Cacao Cravings: Europe's Assimilation and Europeanization of Chocolate Drinking from Mesoamerica, 1492-1700 C.E.
If, like Colmenero, the majority of Europeans did not realize that the red color of traditionally brewed chocolate was intended to represent blood, chocolate would have encountered even more problems with the Catholic Church than it already did. Since Catholicism was such an integral part of so many Spaniard’s lives, it was essential to the assimilation process that chocolate was cleared ecclesiastically safe for Christian consumption. Chocolate’s spirituality, however, posed a severe obstacle to its approval by the Church. As previously discussed, chocolate in its original context was highly spiritual and even used in ‘blood’ sacrifices to ‘pagan’ gods. True, burning Mesoamerican texts and killing those who would have known chocolate’s true spiritual meanings during the Spanish conquests helped to blind Church knowledge of chocolate’s past sanctity over time, but nevertheless, the social rituals and past influences were not easily abolished especially since Creole communities would have retained some level of indigenous nuances. Two of the most iconic instances of the controversy over chocolate in the Catholic Church are whether or not chocolate could be consumed during fasting days and, ironically, over the tendency of certain Christians in the Americas wanting to drink chocolate and sweetmeats during mass (the Catholic version of a symbolic blood ritual).34 The latter controversy was conveyed through Thomas Gage, himself a friar who wrote a travel log about his American travels including a discourse on chocolate.35 According to Gage, a small movement by prestigious clergy in the Americas against ‘taking chocolate’ arose because of the practice of creole or transplant Spaniards and even local clergy consuming chocolate in church, which was especially egregious when consumed during the holy mass that was seen as one of the most holy rituals in Christendom and corrupted whenever anything except communion grape wine and wheat bread were consumed.36 Chocolate, as a foreign substance and something so special to non-European communities was thus perceived as a serious threat to Rome’s religious hegemony when and if it was allowed into Christian sacred spaces and ceremonies.
The growing popularity of chocolate also threatened Catholicism because as a new consumer good and a good that defied traditional European classification, it was as yet undetermined if chocolate counted as a ‘food’ or a ‘drink’ as it pertained to fast days on the sacred calendar. Because it was forbidden to eat any food over one hundred days of the year, it was crucial to those concerned to determine if chocolate was ‘nourishing’ as a food or if it was just a drink to ‘quench thirst.’37 To the Church, ‘nourishing’ has a different meaning from modern scientific ideas about nutrition, for example water was not seen as a nourishing substance at all, only a vessel for quenching thirst, unless it was mixed with water or eggs, etc.38 An issue like this was used for both proponents for drinking chocolate more socially and by those who viewed chocolate as a dangerous foreign blight on European civil society. For opponents of chocolate, the issue of fast days would have been an extremely useful argument for fighting the assimilation of the practice of ‘taking chocolate’ because if ruled in their favor, chocolate drinking would be restricted to between one half and one third of the calendar year in places with practicing Catholics. Against a staunchly entrenched moral authority in Europe, chocolate would have a tougher and undoubtedly longer battle establishing itself among popular European society. While most documented proof of its Mesoamerican religious contexts had been eradicated, chocolate still managed to retain some of its mystical aura overseas. Yet, with even the clergy split over the issue it was only a matter of time before chocolate was approved for consumption on fast days, clearing the way for advanced assimilation and proliferation of drinking chocolate.
People like the friar Thomas Gage and theologian Antonio de León Pinelo found inventive ways to allow devout Catholics the ability to consume chocolate on fast days. That these two did so reveals that chocolate by the 17th century had become somewhat popular already in elite circles. Pinelo argued that as long as chocolate drinks were not mixed with anything ‘nourishing’ like bread, maize, milk, or eggs they should be labeled only as ‘thirst-quenching’ just like water.39 This theory would benefit both the social-drinking and medical community of the period, since chocolate could theoretically retain its medicinal purposes without such additions. The habits related by Gage certainly would have assured laypersons that drinking chocolate daily would not for sure harm someone:
Gage’s chocolate drinking habits, which were quite prolific with consuming it three to four times a day for twelve years, would have validated the practice to the faithful that read Gage’s travel log since logically a habit that a Christian leader such as Gage practiced should be acceptable for laymen to adopt. Interestingly enough, Gage also often turned to the treatises of Galen just like people such as Colmenero to justify chocolate drinking.41 Thus, at times, scientific and religious authorities were even blended within a cleric’s argument, and were seen as equally important. Psychologically, after both the scientific and ecclesiastical communities had cleared chocolate, there were no barriers of authority left to prevent chocolate from gaining popularity in Europe’s consumer markets except for individual tastes. However, at least until just after Gage’s discourse on chocolate in 1648 C.E., many authorities were still stressing consumption with moderation despite several voices vouching for chocolate’s ‘safety.’
Arguments that supported that the idea of eating chocolate in moderation was safe based their moderate approach on humoral theory. Colmenero, the physician who wrote about chocolate being balanced and safe due to its triplicate humeral properties, stressed that in his professional opinion, chocolate should only be consumed during certain times of the year, especially avoiding the hottest days of the summer, but one who has an affliction should consume “five or sixe ounces, in the morning, if it be in winter.”42 Gage, seventeen years later, also stressing moderation admitted the potential for harm that chocolate presented if consumed glutinously: “I have known some that have been the worse for it, either for drinking it with too much sugar, which hath relaxed their stomackes, or for drinking it too often.”43 In 1634 C.E., Pinelo suggested that drinking chocolate more the around four times a day had the potential to be damaging to the body.44 Colmenero, Gage, and Pinelo all had stake in humoral theory, which stressed balance in all things anyway, hence it follows that the scholars and physicians writing about any food would have advised moderation. Therefore, no matter how much the ‘experts’ stressed moderation, those who either had little to no knowledge or faith in humoral theory could easily find excuses to popularly, commercially, and socially drink chocolate once those authorities opened the door to the idea of ‘safe’ consumption of chocolate.
The spread and popularity of chocolate is clearly evident starting in the middle of the 17th century C.E., corresponding with the culmination of debates over the safety of chocolate in European bodies by the scientific and ecclesiastical communities. Chocolate had been restrained in European markets to places that either had access to expensive luxury chocolate cultivation through their colonies or had direct and close trade relationships with those that did including Spain, Italy, and the Dutch, but in the mid-17th century, the treatises of people verifying and explaining the safeness of chocolate began to be translated into Northern and Western European languages such as Colmenero’s treatise on chocolate.45 The way that Colmenero’s work spread into England in 1640 C.E. is indicative of individual’s disregard for any harmful properties that the humeral theory purported, since it was translated and published by one Captain James Wadsworth under the pseudonym Diego de Vades-forte who was the Spanish-educated client of the ‘imported foreign delicacy’ loving Edward, second Viscount of Conway.46 This strange and secretive ploy by noble Englishmen already introduced to chocolate in Spain to create a new English market for the good indicates that there was popular demand at least by elite society during this period as a consequence of positive authoritative opinions concerning chocolate. Once it was introduced, chocolate swiftly took over elite society in a popular craze not controlled by any calls for moderation. Chocolate was often served alongside coffee and tea in establishments dedicated for those purposes that rapidly opened shop all over upper-class areas of English society.47 The demand grew so large that alongside tea and coffee, the English Parliament felt it fitting to place excises on chocolate starting in 1680 or even earlier and again in 1689 C.E., bringing in an estimated £1900 of revenue for the royal treasury from the 1680 excise on chocolate drinks and raw cacao alone.48 The popularity of chocolate among the elite may have corresponded to a similar classist social atmosphere that chocolate existed in within ancient Mayan societies, but the addition of new uniquely English ingredients such as milk and eggs reveal that chocolate, upon hitting the consumer market, once again underwent modes of assimilation that made it more palatable (and in this case cheaper) for European audiences.49 With chocolate so rapidly expanding in popularity and demand with its spread to elite and bourgeois societies in Western and Northern Europe, colonial powers had to change and appropriate the way cacao was traditionally cultivated to meet booming economic demands.
Europeanization of chocolate drinking not only changed the way people thought about chocolate while consuming it, it also led to the colonial-agricultural complex that modern day peoples have inherited. Because physicians and clerics successfully changed the way that the essence of chocolate was perceived as a ‘foreign’ good to an ‘exotic’ commodity for their own profits and validation of their consumption of the drink, merchants and colonial mercantilists were able to further take advantage of the product’s Europeanization. They did this by stripping chocolate of the last remnants of its indigenousness: the way chocolate was cultivated. Prior to the boom of the mid-to-late-17th century, cacao cultivation in places like Portuguese-controlled Brazil stuck to compelled or hired Native American cultivation from wild trees in the rainforest.50 Starting in 1664, however, Portuguese landowners began to realize that systematic cultivation of cacao trees with imported African slave labor would potentially turn a profit.51 Of course, the African slave trade had already existed in Brazil before the rise in demand of chocolate abroad, but the boom certainly had an impact on the growth of the trade. However, it is probably more than a coincidence that when cacao was grown alongside sugar and tobacco on Brazilian plantations there began an “ever-increasing demand for plantation labor” fed only by an increase in the African slave trade.52 All three crops are highly addictive substances that assured high demand and high prices by their very chemical natures, and the fact that sugar was a popular European addition to chocolate concoctions likely fueled the growth of both crops.
This new mass cultivation of chocolate changed it forever from a luxury item with a limited market for its consumable form in both America and Europe to a cheaper, commoditized drink available to a wider audience that would have little to no memory of its pre-appropriated past. Thus, chocolate’s popularity in Europe and the assimilation of chocolate is intrinsically linked to the systematic exploitation of African and Native American slave labor. This colonial exploitation is not something that has gone away either. Today not only do we inherit the mutated and de-spiritualized connotations of chocolate stemming from the process of European assimilation, but also the exploitive colonial-plantation agricultural production of cacao. The modern form of exploitation can be seen in the West African cacao fields that provide the raw material for multi-million dollar chocolate corporations, where child labor and slavery is blatantly obvious and resistant to change that forces children to handle machetes and perform backbreaking labor on the cacao trees for little or no pay.53 This is how consequences of colonial Europeanization of consuming chocolate have carried over into modernity. Like coffee and tea, many who consume chocolate today are unlikely to associate the product with its traditional form and social significance. Its globalized and westernized popularity has allowed producers to cultivate cacao without respecting the sacredness of the tree and market it in forms that are distinctly Western, such as ‘Belgian’ or ‘Swiss’ chocolate. Most consume chocolate to satisfy a sweet tooth instead of satisfying a distinguished guest. It is because European colonizers successfully stripped chocolate of any indigenous nuances that people have to go out of their way to learn that chocolate is an ancient American good.
Chocolate has a long, complicated, and sometimes disturbing history; the treat had only one form for much of its history: a hot or cold beverage. Chocolate drinking’s origins before 1492 C.E. are steeped in spiritualism, social status, and ritualism that stemmed off of the belief that cacao was a substitute and equivalent life-sustaining force for blood. Between 1492 and 1700 C.E., however, Europeans slowly began to develop a taste for chocolate, meaning that their desire for chocolate had to transcend the ‘pagan’ context with classical ideas of humeral theory and the effect of foreign substances on the body as well as initial Christian opposition to the product. It was only by finding loopholes in the established scientific theories and theology that chocolate drinking could enter comfortably into the psyche of mainstream European elite society from assimilated trans-Atlantic Creoles, by way of several scientific and clerical ‘experts’ who were interested in validating the Europeanizing chocolate. Such loopholes are the methods of assimilation, deconstructing and stripping the most ‘foreign’ connotations and ingredients of chocolate while substituting them with familiar Eurasian ingredients and ideas. In this way, through assimilation, chocolate was transformed into an appealing ‘exotic’ good that had a rightful place in European secular consumer society. The consequences of the Europeanization of chocolate are still evident of the millions of people alive today in the Americas with African slave ancestors, and the continuation of plantation-style agriculture worked with exploited labor all over the world for multi-million dollar chocolate corporations. Therefore European assimilation of chocolate from 1492-1700 C.E. was only the beginning of chocolate’s history of exploitation and redefinition; chocolate’s history is not static: its history is still in the making.
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