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British feared Cocoa 'Panyols'

By Kim Johnson, August 29, 1999

IN Spanish peon simply means unskilled labourer. Here, however, it referred to the highly-skilled backwoodsmen who pioneered the cocoa industry.

Today it hardly matters, but a century ago Trinidad was the fourth largest cocoa producer in the world. Our cocoa beans were (and still are) considered the finest, and this was largely due to the peons.

Also known as Cocoa Panyols or just Spanish, they were of Spanish/Amerindian/ African stock, and came in their numbers during the last century from a Venezuela racked by revolution and civil war. Even more would have been invited to fill Trinidad's post-emancipation labour shortage, instead of East Indians, but high government officials thought them "a dangerous and criminal class".

Additionally, the British felt they were lazy. An 1827 Colonial Office audit was released "showing average number of days spent on public works by Spanish peons each month in 1825 in proof of their worthlessness as a labour element".

Yet it was these men who plunged into the impenetrable highland woods to carve out the cocoa estates that became the country's economic mainstay by the end of the 19th Century.

"When Mariano Garcia and his brother Felix Marchan, Juan Bruno, Bartolo Subero, Juan Albornos and numerous others bought their first cutlasses from Josť Drage... they were doing more for the future development of the Colony... than if they had applied their thews and sinews to the weeding of canes," wrote the journal Public Opinion.

Thus were established the Spanish settlements in the Northern Range and the Montserrat Hills, whose peons possessed an uncanny ability to spot good cocoa soil. Those Roman Catholic bush communities evolved a rich culture with its own shamans, medicine men, musicians, craftsmen and gamecock trainers.

Yet it was a hard life. Clothes consisted of sacks with holes cut for the head and arms. A man fortunate enough to own a suit had to share it with others. Their tapia houses were bare, their diet rarely included beef.

For instance, Eusebio Valerio, born around 1880 in the Montserrat Hills, lived in a one-room thatch hut. His family's sleeping quarters, which took up most of the room, had a single couch. One basket held clothes, an old box kept "salt provisions". Out of calabashes they ate plantain, saltfish, and, of course, cassava, which Valerio's African-Carib mother woke at 4 a.m. to begin preparing.

"The wretched condition in which my parents lived, the grinding toil and poverty, the hardships and sufferings of my childhood, had aroused in me the strongest sort of determination to better my condition," wrote Valerio, who clawed his way to qualifying as a doctor in the US.

But out of those harsh conditions have emerged the traditions, the food and drink, the music and sociability, that make Trini Christmas the best.

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