chapter  9
16 Pages

Cacao Beans in Colonial México: Small Change in a Global Economy

With– Arturo Giraldez

Introduction In the early nineteenth century, the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt visited New Spain, then still part of the Spanish Empire but soon to become the independent nation of Mexico. His book about the economy of Mexico contains a wealth of information about the general economy of the viceroyalty, including an extensive study of silver production with detailed observations about mining operations, production gures, taxation, coinage at the mint and global silver trade. Mexico was at the time the largest silver producer in the world and the Mexican peso was an international currency. Along with the precious-metal coinages, introduced by imperial authorities, cacao or cocoa beans facilitated exchanges of lesser values, and could thus be called ‘small change’, in terms of modern economies. But this form of ‘small change’ was of considerable antiquity, because cacao beans had been used for this purpose by the Aztecs and Mayans, long before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors. Indeed Humboldt himself observed how, in the old Aztec market of Tlatelolco, cacao beans were used as money ‘like the shells in the Maldives islands’ (i.e. cowrie shells). He also indicated that 72 cacao beans were currently exchanged for the smallest silver coin (medio real) minted in Mexico.1