America’s Liquid Treasure

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Chocolate: The Food of the Gods


By Chantal Coady

Published 1993

Christopher Columbus, like Vasco de Gama, was from Genoa, the prosperous Italian city-state renowned for its trading and seafaring. Both men were in effect maritime mercenaries, engaged in the race to find a new sea passage to the spice islands of the East – all the overland trade routes being blocked by the Mongol hordes. Hoping to obtain funds for his bold expedition across the Atlantic, Columbus approached the kings of Portugal, Spain, France and even despatched his brother Bartholomew to England to ask King Henry VII to invest in the enterprise. Henry, who was much preoccupied with domestic problems following the Wars of the Roses, did not take up the offer, and thus lost a golden opportunity to extend his territories to another continent. He also, indirectly, deprived himself and his subjects of the experience of drinking chocolate, which was not to reach England until the mid-seventeenth century.

In August 1492, having finally persuaded Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain of the potential of his undertaking, Columbus set sail with three small ships and the promise that he would be viceroy of any land he discovered and conquered, and that he would receive a tenth of any gold or silver he found. Setting off westwards into the unknown, he failed to reach the spice islands of the East (the East Indies), instead making his first landfall in the Caribbean, (hence the name ‘West’ Indies) on the island of Guanaja in the Bahamas, subsequently on Cuba, and finally on La Isla Española (Hispaniola, shared today by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) where his flagship, the Santa María, was wrecked.

The two remaining ships returned to Spain with a negligible amount of gold, no deposits having been found on the islands, but with a group of Carib captives who created a sensation at the Spanish court and provided enormous propaganda value for Columbus and led to a second expedition in 1493 of seventeen ships and fifteen hundred men.

Columbus made four voyages to the new continent and it was on the fourth, in 1502, that he came across cocoa beans, which he presented to the Spanish court. Columbus himself had not enjoyed drinking the spicy, scummy liquid, which contained cocoa, cinnamon, aniseed and cornmeal, and therefore probably was not surprised when Ferdinand and Isabella dismissed chocolate as a bizarre tribal concoction.

The Spanish exploration of the Americas continued, and some twenty years later, when an improved version of the drink was imported to Spain, it was a different story. This time sugar, from the East Indies, and vanilla from Mexico had been mixed with the cocoa, resulting in a more palatable mixture. The court was so taken with chocolate that they kept the secret to themselves for as long as possible. The conquistador Hernán Cortés was the first European to grasp the importance of cocoa, during his encounters with the Aztecs in Mexico, and it was he who successfully introduced the drink to the Spanish court, along with the implements used by the Aztecs to prepare it.
When he left Cuba in 1519, attracted to Mexico by rumours of gold and jewels, the thought of cocoa and chocolate would scarcely have been in his mind. He set sail with a force of five hundred and fifty men, sixteen horses and a few cannon, a tiny army in comparison to the vast numbers of Native Americans he was to meet on the mainland. The fact that in the course of the next two years he was able to conquer the Aztec empire is still a source of amazement to historians. When he first landed his men, horses and firearms, the natives were astonished and frightened, because they had never seen horses or white men, not to mention the destructive ability of the cannon, a demonstration of which Cortés was not slow to perform.
From his capital Tenochtitlán, modern day Mexico City, the Aztec emperor Montezuma sent gifts of silver and gold to the coast in an attempt to persuade the Spaniards to leave. To prevent any of his men from doing so, Cortés burnt his boats, showing intelligence and foresight by burying the metal frames of the boats, which he would later re-use in the final battle, which was fought on the lakes surrounding Tenochtitlán.

Fighting and negotiating with both friendly and hostile Indians, showing cruelty and ruthlessness where necessary, and surviving treachery from all quarters, Cortés headed towards the centre of the country until he finally looked down onto Lake Téxcoco, in the middle of which were the fortifications and temples of the city of Tenochtitlán. Crossing the causeway that led to the city, Cortés was astonished at the welcome he received, having expected to do battle with the people he took to be savages. Montezuma had been closely following Cortés’ progress as he moved inland, and was waiting to receive the man he took to be Quetzalcoatl (the plumed serpent god of Aztec mythology) and his retinue.

Cortés was awe-struck by the scale of his reception, and the pomp and circumstance afforded him. A banquet was prepared in his honour; there were over three hundred dishes, of wild duck, turkey, guinea pig and other exotic birds and beasts. Turkey and guinea pig were native, domesticated animals of the Americas, and until that time unknown in Europe. To drink there were thousands of jugs of xocolatl, made from cocoa which was offered to Cortés and his men in sumptuous goblets of pure gold, with golden spoons inlaid with tortoiseshell, examples of the great skill of the Aztec jewellers. Cortés accepted all Montezuma’s hospitality, and the soldiers enjoyed the entertainments laid on for them, in the form of juggling dwarfs and dancing girls. After the feast was over, Montezuma is reputed to have retired to his harem, fortified by the aphrodisiac qualities of the xocolatl. The troupe of entertainers was rewarded with the remains of the feast, although only the male members would have been allowed to drink the xocolatl which was forbidden to Aztec women.

All that Cortés saw would have confirmed that he was at the centre of a highly organized and sophisticated civilization, and indeed the Mayan people had developed mathematical and astronomical systems which had enabled them to calculate a calendar more accurate than our own. Unfortunately, little remains of these records as they were destroyed by the Spaniards. From their worship of the sun gods we do have a tangible legacy in the form of the massive pyramids and the temples they built. There is much evidence too of pottery, sculpture and metal-smelting which survives from the pre-Columbian era. Their writing systems relied on hieroglyphs and the wheel was unknown to them. There have been numerous theories about how they came to be in South America, since so many of their systems and skills parallel other cultures, such as the ancient Egyptians and even the lost tribe of Israel.

One theory is that long before Columbus arrived on the shores of the Americas, others had made the journey. Montezuma is reputed to have told Cortés that his tribe originally came in boats, across the seas, from the east where the sun rises. A more plausible theory is that in 15,000 BC, before the last ice age, there was a bridge of land which enabled the people of Asia to migrate to Alaska. From there they travelled through the Americas. Later the ice melted and the sea levels rose, creating a new continent.

All of the pre-Columbian Native Americans worshipped several gods, and most of them also indulged in the practice of human sacrifice. The Aztec empire was in the grip of a particularly fierce and bloodthirsty religious regime. They believed that without sacrifice, the sun would not rise in the east, the maize on which they depended would not grow, and time itself would stop. To this end there were human sacrifices every day and thousands might be slaughtered on feast days, their still beating hearts removed and offered to the insatiable sun god. By extraordinary coincidence, according to Aztec astrology, 1519 was predicted as the year when a white-faced king named Quetzalcoatl would return to release the people from this horrific need to appease the gods. The Aztec legend began in the ninth century ad, when there had been a king called Quetzalcoatl. He was a great poet and philosopher, and had the divine power to breathe life into inanimate objects just by looking at them. His other identity was the plumed serpent god (in Aztec culture there was no difference between being a king or a god). Quetzalcoatl became disenchanted with the practice of human sacrifice, and after a time declared that he was going to go far away, to the lands across the seas, towards the rising sun. He promised to return, in another time, and another guise, and told them to be prepared for the event. This was the main reason why Cortés’ small force had been able to penetrate so deeply into the heart of the empire, and with so little opposition. It was not long however before Montezuma realized that he had made a serious mistake.

Despite the friendliness and extravagance of his welcome, Cortés’ position was obviously highly insecure at the centre of this vast empire, where he and his men were little more than special food for the gods. Realizing this, he kidnapped Montezuma, and during the course of the next two years dealt not only with the hostile local Indians but also with a force sent by the Spanish Governor of Cuba, who was worried that Cortés had become too powerful. Cortés quickly won the soldiers round to his cause and they became reinforcements to his small army. Then with boats built from the skeletons of the ones he had already burnt, Cortés embarked on his final assault and destruction of the Aztec capital. In August 1521 the remains of Tenochtitlán became the capital of New Spain.

How was it possible for such a small force of Spaniards to break up the great Aztec Empire in such a short space of time? The Europeans certainly enjoyed better military technology, together with their horses and firearms. Also, soon after landing on the mainland in Tabasco state, Cortés was given an Aztec Indian girl named Marina by some friendly natives. She understood both the Aztec language and Mayan, and was to become a faithful mistress, invaluable ally, interpreter and adviser during the conquest. Doubtless it was partly with her help that Cortés won the collaboration of various native tribes in the course of his campaigns. These tribes had long been subjugated by the Aztecs, and were more than willing to hasten the end of a bloodthirsty regime. Cortés’ own powers as a leader and soldier were undoubtedly supreme. Another factor was smallpox which spread like wildfire in the Indian population who had no immunity to this and other newly imported diseases. But perhaps most important of all was the inherent weakness of a system which was haunted by the possibility of complete and sudden cataclysm, in the form of the sun failing to rise. The arrival of Cortés and the events of 1519 to 1521 proved to be equally catastrophic.

Although gold and silver may have been Cortés’ main priority, he did not quickly forget the xocolatl that had been consumed at that memorable feast. The name xocolatl meant bitter water (xoc = bitter; atle = water). There is also a theory that the word xoc or choc comes from the sound of the chocolate being milled by the wooden stick called a molinillo, which makes a ‘choc-choc’ noise. Certainly their brew was very different from the drinking chocolate which we know today. It was essentially a cold, savoury drink, with chillies, cinnamon and cloves. The addition of cornmeal served to absorb the fat (cocoa butter) which floated to the top, and acted as a crude emulsifier, binding the fat and the water. It is difficult to imagine anything further from the unctuous hot melted chocolate drinks which one can find in such modern shrines as ‘La Maison de Chocolat’ in Paris! There is also evidence from early Spanish accounts that the Aztecs had blocks of cacao ready prepared in order to facilitate the speedy production of thousands of jugs of xocolatl.

Cortés had also observed that cocoa was used by the Aztecs as a form of currency. A fellow countryman, Hernando de Oviedo Valdez, reported that he had bought a slave for 100 cocoa nibs (a nib is an almond-sized cocoa bean). A rabbit could be exchanged for 4 nibs, the favours of a woman of the night for 10 nibs, and so on. The Aztecs had imposed a feudal system on their subjugated tribes, which required all taxes to be paid in the form of cocoa beans. This may have given Cortés the idea that it was possible to grow money on trees, and so he started to cultivate cocoa on a large scale. All the cocoa that the Aztecs drank, and used as money, was grown by the Mayan people on the Yucatán Peninsula, where the warm, humid climatic conditions were ideal. The Mayans had been cultivating cocoa for at least six hundred years after migrating there in ad 600. By ad 1200, with their own civilization in decline, they had become subjects of the Aztec Empire.

On his travels Cortés established cocoa plantations all around the Caribbean from Mexico to Trinidad and Haiti, and also to Fernando Po, which is off the coast of West Africa. It was from Fernando Po that a blacksmith named Tette Quesi is reputed to have returned to his native Gold Coast in 1879 with some cocoa seeds in his pocket, and started the first cocoa plantation in Africa.

During the sixteenth century, Spanish colonization spread to South America. In Venezuela it resulted in the severe depletion of the Indian population. Around 1600, with the introduction of cocoa cultivation, the structure of the Venezuelan economy was established for the next three hundred years. As cultivation spread out from Caracas and the central coastal valleys, cattle raising was pushed southward from the highlands into the northern parts of the Llanos. In the Caracas of 1684 wealth was amazingly concentrated: 172 people held a total of 167 cocoa plantations with 450,000 trees. By the 1740s, cocoa production in the province of Caracas had multiplied tenfold, but the number of cocoa proprietors had increased by only three. The domination of the land by a single commercial crop continued until the end of the eighteenth century. The colonists dispossessed the small indigenous producers. The church controlled about a fifth of the cocoa area in the 1740s, but even this was less than the area owned by a single family, the Pontes.

Venezuelan production seems large until compared with that of the much smaller area of the French colony of Saint Domingue, present-day Haiti, which in fact produced ten times as much cocoa. The reasons for the relative inefficiency in Venezuela included higher taxes and absentee landowners who left production in the hands of dishonest and inefficient administrators, but the main difficulty was the lack of a reliable labour supply. The remaining natives preferred to practise subsistence farming in family units rather than hire themselves out as labour. To remedy this deficiency, African slaves were imported, but because the slaves tended to have few children and were also able to buy back their freedom, the labour problem remained.
Peruvian cocoa was inferior to Venezuelan, but that exported through Guayaquil, the principal port in Peru, was also cheaper. Exports totalled 11,310 tons in 1820. From the beginning, cocoa was exported to Spain and Mexico. Contraband trade also reached Curaçao, which was occupied by the Dutch in 1634. By the end of the eighteenth century wars were disrupting shipping. Since cocoa beans deteriorate rapidly when stored in humid conditions, their cultivation was gradually replaced by more stable products such as coffee, cotton and indigo.

In Brazil, as in Venezuela, the principal problem of cultivation was a shortage of labour. The Portuguese had passed laws against taking native slaves early in the eighteenth century. (It is ironic that 150 years later the Portuguese were the main protagonists of slave labour in Africa – see the Cadbury trial in Chapter 3.) It was very much in the economic interests of the colonial settlers to violate these laws. This led to a struggle with the Jesuit missionaries. The Jesuits were expelled from the main cities on two occasions, and in the 1720s a campaign of complaints against them contributed to their ultimate expulsion from Brazil.

Between 1678 and 1681, the Portuguese crown tried without success to stimulate cocoa production by offering tax exemptions to producers. The colonists preferred to send their Native American guides after the wild cocoa of the Amazon forest rather than cultivate the sweeter domestic kind. Little capital was needed to gather wild cocoa. Slowly the market for Amazonian cocoa developed in Spain and Italy, and the trade increased. In the mid-1720s about 100 licences were granted for canoes going to gather cocoa. By the 1730s this figure had risen to 250, and by 1736 it stood at 320.

Before 1755 cocoa was the major export of Para (the centre of Brazil’s cocoa-growing areas). It commanded high prices on the Lisbon market. Thereafter, exports became more irregular because of labour and shipping shortages and a drop in cocoa prices. However, we need to remember that from the natives’ perspective the issue was not one of labour but of survival. The demands made by the Portuguese and the mistreatment they meted out took their toll. In addition, epidemic diseases decimated the native population. There were smallpox epidemics in 1621 and 1644, and a devastating measles epidemic in the 1740s. Each outbreak was followed by a shortage of labour that led to renewed introduction of slaves.

In Mexico, meanwhile, there were large numbers of Spaniards living in established colonies, with their wives and families, who behaved as if they were still in Spain. The upper-class ladies of Chiapas had chocolate brought into the cathedral by their maids. The following famous tale was told in 1625 by Thomas Gage, an English Catholic friar, who had been educated in Xeres, Spain, by the Dominican Friars. (He was smuggled to New Spain in a biscuit barrel - because only Spaniards were allowed to visit their new territories.) In a story of ‘death by chocolate’, Gage tells of expatriate Spanish gentlewomen who claimed that they could not endure the long daily masses in the cathedral in Chiapas without refreshment. Each instructed her maid to come with a jug of chocolate, disrupting the ceremony so much that the Bishop decreed an excommunication order on anyone partaking of chocolate within the cathedral walls. Soon after this he was mysteriously poisoned by a cup of chocolate, and died after a week of agony. Nonetheless he is reported to have said prayers during his last hours for those who had caused his death. Gage, who lived in Chiapas in New Spain for fourteen years, was the first to record the use of chocolate as a gift. When he left Chiapas the Governor’s wife gave him many boxes of aromatical (ready spiced) chocolate. Travelling missionaries were often given boxes of chocolate. The nuns of Oaxaca were famed for their chocolate, which was sent to other parts of Mexico and to Spain, and it was the nuns of Puebla who created the dish of Mole Poblano (turkey in chocolate and chilli sauce) in honour of a visiting archbishop.

Another local custom was to use the drink xocolatl as wages for the Native American guides who travelled with the missionaries. Thomas Gage was advised to keep to this custom and not to set a precedent by offering money. Also, whenever the natives co-operated to build or repair each other’s houses, they rewarded their helpful friends with ‘great cups of chocolate as big as will hold a pint’. This peasant version of the drink did not include the costly ingredients used by the Spaniards, just a little aniseed and chilli for flavouring.

Chocolate had been used as a form of taxation in Montezuma’s reign. The Spanish priests continued this tradition by imposing unofficial taxation on the natives, in the form of more or less compulsory offerings. Gifts of chocolate, honey, chickens, maize and candles were required to be offered to the priests on feast days, and during Lent.

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