Chocolate, Hybridization, and Forgetting Our Colonial Past

The mainstream and commercial accounts of the European – Mayan encounter, beginning with Columbus’ “discovery” of chocolate in America and ending with its hybrid forms in Europe, have a tendency to misrepresent the story’s imbalances in power and knowledge and the ever-present legacy of colonial exploitation that the incidence of chocolate in Western culture represents.

Landing-of-Christopher-Columbus-in-America-at-San-Salvador-October-12th-A.D-640x479

A depiction of Christopher Columbus’ heroic arrival the New World: http://toriavey.com/images/2012/10/Landing-of-Christopher-Columbus-in-America-at-San-Salvador-October-12th-A.D-640×479.jpg

Cadbury, the second largest confectionary brand in the world, and the US’s National Confectioners Association both erroneously support a narrative of chocolate’s discovery that suggests that it was a long process of European improvements to an ancient people’s exotic dietary habit (Cadbury, “The Great Chocolate Discovery;” National Confectioners Association, “The Story of Chocolate”). Cadbury explains that Christopher Columbus brought the “first cocoa beans back to Europe” from his fourth visit to the ‘New World’ but that “far more exciting treasures on board his galleons” distracted the Spanish from chocolate until Hernan Cortes recognized the beans’ commercial value in 1528. Additionally, Cadbury describes how “once Don Cortes had provided the Spanish with a supply of cocoa beans and the equipment to make the chocolate drink,” the Spanish used a series of experiments and “pharmaceutical skills” to adjust the drink with their spices and replace unfamiliar Mesoamerican flavors like chili pepper. Examples of adjustments include the alleged Spanish discovery that “chocolate tasted even better served hot” and an assertion that the English “improved the drink by adding milk.” The Confectioners Association makes a similar claim: they contend that, “unlike the Mesoamericans, the Spaniards kept their discovery on the hush. For nearly 100 years, Spanish aristocrats secretly sipped this new delicacy. They also continued to experiment, adding cinnamon and vanilla to the sugar and serving it steaming hot.”

Chocolate-house-london-c1708

An English chocolate house: http://www.thestoryofchocolate.com/Who/content.cfm?ItemNumber=3446

In their descriptions of hybridization, Cadbury and the Association demarcate between the inferior tastes and capacities of the Aztec and Maya and the enhancements and amendments made by Europeans. They suggest that the Mesoamericans failed, first in keeping chocolate a “secret” and second, by being unable to fully innovate. Such claims support a narrative in which unknowing natives are rescued and improved by civilized and enterprising Europeans. Their story is one in which whites use their skills to take and instantaneously improve – ignoring not only the native peoples’ involvement in chocolate’s transmutations, but also erasing the Europeans’ own fumbles and failures throughout.

As Sophie and Michael Coe recount in The True History of Chocolate and Dr. Robert Temple argues in his article “Columbus Meets the Maya and Chocolate,” the context leading to chocolate’s hybridization is much more complex and confusing than a tale of European rescue and improvement. Christopher Columbus’ voyage to Guanaja was a desperate one – after being removed from his post in the Indies, stripped of his titles by the Spanish court, and defeated by the Portuguese in a race to the East Indies, Columbus’ final trip was an attempt to save his image. When he met the Mayan people, it was not encounter telling of European expertise. As Coe and Coe describe, Columbus and his crew overtook a Mayan vessel of goods without resistance only to misjudge its most valuable product (cocoa) for almonds. Despite noting that the “almonds” were so revered that Mayans would stoop to pick them up as though an “eye had fallen,” Columbus failed to investigate their worth (Coe and Coe). Instead, he was eventually duped by the local people into continuing his unsuccessful journeys elsewhere (Temple).

 The film 1492, as shown in class. This cinematic reproduction of Columbus’ discovery of Guanaja is almost comical in light of Temple and Coe & Coe’s accounts.

The rest of the encounter and transformations of chocolate is equally as convoluted. Coe and Coe maintain that the creation of a “creolized culture” of mixed local and European people was crucial to introducing chocolate into the diets of Europeans, who were otherwise staunchly averse to the drink. Even after the hybridizations of the product and its tools began, the process was still not one of European “finding” and “improving.” Many of the ascribed European improvements had Mesoamerican roots. Coe and Coe refute the claim that whites were the first to decide to drink it hot, noting that the practice “[had] been adapted from the usage of the Yucatec Maya.” Further, they note that the manufacture of the drink to a wafer was a practice used by Aztec warriors and that “the Spaniards merely seized on these wafers as a convenient way to store and ship” cocoa.

Therefore, Cadbury and the Association’s narratives of chocolate discovery perform a sort of epistemic violence that erases the contributions and value of native people from the final global chocolate product. Jill Lane’s “Becoming Chocolate, a Tale of Racial Translation,” contains commentary that lends insight to this culture of false histories. She says such an insistence “it seems to me, is a way of disavowing, hiding, or forgetting [one’s] colonial racial past.”

Works Cited

Michael Coe and Sophie Coe, The True History of Chocolate (London: Thames and Hudson, 2013).

Kraft Foods Ltd, “The Great Chocolate Discovery,” Cadbury, https://www.cadbury.com.au/About-Chocolate/Discovering-Chocolate.aspx (accessed February 20, 2014)

Robert Temple, “Columbus Meets the Maya and Chocolate,” The Yucatan Times, April 13, 2014. Accessed on February 20. http://www.theyucatantimes.com/2014/04/columbus-meets-the-maya-and-chocolate/

National Confectioners Association, “The Story of Chocolate: Europeans,” http://www.thestoryofchocolate.com/Who/content.cfm?ItemNumber=3446

Jill Lane, “Becoming Chocolate, a Tale of Racial Translation,” Theatre Journal 59, no. 3 (1997): 382

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