Cacao: Indigenous Network to Global Commodity

By Rebecca Friedel

A Coveted Tree 

Theobroma cacao is a coveted tree known as the source of the globally celebrated chocolate, initially known as xocolatl in Nahuatl. The fruits of cacao are a variety of berry known as drupes. Drupes grow from pollinated flowers on the tree’s trunks and lower branches, each containing between 20 and 40 pulp-covered seeds, colloquially known as beans. The beans were considered a valuable resource and commodity in precolonial times and hold a similar status today.

Originally domesticated in the tropical lowlands of South America, cacao quickly spread to Mesoamerica where it gained salient cultural status as far back as the Formative Period. This world-renowned plant also tells a story of shifting strategies of interaction and knowledge production during the early modern period. This era of imperial expansion saw a variety of European entities seeking to benefit from the economic goods and networks native to the Americas. Cacao was one of the most important of these networks, specifically the production, distribution, and consumption of its seeds.

The cacao tree is a delicate plant that needs specific conditions to grow and ultimately fruit. Knowledge of these conditions forms a body of deep cultural understanding of cacao’s cultivation, reflected in Indigenous ideologies and practices. European expansionism not only led to the distribution of cacao across the globe but also to the appropriation of the knowledge of Indigenous people. Primary sources from the early modern period document such dynamics between Native human and wild-grown plant populations of the Americas and the colonizers who sought to control them.

Early Recipes

Initial imperial strategies in the so-called New World allowed for the documentation of Native perspectives by Native individuals. The earliest representations of cacao from the early modern period come from a Mexica herbal known as the Badianus manuscript, a collection of elaborately watercolor-painted plants with their associated names in Nahuatl and recipes for treating various ailments written in Latin. This herbal was completed in the 1550s by at least two Nahua men, Martín de la Cruz, an Indigenous nobleman and physician, and Juan Badiano, an instructor of Latin, at the Franciscan school of the Colegio Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco. Now held by the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, the manuscript has been reproduced in a number of ways since its original creation. Through its original and reproductions, the historically deep and broader Indigenous ideologies surrounding Theobroma cacao are captured.

Colorful herbal drawing of trees
Image of cacao and other plants from the Badianus Manuscript. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The herbal’s watercolors illustrate anatomically accurate plant structures situated within particular stages of the reproductive life cycle of cacao. These details indicate that the Mexica had an intimate understanding of cacao’s biology, a level of knowledge not found in contemporaneous herbals authored by non-Natives. Consequently, the knowledge of cacao within the Badianus has a broader spatio-temporal history, developing across Mesoamerica well before the arrival of Europeans and the formation of the school in which de la Cruz and Badiano created the herbal.

Ancient Ideologies

The association of cacao with curing particular ailments in Mexica recipes echoes what was known about the plant by Mesoamericans for thousands of years. In their cosmologies, the cacao plant is connected to maize, a staple crop throughout and beyond Mesoamerica that was highly mythologized. This connection of maize and cacao, typically conceptualized as a life cycle, is also exemplified by a broader ideology regarding a cycle of subsistence. The cycle includes a sequence of alternating a forest garden, where cacao is grown, with milpa, where maize is grown. This milpa/forest garden cycle is a subsistence strategy that was, and still is, central to providing sustenance to millions of neotropical inhabitants.

Etched Maya Bowl
Bowl with Anthropomorphic Cacao Trees from Early Classic Maya Period, 400-500. Image Courtesy: Dumbarton Oaks

Of Wine and Chocolate in Anne Dormer’s Letters

By Daphna Oren-Magidor

“I drink chocolate when my soul is sad to death.”

This statement echoes through time – who among us has not used chocolate as a temporary cure for the blues? –  but it was written in 1687 by Anne Dormer (c. 1648–1695), in a letter to her sister Elizabeth Trumbull.

Dormer had every reason to feel “sad to death.” Her husband was extremely abusive and controlling, her beloved sister had left England to travel with her diplomat husband, and she suffered from insomnia and melancholy. She described her use of medicinals to treat these conditions throughout her correspondence, including multiple mentions of her use of chocolate and its beneficial impact on her health and her mood.

Painting representing a woman in 18th-century dress sat at a small table. On the table there is a tray with a chocolate pot, a cup and other implements used in the consumption of hot chocolate.
A Lady Pouring Chocolate by Jean-Étienne Liotard (1744). Wikimedia.

In September 1687 she wrote: “when I have great want of sleepe and no company but a sick maide and a most preverss unreasonable Husband, I then divert myself with my two sweete children, think of all my kind friends and take a dish of chocolate which I find the greatest cordiall and reviveing in the world.” Six months later, in April 1688, she even went as far as claiming that she drank chocolate every day during the winter, which she credited with the substantial improvement in her health.[1]

By the late seventeenth-century, chocolate was fairly well established in England. It had first been introduced around 1640, with efforts made to promote its medical benefits. By 1652 it was possible for a writer to claim (albeit with some exaggeration) that chocolate was “thirsted after by people of all Degrees (especially those of the Female sex) either for the Pleasure therein naturally Residing, to Cure, and divert Diseases.”[2] Initially, chocolate’s medicinal properties were questioned, as it didn’t fit well into the categories of Galenic medicine. By the late seventeenth-century, however, it was often described as a type of panacea.[3]

So it’s not very surprising that Anne Dormer, a gentlewoman with some ties to the Continent (where chocolate consumption had begun earlier), was drinking chocolate on a regular basis in the 1680s. What is more interesting is her juxtaposition of chocolate to another substance which was consumed for both medicine and pleasure: wine.

Photo of a silver wine cup.
A silver wine cup, ca. 1660, made in Boston. Currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image on Open Access.

Wine was considered a standard medical substance in the early modern period, and while it was to be consumed in moderation, it was a part of most diets, certainly for the upper classes, and was also a key ingredient in many medical recipes. Even at the height of Puritan fervor in the mid-seventeenth-century, drunkenness was criticized but the moderate consumption of wine was not seen as moral problem and was taken for granted. Movements calling for complete abstinence from alcohol emerged much later. Yet for Dormer wine appeared to be a risk, and she used it with extreme caution.

Part of Dormer’s concern was the strength of the wine and its impact on her body, which had never properly recovered from childbirth. In the letter from September she noted that she was “weary of sack [cheaper wine from Spain, Portugal, and their Atlantic colonies]”, but she found French wine was “too rakeing for my carcase which grows still leaner.” Dormer rarely drank wine, and when she did the quantity “never exceeds six spoonfulls.” In a later letter she even mentioned that she had “a little dish” for the purpose of measuring drink, which “holds just three spoonfulls which is my usuall dosse”.

Photo of an elaborate silver cholocate pot.
Silver chocolate pot made in 1697-98 by Isaac Dighton, London. Currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image on Open Access.

Beyond her concern about wine’s physical affects, however, Dormer was preoccupied with wine’s potential for addiction, and perhaps even for moral corruption. While not avoiding wine altogether, she felt wine drinking was risky, especially if done in solitude. “I am sure there is no danger I should ever love wine to sitt and sip by my self,” she wrote, “…w[h]ich is a greate content to my mind, for did I love it, I would never touch a dropp.” She also noted that she consumed her medicinal sherry in the presence of her husband, after dinner, echoing the advice that appeared much later in Benjamin Rush’s exploration of liquor and its effects published in 1790. Rush suggested that wine gave “cheerfulness and strength”, but only when consumed in moderation during mealtimes. Chocolate, on the other hand, was a safe alternative. It gave her “spirits and strength”, which she would never have gotten successfully from wine, since consuming it in any large quantities would have been “a continuall torment to my mind.”

It is unclear why Dormer was concerned about “loving” wine. It’s possible she had previous episodes of drunkenness, as she noted that drinking wine in front of her husband might lead to him almost believing “I may be trusted with it.” Given her husband’s general abusive control of her, however, it’s quite possible that he claimed he couldn’t trust her around wine with no relation to her own actions.  Whatever the reason for her worries about wine, Dormer’s letters offer an interesting example of the everyday use of chocolate as a medication, as well as of the suggestion that chocolate might be a better alternative – morally as well as medically – to the consumption of alcohol.


[1] BL Add MS 72516, ff. 163-163v., 167v., 177-177v.

[2] Quoted in Kate Loveman, “The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640–1730,” Journal of Social History 47:1 (2013): 27-46.

[3] Ken Albala, “The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th Century Medical Theory,” Food and Foodways, 15:1-2 (2007): 53-74.

 

The Curing Chocolate of Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma of 1631

By R.A. Kashanipour

 
The Indies, personified as a maiden, give the gift of chocolate to the Atlantic world, personified as Poseidon. Front piece to Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s, Chocolata Inda, Opusculum de qualitate & naturâ de Chocolatæ (Nuremberg, 1644). Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.
“The number of people who drink chocolate is vast,” wrote the seventeenth century Spaniard, Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, “not only in the Indies, where the beverage originated, but also in Spain, Italy and Flanders, and particularly in the royal court.”  In the early modern world, the consumption of chocolate was ubiquitous across the Americas (as noted here).  According to Colmenero de Ledesma, a physician and surgeon who traversed the Atlantic to explore colonial Spanish medical practices and remedies, chocolate represented the great gift of the Indies (see image above).  

In Colmenero de Ledesma’s 1631 account titled Curioso tratado de naturaleza y calidad del chocolate , which represented the first full-length printed account dedicated to chocolate, the surgeon celebrated the beverage and confectionery for its healthy and healing qualities. “My desire,” he noted in the opening of the work, “is for the benefit and pleasure of the public, to describe the variety of uses and mixtures so that each may choose what suits their ailments.” Borrowing from indigenous traditions in Mesoamerica, chocolate fit a variety of uses. It could be everything from a ritual beverage to a healing elixir to an everyday imbibement.

 
Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s Curioso tratado de la naturalez y calidad del Chocolate (Madrid, 1631). Image courtesy of the the Bibloteca Nacional de España.

By the end of the seventeenth century, chocolate was popular across the Atlantic, particularly in the Europe’s imperial capitals and Atlantic port cities.  However, in spite of its wide-spread use at the everyday level, its consumption was the subject of confusion and consternation by skeptical physicians and the learned classes. Colmnero de Ledesma noted that many Europeans of the era debated its qualities and application.  “Some people say that it obstructs, others that it makes one fat. Some say that it soothes the stomach, while others that it heats and burns. And some say that they drink it every hour, even in the long-days of summer.  I stand to defend this confection … against those that may suggest that this beverage is not good and healthy.”

Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that the consumption of chocolate was both salubrious and satiating.  In the Curioso tratado, he offered a four-part discourse on the qualities of the confection, noting its universal humoral attributes.  “Chocolate, as the Indians call it,” he wrote, managed to contain the four critical elements of heat, humidity, cold, and dryness.  It could be oily and earthy, thick and airy, moist and dry, soft and hard. As a medicament, cacao, the “principal basis” of chocolate, served as an astringent and purgative.

The key to the varied uses of the confection, however, existed in the art of its preparation. By properly incorporating a wide variety of herbs and spices from the New World, chocolate could enliven appetites, elevate moods, and conserve one’s health.  Poorly tempered concoctions could cause illness. Hinting at the Spanish disdain for the subjugated native populations of the colonies, he suggested that the chocolate could also release debilitating qualities, writing that “[t]hose that mix maize, or paniço, in Chocolate produce harmfully release melancholy humors.” Nevertheless, the artful combination of elements could produce a healthy and restorative beverage. 

Colmenero de Ledesma’s Recipe for Chocolate

To every one hundred Cacao beans, mix two large chiles of the type that are called Cilparlagua in the Indies (or you may use the broadest and least spicy chile found in Spain). Add in one handful of anise seeds along with the leaves of the herb called Vincaxtlidos and the other called Mecasuchil [mecaxóchitl], if the stomach is tight. Or, as we do in Spain, mix in the six flowers of the Roses of Alexandria, which are beat into a power.  Add one pod of the Vanilla of Campeche, two sticks of cinnamon, a dozen almonds and hazelnuts, and a pound and half of sugar. Add in enough achiote to give it color. 

To prepare the beverage, Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that the ingredients be ground on a metate, explicitly reserved for grinding cacao. All ingredients, save the achiote, were to be dried and ground individually into a powder. Begin, he directed, by grinding the cinnamon, then the chile with the anise, then moving to the others.  Next carefully mix each pulverized ingredient into the cacao a little at a time. Finally, add the achiote.  Over a low fire, the pulverized mixture is to be seared and dried into a paste, which was to be spooned onto paper or a plantain leaf. The cooled paste would form a tablet that could subsequently be dissolved with water and sugar.

Consumed cold or warm, Colmenero de Ledesma’s recipe for chocolate would invariably have something novel to the seventeenth century palates on both sides of the Atlantic. In the Americas, chocolate was traditionally consumed as a frothy, spicy beverage, free of the sweetness of modern cocoa. Colmenero de Ledesma’s recipe, however, combined herbs and spices of the New World. It is noteworthy that the university-trained Spanish surgeon appropriated and Hispanized indigenous terms, including cilparlagua and mecasuchil, and established them as key colonized aspects of the concoction.  Moreover, the addition of sugar fundamentally redefined the experience of the beverage.  Rather than taking on the earthy and bitter qualities of the cacao, the sugar would have lent an overwhelming sweetness to the beverage.  

When produced with the right art and process, Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that his recipe for chocolate could be remedial, protective, and healthy. “Through my experience in the Indes” he declared, “when visiting a sick person in the heat, I was persuaded to take a draft of chocolate, which quenched my thirst. And, in the morning, if I had fasted, it warmed and comforted my stomach.” Within a decade, Colmenero de Ledesma’s curious treatment of chocolate would be translated and published in England, France, Germany, and Italy. Chocolate, to echo his own conclusion, was “no small matter, to have pleased all.”

Thomas Gage’s Chocolate Recipe and Regimen of 1655

By R.A. Kashanipour

Natives Offering Gifts to Thomas Gage
Image 1 – Gifts of the locals.  In this image appears as the frontpiece  of a German edition of Thomas Gage’s book of travels.  The idealized depiction includes representations of the ranks of the local population, including a  Spaniard, African, native, and a mixed ethnic casta. The Spanaird presents bowl of chocolate, while the others offer reeds, cloth, and poisoned toads.   See: Thomas Gage, Neue merckwürdige Reise-Beschreibung nach Neu Spanien (1693). Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

In A New Survey of the West-Indies of 1655, the English friar Thomas Gage celebrated the ubiquitous consumption and qualities of chocolate throughout the early modern Spanish Atlantic World, particularly in New Spain. “Chocolate,” wrote the Dominican priest, was consumed in “all the West-India’s, but also in Spain, Italy, and Flanders, with approbation of many learned Doctors in Physick.”  He lavishly described chocolate as “unctuous, warm [with] moist parts mingled with the earthly” all the while defining it as “one of the necessariest commodities in the Indias.” Gage noted that seemingly everyone in seventeenth-century Mexico and Guatemala imbibed in the frothy and sweetened beverage. According to the friar, Indians produced it, women demanded it, Spaniards celebrated it, and doctors healed with it. [1]

Arriving to Mexico in the port of Veracruz in 1625, Gage reported that his first meal among his Dominican brothers was a lavish affair in which “no fowls were spared, many capons, turkey cocks, and hens were prodigally lavished.” The entire party was entertained “lovingly with some sweetmeats, and everyone with a cup of the Indian drink called chocolate.” In the Maya highlands of Chiapas, two cloisters of Dominican nuns, “talked about far and near,” were renowned not for their spirituality and devotion, but rather for their skill in making chocolate. The consumption of beverage was so commonplace that the bishop of Guatemala threatened to excommunicate women that consumed chocolate during Mass, presumably in lieu of the Eucharist. [2]

Thomas Gage, "Chapter XVI - Concerning two daily common Drinkes, or Potions," A New Survey of the West-Indias, (1655), 106.
Image 2 – Thomas Gage, “Chapter XVI – Concerning two daily common Drinkes, or Potions,”  A New Survey of the West-Indias, second edition (1655), 106. Courtesy of the Kislak Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Gage detailed a recipe for the Mesoamerican “chocolatical confection” that was a rich mixture of indigenous and European herbs and spices.[3]

Put into it black pepper which is not well approved of by the physicians because it is so hot and dry, but only for one who hath a cold liver, but commonly instead of this pepper, they put into it a long red pepper called chile which, though it be hot in the mouth, yet is cool and moist in operation. It is further compounded with white Sugar, Cinnamon, Clove, Anise seed, Almonds, Hazelnuts, Orejuela [anona], Vanilla, Sapoyall [mamey], Orange flower water, some Muske, and as much of these may be applied to such a quanitie of Cacao, the several dispositions of Achiotte, as it will make it look the colour of a red brick.[4]

To prepare properly, he noted that the ingredients must be dried and ground with an Indian metate. The cinnamon and chiles were to be first beaten with warm water and powdered cacao. Subsequently the anise and other herbs and spices were to be individually added to the confection before being “searced” or sifted to remove the shells and hulls. Finally, powdered achiote was to be added to enrich the beverage with a hearty color and earthen flavor.[5]

Far from a mere observer, the friar admonished the regular and remedial qualities of a fine cup of chocolate. “For myself,” he wrote, “I must say that used it twelve years constantly, drinking one cup in the morning, another yet before dinner between nine or ten of the clock, another within an hour or after dinner, and another between four or five in the afternoon.” When he needed to study late into the night, he “would take another cup about or seven or eight at night, which would keep me waking till about midnight.” This four to five cup-a-day, twelve-year regimen of chocolate kept him “healthy, without any obstructions or oppilations, not knowing either ague or fever.” However, if on occasion, he neglected his regular routine, he found himself weak and infirmed with a “stomach fainty.”  He was, in other words, completely habituated to the consumption of chocolate.[6]

[1] Thomas Gage, A New Survey of the West-Indias, second edition (London: E. Cotes, 1655), 106, 110.
[2] Gage, 23.
[3] Gage, 107.
[4] Gage, 108.
[5] Gage, 108.
[6] Gage, 109.

Additional Resources:

Sophie Coe and Michael Coe, The True History of Chocolate (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996).

Martha Few, “Chocolate, Sex, and Disorderly Women in Seventeenth-and Eighteenth-Century Guatemala,” Ethnohistory 52:4 (2005), 673-687.

Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010).