Is Columbus to Thank for Chocolate?

Many people believe that it was Christopher Columbus who discovered chocolate and brought it to Europe where it developed into the chocolate that we consume today. However, only a portion of this statement reflects reality.

The true story begins in Guanaja on the 15th of August, 1502 when a dugout canoe came to meet the Spanish Caravel ship in which Christopher Columbus was on. The Caravel expedition was a mission of exploration to find any lands south of the known islands in the Indies. On this journey to New Spain (todays Mexico) Christopher Columbus saw for the first time mysterious beans which he presumed were a type of almond. These “almonds” were in fact cacao beans. Columbus was entirely unaware that these beans were used to produce chocolate. He did however notice that the native Mayan people who brought the cacao beans onto the ship, were treating these “almonds” as if they were exceedingly precious. We know this information from Christopher Columbus’s son Ferdinand Columbus, who described their first encounter with cacao beans as follows,

For their provisions they had… many of those almonds which in New Spain are used for money. They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board the ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stopped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen. (Coe, pg. 109)

Christopher Columbus did gather some of the cacao beans and made his way back to Spain where he provided the information that these beans must be worth something based on how the natives were handling them. His cacao bean finding did not produce anything further in the chocolate and cacao historic European story. Thus we can gather that although Columbus did not discover chocolate, as some may mistakenly believe, it was his voyage to New Spain where  “Europeans first set eyes on the beans of the chocolate tree.” (Coe, pg. 107)Chocolate class image

It was not until the Spanish invaded New Spain around 1519 that the consumption of chocolate (particularly in drink form) was observed by the Europeans. And again the Europeans realized the importance of cacao beans to the native people, in addition to its an economic value. The Spanish Conquistador Don Hernán Cortés brought the cacao beans to Spain in 1528, and the custom of drinking chocolate caught on slowly. Chocolate began to be commonly consumed predominately by the elites and reached England by the 1650s. Chocolate was still prepared primarily as a beverage at this point.

As the consumption of chocolate became more common there began a new business in London, Coffee/Chocolate-Houses, and to this day we have something that closely resembles them- cafés. People would go to these Coffee/Chocolate-Houses and drink their warm drinks such as coffee, tea, and chocolate and talk about politics and other pressing issues of the times. These organizations became a fashionable meeting place.

Chocolate House

These Coffee/Chocolate-Houses were problematic for the government, as people would talk about matters such as democracy. Charles II considered these establishments “hotbeds of sedition” (Coe, pg. 167) and tried to suppress them, without success.

During these earlier times of European chocolate consumption, like tea and coffee, chocolate was considered to be medicinal. The belief was that the chocolate drink was most healthful based on the Galenic humoral scheme in Baroque Europe. This was a theory that the body contained four humors (fluids), each with different properties such as: blood-warm and moist, yellow bile- warm and dry, black bile-cold and dry, and phlegm-cold and moist. The belief of this time was that good health depended on the humors being in balance. Food also was considered to have properties that fell into the humoral scheme. It is interesting to note that chocolates property was believed to be cold and dry, when the drink itself was served as a hot liquid. The early European medicinal chocolate drink then evolved into a recreationally consumed item.

Thus we give thanks to the history of Spanish exploration expeditions, Don Hernán Cortés, the Galen theory, and the early Europeans that drank the chocolate drink, for if it were not for them we may never have know the delicious chocolate products that we know and love today.

References:

Library, Bodleian. 17th Century CoffeeHouse England. Digital image. Wikipedia. University of Oxford. 22 May 2008. Web. 18 February 2016.

Cadbury. “The Great Chocolate Discovery” Cadbury N.p. Web. 2016. https://www.cadbury.com.au/About-Chocolate/Discovering-Chocolate.aspx

Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962. Print.

Madrazo, Raimundo. Hot Chocolate. Digital image. Wikipedia. 12 February 2007. Web. 17 February 2016.

Marcel, Presilla E. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009. 17 February 2016. Print.

Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.

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