Cortés was perceived as that saviour.

Engraving depicting an American tribe preparing cocoa

Engraving depicting an American tribe preparing cocoa

The Aztecs, who at the time were among the most advanced nations of central America, seized the Maya people’s land and their economy. So, they too went into trade with the help of cocoa beans. This commodity money became the most common means of payment among these pre-Columbian American people for day-to-day transactions, such as trading low-value items. Talking about cocoa in a letter Cortès wrote to Charles V, he said: “this seed was being used as currency for daily exchanges”. The beans used as money were not the sam as those used to make the drink. Il s’agissait des fèves of a variety called quauhcacaoatl. As an example, a rabbit could be traded for ten cocoa beans, while a hundred were needed to buy a slave.

So, cocoa owes its success to Hernán Cortés. Christopher Colombus had not shown any interest in it when he discovered America, even to the point that he had mistaken cocoa beans for goats’ excrement, according to some sources.

The value of cocoa

In order to be used as money, an object needs to be sufficiently rare or precious for it to be desirable. Cocoa owes its value to the difficulties inherent in growing the cacao tree and producing cocoa beans. Its low yield in particular made it an expensive commodity.

Cocoa was one of the best examples among the more primitive means of payment. However, it could not fulfill all the functions of a monetary instrument. It served as a means of exchange but not as a standard of value. For that, the Maya and the Aztecs instead tended to use large white cotton cloths (quachtli) represing a given sum of work. Cocoa beans, on the other hand, could be divided up at will.

As well as being delicious to eat, cocoa was a currency with the advantage of encouraging desire for profit without causing miserliness. Indeed, those who had cocoa beans of their own were more tempted to eat them than plant them in the ground.

Like any well-trusted currency, cocoa beans were also the target of counterfeiting in various forms. For instance, forgers emptied the precious bean and then filled it up with mud to give it a weight equivalent to one cocoa bean.

Cocoa was without a doubt the main barter currency of the Empire, of such importance that its value was fixed officially in 1555 by a decree that stipulated that one Spanish real was worth 140 cocoa beans. The use of cocoa money spread to the countries that today make up Amérique central South America and lasted until the beginning of the XIXth century.

Cocoa export trade

The Spanish very quickly realised that they could profit from growing and trading cocoa. When they colonised Mexico, they started exporting this drink to Europe, but added sugar to it to make it more to the liking of the Europeans, while still taking great care to keep the recipe secret. It gained immediate popularity with the Spanish Court and was in turn savoured by the European élite. Of course, this country was under Spanish rule at the time so Belgium was soon able to benefit from this delicious export.

From the XIXth century, at the height of the industrial revolution, our country built large chocolate factories which rapidly contributed to the reputation of Belgian chocolate. In 1912, Jean Neuhaus invented the praline, 55 years after Neuhaus set up business in the Galerie de la Reine in Brussels. Back in 1857, his grandfather, another Jean Neuhaus, had actually opened a pharmacy and struck on the brilliant idea of coating medicines that tasted horrible with delicious chocolate. But these pharmaceutical sweets were such a huge success that the founder’s grandson decided to make real confectionery out of them: a chocolate-filled sweet that he christened the praline.

Cocoa plant

Plante de cacao

Even though cocoa is no longer a barter currency today, it is none the less important and features prominently among the raw materials quoted on the commodity exchanges. Moreover, chocolate has many good qualities, notably in the “medical” field, where it is well-known for being nutritious, acting as an anti-depressant or even an aphrodisiac.

Laurie De Maré
Museum Guide


  • Du cacao au nuevo peso : la numismatique mexicaine, Exhibition catalogue, Brussels, National Bank of Belgium, 1993.
  • BOURGAUX A., Quatre siècles d’histoire du cacao et du chocolat, Brussels, International Cocoa and Chocolate Organisation, 1935.
  • RIVERO P.P., “Les graines de Quetzalcóatl”, in Le Courrier de l’Unesco, Paris, Unesco, 1990, vol. 43, no1, p. 16-19.
  • Cocoa and Chocolate Museum (Brussels): http://www.mucc.be
  • Musée du chocolat (Paris): http://www.museeduchocolat.fr