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History of cocoa in Solomon Islands

I’ve been exchanging some interesting emails with Grant Vinning, cocoa specialist in the Pacific, who is currently undertaking research for his upcoming book “Cocoa in the Pacific: First 50 years”.  Previously the standard line of thinking was that cocoa was planted in the Solomons around the 1950s, however he’s uncovered the following information that cocoa was being planted in the late 19th century:

The earliest reference to cocoa in the Solomons that I can find is when Charles Morris Woodford, the energetic High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, visited John Stephens at Ugi in the Makira district in 1896.  Woodford observed that Stephens had planted cocoa trees around his house.  Woodford also observed that the trees were “diseased and neglected” suggesting they were planted in the late 1880s.  My source for this is Lawrence’s 2014 biography of Woodford.

Oscar Karl Svensen, a Norwegian who had massive holdings around Marau is another early cocoa planter.  In its extensive obituary in February 1964, the Pacific Islands Monthly listed an amazing number of crops that Svensen experimented with.  One of these was cocoa, something confirmed by Golden in 1993 when he wrote his collection of vignettes of early white settlers of the Solomons.  Svensen left the Solomon a very rich man 1912.  This suggests that his cocoa plantings would have occurred at around the turn of the Twentieth Century.

More support for the notion that cocoa was introduced into the Sols at the turn of the previous century comes from an unusual source.

Cocoa was introduced into Samoa by the 1890s.  Very early on it was clear that Samoans would not work on the plantations.  As a result, the German authorities in Samoa granted permission to the plantation companies in Samoa to import labour.  There were two basic sources of labour – China and Melanesia.  Whilst some companies imported Chinese labour, the biggest company of them all had an exclusivity arrangement to import cheaper labour from other German colonies in the Pacific.  Remember, before 1899 Santa Cruz was under German control.  Robert Louis Stevenson specifically mentioned Solomon Islanders in his 1892 account of troubles in Samoa.  Robb is more precise: some 5700 workers were brought from the Solomons and New Guinea, on three-year indentures on wages of 5 pounds a year .   When their time was up in Samoa, these labourers could have brought their cocoa growing skills back to the Solomons.  They may even have brought back some cocoa beans.  Solomon Islanders were also recruited to work in Fiji.  By the late 1890s, cocoa was an established crop there.  Again, the returnees could have brought this knowledge back with them. Finally, we know that a Trinitaro type cocoa was introduced from Vanuatu into Santa Cruz in 1935.  By that stage cocoa production in Vanuatu was around 2,770 t that came from around 60 plantations.

Ugi is an island off the coast of Makira and Marau Sound is on the eastern end of Guadalcanal and visible from West Makira.  ACIAR is currently doing some genetic mapping of some cocoa in Makira, will be interesting to see those results later this year.

Grant also sent through this rather insightful and timeless snippet from the now defunct Pacific Islands Monthly, July 1933.

Cocoa Solomons PIM July 1933


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