The Spanish cacao route

Who introduced cacao to Asia?

By Stefan Struik

On 2 June 1603, Dutch admiral Joris van Spilbergen stood before King Vimaladharmasuriya I of Kandy (Ceylon, Sri lanka). Van Spilbergen had just arrived after a 12-months journey that brought him from Veere, in the Netherlands to Kandy. Apparently, the admiral made a good impression, because the two immediately developed a close friendship.

The King even became curious about the Dutch language of his new friend and decided to learn it. Little did they know that their friendship would start one of the two routes through which cacao would reach Asia which I will call: the Dutch cacao route.

king Vimaladharmasuriya I with admiral van spilbergen


Dutch Ceylon

The friendship between the admiral and the King was the start of a long-lasting relationship between the Dutch and the people of Kandy, Ceylon. While the Dutch were fighting off the Spanish in their homeland, the Kandyan kingdom was struggling with the presence of the ruthless Portuguese. The Dutch were merchants, not conquerors. As traders, they developed a big interest in the spices from Ceylon such as cinnamon and pepper. But the Portuguese blocked their way. For now. 

Good friend Ceylon King Vimaladharmasuriya I and Dutch admiral van Spilbergen


18th century Amsterdam as cacao hub

Around the turn of the 17th century, the Dutch became very successful as pirates, attacking Spanish and Portuguese trade ships, confiscating silver, gold, spices and an unknown crop called cacao. Their interest in cacao grew and in the 18th century they even established a monopoly on the trade of cacao from the country with the largest production worldwide at that time – Venezuela!

One of the results was for Amsterdam to become the world hub for cacao. All cacao trade went through the capital of the Netherlands, and even to the present day the Dutch are still the world’s largest importer of cacao.  



As I mentioned there were two routes through which cacao reached Asia. the first was the Dutch route, but the second is better known – the Spanish route. While in Europe the Spanish were trying to suppress the Dutch in their independence war (which took 80 years), they opened In 1565 the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade; a connection between Mexico on one end and the Philippines on the other end of the world.

The Augustinian priest-chronicler Gaspar de San Agustin recorded that cacao trees were brought over by captain Pedro Brabo, who passed them on to the priest – and most likely family member – Bartolome Brabo. The priest started to cultivate the cacao trees in the Camarines region. Apparently there was even a chocolate drink production in the Philippines as evidenced in records from 1668 by French diplomat Simon de la Loubere who was stationed in the kingdom of Siam (Thailand). He wrote in a report to the French king Louis XIV that Portuguese brought chocolate drinks to Siam from the Philippines. 

the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade of the Spanish


Kandyan - Dutch alliance

Despite the maritime and trade successes on the West routes (Americas), the focus of the Dutch was even more on the very lucrative spice routes from South-East Asia to Europe. On this spice route were two crucial hubs in the hands of the Portuguese: Ceylon and Malacca (Malaysia). 

The people of Kandy had not forgotten about the Dutch, and 35 years after the visit of admiral van Spilbergen, king Rajasinghe II formally invited the Dutch to help fight the Portuguese, and to become the protector of the country. The two countries signed the Kandyan Treaty of 1638. Dutch navy officers Adam Westerwold and William Jacobsz Coster negotiated on behalf of the Dutch. The treaty stated that in return for their military support, the Dutch would get a monopoly on the trade in all Ceylonese spices and commodities, except for elephants.  

On 18 May 1638 the Dutch attacked the Portuguese fort at Batticaloa with a fleet of five ships and 800 men. After a bombardment, a small but strong army of Kandyan and Dutch troops conquered the fort. The battle ended two years later in February 1640 with the occupation of the last Portuguese stronghold, fort Negombo.


Cacao in Ceylon

The origins of cacao in Ceylon are a bit of a mystery, and I couldn’t find any records of the Dutch introducing cacao in Ceylon. However, there is a consensus that cacao pods were brought to Malacca from Ceylon in 1770. The Dutch controlled Ceylon from 1640 to 1795, and Malacca from 1641 to 1825. So, there can’t be any other conclusion that Dutch planters or traders brought cacao to Ceylon, and later from Ceylon to Malacca.

But brought from where? Some state the Dutch took it from Brazil but considering their control of the cacao trade from Caracas, and the omnipresence of the Portuguese in Brazil, it seems more likely that Ceylon cacao originated from Venezuela.

According to Tilman Frasch in his 2014 work “The coming of cacao and chocolate to Ceylon”  the Dutch opened a botanical garden at Kalutara to study new cash crops they wanted to introduce in Ceylon, like cacao. He also quotes John Ferguson, a 19th century British planter in Ceylon: “cacao was supposed to be first introduced into Ceylon in the time of the Dutch and Bennett mentions getting ripe pods […] before 1820 from the trees planted by a Dutch gentleman”.

With their capital Amsterdam as the centre point of cacao trade worldwide, it makes perfect sense that the Dutch were looking for more options to increase cacao trade. Nevertheless, there don’t seem to exist any official records of real Dutch cacao plantations in Ceylon.

One of the reasons might be that the Dutch were focused on trade and were only stimulating locals to start growing cacao, instead of starting plantations themselves. After the British took control of the island in 1795, they were more enthusiastic for the ida of creating their own plantations.

In 1834 their cacao adventure on Ceylon took off. However, cacao remained a minor crop. The harvest records of 1878 shows a very poor result of less than 1MT. But by the start of the first world war it had jumped up to roughly 3,000MT. Strangely enough it stagnated throughout the 20th century and with a short exception in the 1990s, it never grew beyond that amount up to the present day.

cocoa girl in Sri Lanka 1900




The introduction of cacao in the Indonesian archipelago is also shrouded in mystery. In ‘cacao diseases’, authors Zhang and Motilal quote Van Hall who claimed in his writing from 1932 that the Dutch brought Venezuelan criollo to the island Celebes in 1560 while the same Van Hall assumes that the Spanish brought cacao from the Philippines to North-Sulawesi. Van Hall himself experimented in 1912 with genetic selection of cacao to improve yields on Java. And Frédéric Durand states in his work ‘cocoa cycles’ that cacao was already growing on the Moluccas in 1719. 

In conclusion, it is fair to say that there were different introductions of cacao in Indonesia over the course of a few centuries; and that these were the results of both the Spanish and the Dutch cacao route. 

cacao farm Indonesia 1952




Malacca, Malaysia

Going back to the first half of the 17th century, and with the victory against the Portuguese on Ceylon in their pocket, the Dutch immediately wanted to repeat their success with the other crucial hub on the Asian trade routes – Malacca.

Preparations had already been made for an important agreement between the Sultan of Johor and the Dutch in 1606. In January 1641 the allied forces of Dutch and Johor troops launched their final attack on Malacca and drove out the Portuguese. The Dutch took control of Malacca and agreed not to seek territories or wage war with the Malay kingdoms.

Also in the case of Malaysia there are not many historical records on the first introduction of cacao on the peninsula. However, there is a famous story of a discovery of a cacao tree in 1778 in the garden of a Portuguese widow in Malacca. And researchers Thong and Ng wrote in 1978 that cacao was introduced by the Dutch around 1770 bringing it in from Ceylon. As I wrote before the connection between Ceylon and Malacca seems more than plausible.

The Dutch held control over Malacca until the British took over in 1825. And also in this case the British saw more potential in cacao farming than the Dutch. Over the course of 150 years cacao production kept growing. After the Malaysian independence in 1957 it really took off. At its peak in 1989, the cacao growing area had expanded to 415,000ha, especially in the regions of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo. Perhaps of even more importance, Malaysia opened several research centres together with a strong genetic bank of cacaos.

Cacao production totally collapsed at the turn of the 21st century, due to diseases like the Cocoa Pod Borer and farmers who switched to lucrative palm oil and rubber. But the cacao research continued.  

Dutch Malacca 



Vietnam created a huge success with coffee when the communist country allowed private ownership in 1987. Within three decades, Vietnam climbed up to become the worlds second largest coffee exporter. The Vietnamese government was hoping to repeat the success story with cacao. With the support of companies like Cargill and Mars, they offered free cacao seedlings to farmers in the early 2000s. The cacao came from MARDI, the research institute in Malaysia. 

In 2013 the cacao yield was already 5,000MT and key players in the Vietnamese cacao market created a plan to reach 20,000MT by 2020. However, the yield stagnated around 6,000MT. One of the main causes is the over-enthusiastic construction of 11 dams in the Mekong river in Laos by Chinese companies; with a devastating effect on downstream water supplies, and the salinization of the soil in the Mekong Delta as a consequence. Cacao is really suffering at the moment in the Mekong Delta – the second biggest cacao region of Vietnam. 


Dutch roots in Cambodia

In 2014 Dutchman Stefan Struik and Cambodian Chanthol Chean started a modest cacao farm in the remote and hilly province of Mondulkiri in Cambodia called Kamkav Farm. They bought their first seedlings from cacao expert Dinh Lam, who ran a nursery in the Vietnamese highlands around Buon Ma Thuot. The two partners were writing history because it was for the very first time that cacao was introduced as a crop in Cambodia. 

Nevertheless, the two founders had to deal with multiple setbacks. A severe drought in 2015 destroyed almost all cacao trees. Then a crime by a Vietnamese co-worker, committed near the farm, shocked the whole country and almost halted the entire operation. Despite this, the two friends persisted, and in 2019 the first small harvest was achieved. More importantly, dozens of other farmers and Bunong tribal families also wanted to work with the duo. A cooperative was founded – CFARM. At the moment, 51 farmers and families have already joined the initiative. Chanthol Chean and Stefan Struik’s big dream to transform Mondulkiri into an organic cacao province slowly begins to take shape.

This article, written by Stefan Struik and Chanthol Chean, founders of Kamkav Farm in Mondulkiri, is also published on, the website for cacao and coffee professionals

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