“Very good are the words of the wise”: Plagues and Remedies of the Colonial Maya

By R.A. Kashanipour

Early Spanish settlers, administrators, and chroniclers frequently lamented how Old World diseases ravaged native communities in the New World. The famed Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas described the ferocity of the first epidemics: “Then came a terrible plague, and almost everyone died, and very few remained.”[1] We know much about the devastation, but less about the everyday responses of the victims of disease, especially in the Americas where death and destruction accompanied conquest and colonialism.

In colonial Mexico, native scribes and healers recorded local remedies and cures as they treated populations ravaged by endemic and epidemic sicknesses. During the eighteenth century, a series of anonymous Maya curanderos (folk healers) recorded local ideas of science and medicine in a manuscript titled Tratado de las siete planetas y otro de medicinarium (Treatise on the Seven Planets and another on Medicine). Commonly known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua, this work circulated beliefs and practices about the natural world as it passed among healers. The work synthesized European accounts of astrology with Maya understandings of the ritual calendar.

Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua. The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua. This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress. The original manuscript is lost.]
Title Page of the manuscript known as the Chilam Balam de Kaua. The work derives its name from a sixteenth century Maya shaman known as the Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) and the community in which the manuscript was written, Kaua. This image is of a Photostat from 1920 housed at the Library of Congress. The original manuscript is lost.]

Healers recorded remedies for common afflictions and ailments that reflected the intertwined relationships of the colonizers and colonized. An early passage of the work admonished readers to hold the knowledge with respect and care. “Very good are the words of the wise. [These are] recipes in the Maya language for those Indians that want to understand this medicine. Arte, it is called for those who are sick, also for those that are strong and well. Very good are the words of the wise.” [2]

The healers of the Chilam Balam de Kaua recorded remedies in indigenous terms that often reflected European categories of disease. Cures addressed common illnesses, such as cough (en), cold (sis), fever (chakuil), and periodic epidemic diseases like smallpox (nohoch kak), yellow fever (vómito de sangre), or measles (sarampión). There were remedies for everyday afflictions: headache (chibal pol) and earache (chibal xicin). Others were punctuated with magical intervention, including sorcery (pulbil yaah) and evil flowers (mal floral). Treatments attempted to reduce the aches that welcomed life–childbearing (alancil) and painful swollen breast (ya umil chup)–and the pains that greeted death–bleeding (kik) and cancer (caanzeel). There were remedies to treat the difficulties of manual labor: wounds (cinpahal), swellings (chuchup), and broken bones (sayal bac). In total, the Chilam Balam de Kaua contains over three hundred and thirty remedies.

One of the numerous cures for fevers captures the interaction between Mayan and Spanish knowledge systems.

A remedy for fever (tzacal chacuil) by the ancient people, here is the consumption tree (nech bac che), its other name is fever tree. This is boiled in water to wash people who have a fever. [The affliction] is called weakness (nach bahal) in their language and this is ético in the language of the Spaniards. Then leaves of the plant should be taken with the leaves of the night herb (akab xiu), whose leaves are pleasant smelling. The same amount of leaves are mixed together and boiled until soft. They may be taken [this way]. When the water is half finished, the affirmed may be bathed with the hot water, as hot as can be allowed. Four or five times, this is done… When covered and cool, they may arise to chocolate (cacau) leaves and the night herb… The consumption tree is to be twisted with the chocolate plant.[3]

Fevers were undoubtedly common in colonial Yucatán. As with most Yucatec remedies, the application appeared straightforward and matched symptoms with treatment. The heat of the fever was to be broken with a simmering herbal bath, followed by a concoction of herbs with chocolate.

The record keeper, however, also noted that remedy’s pre-Hispanic origins, establishing a connection to the past. In diagnosing the affliction, however, ancient Maya knowledge linked with contemporary Spanish perspectives. These fevers were called nach bahal or ético and, as such, the remedy could apply to Mayas and Spaniards alike.

The materials for the remedy were exclusively comprised of wild herbs, tying the uncontrolled disease with the unconquered frontier. While most healers may have sourced domesticated plants from herb vendors (yerbateros), this remedy required plants of the forest. The cure required knowledge of Mayan biological landscapes; to produce this remedy, the healer needed access to the untamed frontiers of the province.

This remedy, like so many of colonial Yucatán, showed that “the words of the wise” involved the convergence of distinct traditions in the everyday practices of curing. The Chilam Balam de Kaua and other medicinal manuscripts from colonial Latin America illustrate the localized processes in the production and circulation of medical knowledge in the early modern world.

[1] Bartolomé de Las Casas, Historia de las Indias (México: Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1951) 3: 270.

[2] Chilam Balam de Kaua (photostat reproductions), f. 7, Container 25,Ac. 4056, Indian Languages Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

[3] Chilam Balam de Kaua, f. 175.

The Journey of the Hairy Fruit

By Semine Long-Callesen and Nancy Valladares 

“Rambutan, William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings,” early 19th century, Malacca, watercolour on paper. Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board.

In winter of 2020, we travelled to Honduras to visit Nancy’s family. Driving across the country from south to north and along the west coast, we passed an endless landscape of banana and coffee plantations. One day, approaching Santa Rosa de Copan, we made a pit stop at a small stall where carts were spilling over with little round red fruits. Nancy jumped out of the car and returned with rambután. Curiously, the deep-red almost black fruits with the distinct long hairs were so similar to the rambutan that Semine knew from Malaysia. Indeed, in Malay, rambutan literally means hairy fruit. How did this fruit and its Malay name migrate across the tropical belt and become ubiquitously sold and eaten in Honduras?

Rambutan, water-colour. Image courtesy of Semine Long-Callesen.

One of the earlier recordings of the rambutan is the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History. The encyclopedic watercolors of Malaya’s flora and fauna were painted by unknown Chinese artists under the patronage of William Farquhar during his posting as Commandant and Resident of Malacca (1803-1818) and Resident of Singapore (1819-1823). The collection of drawings offers insight into fruits endemic and foreign to the Malay world at the time and includes several depictions of red and yellow rambutans, stating that the fruit is of Indo-Malay origin. 

About a century later, the rambutan appeared in William Popenoe’s Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits. An American agricultural explorer, Popenoe crossed the tropics in the 1920s to document and identify profitable crops that could be transplanted to Central and North America. When not travelling, he managed botanical stations, not least Lancetilla Botanical Experimental Station in Honduras, which carried out experiments that had huge impacts on the ecological systems of Honduras and its trajectory towards becoming a banana republic” under the shadow of the US. 

William Popenoe, Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits (New York: MacMillan Company, 1920), 330. Image courtesy of Archive.org

Nancy tells that the rambutan most likely first was planted in Honduras in a horticultural station like the one on the humid north coast in Lancetilla where a family member worked as a gardener. Like other botanical gardens that were entangled with imperial searches for revenue, Lancetilla germinated exotic fruits from around the world to see if they could yield profit. 

William Popenoe, Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits (New York: MacMillan Company, 1920), Plate XVII. Image courtesy of Archive.org.

Over time, Popenoe’s tropical botanical gardens became manufactured sites of biodiversity that did not mirror the exterior landscapes of large-scale industries with monocrops such as bananas and coffee. The botanical gardens were fantasies of a disappearing paradise that served colonial, industrial demands for resources and pursuits of revenue. Paradoxically, colonized nature was an “untouched” and “unspoiled” terra incognita that was being shaped by imported species; tropical nature was imagined as an abundant garden of Eden, its soil suitable for extraction while at the same time being unhygienic, degenerated, and dangerous. 

Botanical gardens contributed to rendering the colonized territory readable and visible to industries and governments[i], for instance, by dividing the world into distinct biomes: by means of taxonomic illustrations and notes like that of Farquhar and Popenoe, fruits were evaluated in terms of profit and climate fit. With botanical travellers and plantations, the tropics became a uniform landscape. 

William Popenoe, Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits (New York: MacMillan Company, 1920), 318. Image courtesy of Archive.org

Our discovery of the rambutan’s journey made us curious about the overlapping flavors in Honduras and Malaysia, geographies that were nodes in the same imperial networks. Using the surprising culinary similarities, we created Garden Blues with Agnes Cameron, a virtual garden where each flower holds a recipe that reflects this tropical transversality. Farquhar and Popenoe’s botanical explorations resulted in streamlined tropical biomes, which also manifested themselves in a shared sensorium of flavors. Garden Blues demonstrates that food culture depends on a territory much greater than national boundaries and that nothing is inherently Malayan or Honduran. The economy of imperial circulation created an in- and outflow of species which continues to unsettle the idea of local nature. 

 

[i] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

 

 


About

Semine Long-Callesen holds a BA in Art History with Distinction from the University of Cambridge and a Master in Architecture Studies in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research examines colonial museums and archives in Denmark, Malaysia, and Singapore, and artistic practices that respond to such institutions. She is a former Fialkow Fellow and Paul Sun researcher at MIT, and is currently a NEH Graduate Fellow at the Currier Museum of Art, and a researcher at the architecture practice APRDELESP. 

Nancy Dayanne Valladares (b. 1991) is an interdisciplinary artist from Tegucigalpa, Honduras currently based in Boston. Her work traces the colonial legacies and agricultural histories of Central America through the lens of human and non-human migration. Her practice intersects various fields and practices—drawing from economic botany, archaeology and archives to re-configure historical narratives through biofiction. She is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Film Studies Center. She received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Science Masters from the program in Art, Culture and Technology at MIT. Her work has been exhibited at The Art Institute of Chicago, Sullivan Galleries, SUGS Gallery X, ExFest Film Festival, The Research House for Asian Art, Columbia College, and Roman Susan Gallery in Chicago.

Chinese American Herbal Medicine: A History of Importation and Improvisation

By Tamara Venit Shelton

“Chinese herbalists imported everything from China.” This is what I consistently heard from herbalists I interviewed when writing Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. As far as anyone knew, when the first generation of Chinese herbalists began to immigrate to the United States in the 1850s, they imported all their medicinal ingredients from China through the port of San Francisco. By 1878, there were eighteen wholesale companies in San Francisco that serviced Chinese herb shops across the United States. In later years, herbalists could find what they needed through wholesalers in Portland, Seattle, St. Louis, and Chicago.[i]

Fig 1: Frontispiece of The Science of Oriental Medicine, 1902. Los Angeles Herbalists Tom Leung and Li Wing advertised their remedies to English-speaking patients through long and short-form print advertisements. Public Domain.

Historians of China are aware of the importance of improvisation and substitution in traditional Chinese medicine, and yet the prevalent assumption that all Chinese medicines were imported to the United States made some sense. After all, according to thousands of years of Chinese herbal lore, therapeutic efficacy relied on a highly specific process of procuring medicinal plants, animals, and minerals. The collection or cultivation of traditional medicinal ingredients in China happened only in well-defined areas, under certain seasonal, climatic, and astrological conditions.

Yet as I dug into archives, historical newspapers, memoirs, and oral histories, it became apparent that historically, practitioners of traditional Chinese herbalism in America sourced most, but not all of their supplies in China. There is ample evidence – both anecdotal and archaeological – that the Chinese in America grew and foraged for local sources of medicinal ingredients. These findings speak to the ways in which diasporic Chinese medicine responded to new conditions as well as to the resourcefulness and adaptability of its practitioners.

Fig 2: A.P. Russell, a West Virginia merchant, shows off a 1700 pound shipment of ginseng destined for China in 1928. Wild ginseng, foraged in Appalachia, was a major American export to China from the late eighteenth century until its overharvesting led to near extinction in the mid-twentieth century. Public Domain.

Looking back to the end of the nineteenth century, we see examples of Chinese and non-Chinese farmers growing medicinal herbs and roots for Chinese herb businesses. In 1898, a newspaper in Washington D.C. reported that Lee Poit, recently transplanted from California, had given up trying to compete in the crowded field of laundry and retail and was instead growing “many queer vegetables and herbs” on four acres of land that he rented near Terra Cotta Station, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Line.[ii] Across the country, J. B. McCloskey, an American farmer who studied commercial ginseng production in Korea, opened his own farm on two acres in Oxnard and became the major supplier for Los Angeles-area Chinese physicians in 1904.[iii]

Zoological-based medicines also seem to have been locally sourced. The Chinese collected all manner of reptiles and amphibians – snakes, lizards, frogs, and toads – to supplement dried, imported varieties in America. Sometimes, doctors substituted local species that seemed similar to what would have been available in China. In Boise, Idaho, C.K. Ah Fong famously used rattlesnake (a North American reptile) in traditional Chinese tinctures to treat arthritis, and amidst other Chinese health-related artifacts from Lovelock, Nevada, archaeologist Sarah Heffner has found bobcat bones that may have been used in place of expensive, imported tiger bones.[iv]

Fig 3: Canton Harbor and Factories with Foreign Flags, 1805. European and American traders exchanged medicinal goods through this port city. Public Domain.

Substitution was just one form of improvisational thinking among Chinese herbalists in the United States. Studies of hand-written prescriptions from Chinese American apothecaries reflect a tendency to include an unusually long list of ingredients. This divergence may have been an artifact of herbalists’ swift business in mail-orders for patients unable to meet face-to-face. Patients wrote letters describing their ailment or filled out a pre-printed “symptom sheet,” and the doctor sent back a package of medicine along with a detailed instruction sheet. With an extra-long list of ingredients, Chinese American herbalists could cover a lot of bases when confronted with ambiguous descriptions of symptoms.[v]

Fig 4: Cover image of Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. Yale University Press.

 

Chinese doctors in the United States were not so bound by tradition that they resisted adapting their formularies to their new environment. We should remember them as the innovative immigrant entrepreneurs that they were. As herbalist Li Wing Fawn explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1897: “We shall not confine ourselves exclusively to the importations from the Orient, but shall seek out also the very many valuable medicinal herbs growing in our own country [the United States].”[vi]

 

 

 

[i] Haiming Liu, “Chinese Herbalists in the United States,” in Sucheng Chan, ed. Chinese American Transnationalism: the Flow of People, Resources, and Ideas between China and America during the Exclusion Era (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 138.

[ii] “Lee Has a Chinese Farm,” New York Times, 31 October 1898, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Times.

[iii] “Local Ginseng Culture Promises Rich Returns,” Oxnard Courier, 27 May 1904; “Queer Chinese Medicines, Los Angeles Times, 11 August 1907, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

[iv] Sarah Heffner, “Exploring Health-Care Practices of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America,” Historical Archaeology 49 (2015): 141.

[v] Susie Lan Cassel et al, The Chinese in America: a History from Gold Mountain to the New Millennium (Lanham MD: AltaMira Press, 2002), 178.

[vi] Li Wing Fawn and B.C. Platt, “A Step in Advance,” Los Angeles Times, 26 May 1896, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

 

About

Tamara Venit Shelton is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and author of the award-winning book, Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace

Remembering Terry Turner (1929-2019): Pharmaceutical History Collector Extraordinaire

By Laurence Totelin, with input from Briony Hudson

A few years ago, my colleagues Heather Trickey (social sciences), Julia Sanders (midwifery) and I decided to put together a small exhibition on the history of infant feeding, with a focus on Wales where we are based. I immediately thought that the exhibition would benefit from the input of Terry Turner OBE, emeritus professor of Pharmacy at Cardiff University. I had met Terry on several occasions, usually in the Cardiff University staff refectory at Aberdare Hall, and knew that he would have something to contribute to the project.

Two ceramic tops with holes in the middle. The topc are both inscribed.
Two ceramic tops for the so-called ‘murder bottles’ from Terry Turner’s personal collection. A tude was passed through the hole. Because that tube was very difficult to clean, it harboured dangerous bacteria. This type of bottle caused the death of many babies, hence the name of ‘murder bottles’. Photo: Laurence Totelin

With his habitual generosity with time and expertise, Terry accepted to talk to me and invited me to his house. In the morning that I spent with him on this occasion, I learnt more on infant feeding than I would have done reading several books. Terry showed me examples of historical feeding bottles and nipple-shields from his collections and explained how they were used; told me about the mixing of baby formulas; discussed past treatments for breast engorgement; and gave me useful insights into the commercial aspects of the pharmaceutical trade. He also returned to some of his favourite topics: the pharmacognosy of the Strychnos plant genus, with which he started his academic career (MPharm 1960); some of his adventures in collecting pharmaceutical artefacts and plant specimens; and his disdain for modern pain relief, and in particular paracetamol.

Photo of two historical metallic nipple shields with their original carboard box.
Two metallic nipple shields and their original cardboard box from Terry Turner’s personal collection. Photo: Laurence Totelin

Terence (Terry) Dudley Turner was a key actor in the pharmaceutical community in Wales. He entered the profession at the grand old age of 14, working at the renowned Cardiff Pharmacy Robert Drane. He formally registered as a pharmacist in 1955, and saw his profession change almost beyond recognition over his long career: almost gone today are the pestles and mortars, which had been the symbols of the profession for so long; almost complete now is the separation between botany and pharmacy. Terry was rightly proud of his knowledge of plants and his ability to extract from them healing substances. He travelled the world to collect plant specimens and knew their names in several vernacular languages (in addition of course to their Linnaean names).

Picture of two glass historical baby feeding bottles. The bottles are made of glass and are banana shaped. They are accompanied by two rubber teets in their original wrappings.
Banana-shaped baby feeding bottles with rubber teets from Terry Turner’s personal collection. Photo: Laurence Totelin

With a changing profession in the background, Terry developed an interest in the history of pharmacy. He was a founding member of the British Society for the History of Pharmacy (established 1967), which honoured him with the Leslie Matthews Medal in 2017 for his contribution to the history of British pharmacy. He taught his students about the history of the discipline, he wrote on the topic, but above all he collected artefacts in their thousands and could tell entertaining stories about many of them.

His collection soon became too large for his residence, and he started in the early 1980s to exhibit, loan, and donate it. It is currently displayed in two main locations: the Redwood Building, Cardiff University, and in the Apothecary’s Hall at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. The Turner Collection, formally donated to Cardiff University in 2009, comprises some 1500 artefacts, exhibited over three floors of the Redwood Building, currently curated by Sarah Daly and Briony Hudson. At the National Botanic Garden of Wales, the visitor will enjoy a reconstructed historical pharmacy. While it is in many ways ahistorical, gathering in the same place artefacts produced over many decades, it does capture the feeling of being in a pharmacy around the end of the nineteenth century. I am particularly fond of the scales for weighing babies. Terry also donated and catalogued around 500 materia medica specimens for the National Museum of Wales. While these are not on display, they are a key part of the museum’s economic botany collections.

Terry passed away aged 90 on 13 October 2019. I often wonder what he would have to say about the current pandemic. His wit, optimism and humour are sorely missed.


You can find more information about the history of the School of Pharmacy at Cardiff University, and the Turner Collection in Briony Hudson’s 2020 book 100 Years (1919-2019): Cardiff University School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, dedicated to Terry Turner, and available freely on Achive.org.