During the last decades of the sixteenth and the first ones of the seventeenth century, the Spanish surgeon Pedro López de León worked at the San Sebastian hospital in the city of Cartagena de Indias in the New Kingdom of Granada. At the time, Cartagena was the most important port of the Spanish empire in the Caribbean and the official entry of all the slave trade coming into South America. Not surprisingly, San Sebastian was the busiest hospital in the region. Drawing from his work at the hospital and around the region surrounding Cartagena and the wider Caribbean, López de León wrote a medical/surgical treatise called Practica y teorica de las apostemas en general y particular that detailed his experiences treating patients from all over the Atlantic while using state of the art surgical and medical techniques, and incorporating treatments he first saw in the New World.
Salient among the treatments López de León details in his work was his use of an antidote he learned from Amerindian practitioners in the Caribbean coast of the New Kingdom of Granada. This treatment was, in his words, the only effective remedy against the bites of native snakes that, López de León thought, “were worst than the vipers of Spain.” The famous theriac from Toledo, a variation of the common medieval European panacea for poison, was completely ineffective against New-World snakes’ poison. When one of these snakes bit a person, López de León, said, health practitioners should instead use ambire—a remedy he had learned from Amerindian health specialists. Ambire was “a mix of many counter-herbs, tobacco juice and honey.” Amerindians cooked these ingredients until the resulting liquid was “as thick as the egypciaco ointment, and with the same color and consistency.” Ambire was “so strong and with such virtue,” López de León maintained, that if a person who had been bitten by a snake “drinks the weight of a real [3.5 gm.]” of ambire “dissolved in wine or water” within fifteen minutes of the snake’s bite, or that of any other poisonous animal, the remedy would stop “and kill” the poison and “repair the heart.” López de León recommended that—besides administering ambire orally to patients bitten by poisonous animals—health practitioners should “cut and suck the bite wound” and put “ambire macerated with four garlic cloves in a mortar” on the wound which should be then covered. This procedure, including the drinking of the ambire potion, should be repeated after three, seven, and thirteen hours. If the recipe was prepared correctly and the procedure followed strictly, “most patients would be cured,” López de León maintained.
More impressively, ambire served as a prophylactic against any “poison” that “one will be given” during a day. Death, one should remember, lurked around every corner in the early modern world, and poisons of all sorts (and not only of animal origin) were a particularly common menace. In order to be protected López de León said, a person should “put three drops of ambire” in her palm and “lick them every morning.” According to the Spanish surgeon, this was a remedy that was highly esteemed by both Amerindians and Spaniards. Everybody in the region thought that ambire was far better than theriac. After all, ambire protected not only against physical but also spiritual poisons. Ambire made people expel the “spells through the mouth or anus” in the form of vomit or diarrhea. López de León himself had seen people that, after having been treated for spells with ambire, “had expelled bones of little toads,” a common description in the New Kingdom of Granada of the widespread bundles of evil associated with witchcraft, “in the quantity of an escudilla [a small bowl].”
López de León’s account of the uses of ambire is an illuminating example of the vibrant, multi-originated, and epistemologically diverse world of early modern Caribbean medicine. It showcases an era of pharmacological exchange, and of challenges to old Western medical traditions (including that of the quintessential Galenic remedy, theriac) on the basis of experiences gained from exchanges with native populations around the globe. It also reminds us of the fluid avenues linking the human body with the physical and spiritual realms in the ideation about nature of early modern people
León, Pedro López de. Pratica y teorica de las apostemas en general y particular: questiones y praticas de cirugia de heridas, llagas y otras cosas nuevas y particulares. Sevilla: Luys Estupiñan, 1628. 198.