More Magic Beans- This History of Chocolate

Stone detail: Ek Ahau, the Mayan Deity of War, trade and cocoa, standing next to a cacao tree. Photo Credit- Enrique Perez Huerta/Demotix/Corbis

That most delicious of desserts that we all crave.  It was rightly named as “food of the gods” by the ancients.  However, the chocolate the pre-Olmec cultures were making was nothing like the chocolate we eat today.  It was consumed as a beverage, and was quite bitter.  The peoples making this drink were living in Mesoamerica prior to the cultures of the Olmecs, Mayan and Aztecs.  Anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania have found cacao residue on pottery found in Honduras from as early as 1400 BCE.  Some sources place the discovery of chocolate even earlier at 1900 BCE.  Anthropologists surmise native peoples found the cacao plants in the tropical rainforests of Central America.  From there, they cultivated the plants.  The beans were harvested and roasted much like coffee beans.  Then they were ground into a paste and mixed with water, vanilla, honey, chili peppers and other spices to create a drink.  The word “chocolate” comes from the name of this bitter frothy drink-  “xocoatl”.  

This drink was passed to the later cultures of Mesoamerica- the Olmecs, the Aztecs and the Mayans.  These cultures found the drink to be invigorating, probably because of the caffeine, and used it as a mood enhancer and aphrodisiac.  The cacao beans were so prized that they were used as a form of currency by the Aztecs.  Historical sources show the rate of exchange.  One cacao bean could by a tomato.  Thirty beans could buy a rabbit and an entire turkey could be purchased for two hundred beans.  Cacao beans were also demanded as tribute from conquered cities.

Because the cacao bean was believed to have divine and magical properties, it was used in sacred rituals.  In the book The Chocolate Connoisseur by Chloe Doutre-Rossel, she describes Aztec sacrifice victims being given gourds of chocolate mixed with the blood of previous victims to help their mood.  I’m not sure that would reconcile me with being a sacrifice, but thanks for the thought.  Chocolate was only enjoyed in special vessels.  The Olmecs only drank it in round jars called tecomates.  The Mayans used tall cylindrical beakers as did the Aztecs.  Despite the difference in the shape, the meaning was the same- to mark out the higher status of those able to enjoy such a rich treat.  Although chocolate was mainly for the upper classes, some historians believe the lower classes got a version of it- a chocolate and maize mixture that had a porridge like consistency.  The drink was the most prized version and reserved for the nobility.  Supposedly the 15th century Aztec emperor Montezuma drank three gallons of the drink a day.  European Bernadino de Sahagún describes how the drink was prepared,

“The seller of fine chocolate [is] one who grinds, who provides people with drink, with repasts. She grinds cacao [beans]; she crushes, breaks, pulverizes them. She chooses, selects, separates them. She drenches, soaks, steeps them. She adds water sparingly, conservatively; aerates it, filters it, strains it, pours it back and forth, aerates it; she makes it form a head, makes it foam; she removes the head, makes it form a head, makes it foam…She sells good, superior, potable [chocolate]: the privilege, the drink of nobles, of rulers – finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish, bitter; [with] chile water, with flowers, with uei nacaztli, with teonacaztli, with vanilla, with mecaxochitl, with wild bee honey, with powdered aromatic flowers. [Inferior chocolate has] maize flour and water; lime water; [it is] pale; the [froth] bubbles burst.”

Vase for pouring chocolate, earthenware, Belize, Late Classic Maya, Altun-Ha style. (De Young Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco) Photo Credit- Mary Harsch (photographed at the de Young Museum of Fine Arts)
published on 26 June 2014

When the Europeans arrived in Mesoamerica in the 16th century, they were not impressed by chocolate.  Legend has it chocolate was offered to Hernando Cortes at a banquet by the Aztec king Montezuma because he thought Cortes was a returning deity.  However, the Europeans turned up their noses and described it as a “bitter drink for pigs”.  Then someone got the bright idea of mixing it with cane sugar and cinnamon.  The newly sweetened drink was a hit and it took Spain by storm.  As before, chocolate was a symbol of wealth and decadence and was only for the taste buds of the nobility.  It remained a secret in Spain until King Philip III’s daughter, Anne of Austria,  married French King Louis XIII in 1615.  She brought with her from the Spanish court a love of chocolate and introduced the French court to the delicacy.  It spread through Europe from there.  By the mid 17th century, chocolate was the most fashionable drink in Europe and was believed to have medicinal and nutritious properties.  It is rumored that great lover Casanova used it copiously as an aphrodisiac.  To feed their appetite for chocolate, European powers fought for land in the colonies to plant sugar and cacao plantations.  Everyone was making money hand over fist.  Everyone except the native Mesoamericans and the African slaves brought in to work the plantations, but that is another post.

Chocolate did not find its way to the masses until the 19th century and the invention of the steam engine.  In 1828, a Dutch chemist named Coenraad Johannes van Houten invented the cocoa press.  This press squeezed the fatty cocoa butter from the roasted beans leaving behind a dry cake which could be pulverized into a fine powder.  This powder was called “Dutch cocoa” and could be mixed with liquids and other ingredients and poured into molds.  This invention both dropped the price making chocolate affordable and also changed the nature of consumption allowing chocolate to become a confection not just a drink.  Joseph Fry took this a step further in 1847 when he added the melted cacao butter back into Dutch cocoa to make a moldable chocolate paste.

By the end of the 19th century, several of the names of chocolate makers we recognize were in play- Cadbury, Nestle, Mars and Hershey.  The average American consumes twelve pounds of chocolate each year.  However, lately, there has been another chocolate trend focusing less on mass production and more on handmade chocolates.  There has also been an emphasis on sustainable cacao farms, which use more earth friendly farming and harvesting techniques.  Even major corporations are cashing in on the trend as Hershey’s has expanded their artisanal chocolate lines.


Treaty of Tordesillas

Map showing the line of demarcation between Spanish and Portuguese territory, as first defined by Pope Alexander VI (1493) and later revised by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). Spain won control of lands discovered west of the line, while Portugal gained rights to new lands to the east.
Map showing the line of demarcation between Spanish and Portuguese territory, as first defined by Pope Alexander VI (1493) and later revised by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). Spain won control of lands discovered west of the line, while Portugal gained rights to new lands to the east.

So if you watched the US presidential debate last night, you would have heard one of the candidates make mention that the Iran arms deal is the “worst in history”.  This got me thinking.  No matter what your political persuasion, I think we can all agree this is hyperbole.  All of history is a very, very long time and there have been some ridiculously bad deals signed.  One that comes to mind is the Treaty of Tordesillas.

In the 15th century, both Spain and Portugal were two of the world’s superpowers.  Both countries were sending out explorers and divvying up the New World (that’s another set of terrible treaties that we will address in subsequent posts).  When Columbus returned from his voyage in 1493, the Catholic Kings of Spain, Isabella and Ferdinand, petitioned the Pope to support their claims in the New World.  Luckily for them, the current pope was Spanish born as well as highly amenable to bribes.  Alexander VI, nee Rodrigo Borgia, was quite happy to issue bulls setting up a line of demarcation from pole to pole about 230 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands.  Spain got everything west of the line and Portugal got everything east of it.  Sounds fair right?  Not so much.

The line that was drawn gave all of Central America and the majority of South America to Spain.  King John II of Portugal recognized this was a complete disaster for his country.  The way the line was drawn, Portugal would not even have sufficient room at sea for their African voyages.  The two parties met at Tordesillas, in northwest Spain, to try to hammer out a compromise.  However, even the compromise was horrible for Portugal.  The line moved to 1,185 miles west of the Cape Verde Island.  This allowed Portugal to claim the coast of Brazil, but that was about it.  This new version of the line was sanctioned by Pope Julius II in 1506.  Another problem was this treaty omitted any other European powers.  By this time both France and England were interested in grabbing a piece of the New World, especially after they saw the gold and silver flowing in from Central and South America.  However, per the Treaty of Tordesillas no one but Spain and Portugal were allowed.  Conveniently, everyone else simply ignored this treaty.  England became Protestant anyway, so they got the doubly sweet deal of thumbing their nose at the Pope while exploring the New World.

The line was adjusted a few more times- once at the Treaty of Zaragoza in 1529 and again at the Treaty of San Ildefonzo in 1777.  In the Treaty of San Ildefonzo, Spain ceded territories in Brazil, mainly in the Amazon Basin, to Portugal in return for Uruguay.  However because of the original treaty, Portugal was limited to one colony- Brazil.  Once Brazil gain its independence in 1820, Portugal rapidly lost its place on the world stage.  A raw deal for the country who started the Age of Exploration.


Sources available on request

Gregor MacGregor-  Prince of Frauds

An engraving from Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, purporting to depict the “port of Black River in the Territory of Poyais

If you are like me, your world geography is a bit fuzzy.  This is not a new thing, and was probably worse in the past when new lands were being discovered by Europeans, renamed and divvied up.  They also didn’t have handy Professor Google to teach them where things were.  Maps were a sketchy business.  So when an ambitious Scotsman came forward claiming to the the Prince, or Cazique, of Poyais, most people did not realize Poyais did not exist.

During the Napoleonic Wars, former Spanish and Portuguese colonies were benefiting from the upheaval in the mother countries.  Most of the countries of South America gained their independence between 1809 and 1825.  However, with independence they went a little crazy to generate cash flow.  South America was rife with gold and silver mines, so they should be fine, right?  Well, no.  The new countries issued bonds backed by their shiny new governments and the mining companies issued stocks.  Both promised huge returns for investors.  As we have seen in recent financial shenanigans, over promising generally leads to bubbles and bubbles burst.  Three of these bubbles hit the London Stock Exchange in the early 19th century-  the Canal Bubble of the 1810s, the South American Bubble of the 1820s, and the Railroad Bubble of the 1840s.  However, before the bubbles burst investor confidence was high, cost of living was falling and wages were going up.  Interest rates drifted down, with the government borrowing more and more cheaply.  Money was everywhere just waiting for someone to take it.

Into this environment came Gregor MacGregor.  He had been born in Glengyle near Loch Katrine in 1786.  He joined the Royal Navy in 1803 and was a Colonel in the Venezuelan War of Independence.  In 1817, he led a questionably-sanctioned group of War of 1812 vets in an attempt to drive the Spanish from Florida.  This effort failed, but he was generally well regarded and appeared successful.  South American investments were in vogue, and so when he returned to London in 1820, MacGregor declared that he had a sweet deal for anyone interested.  Through his adventures, he claimed he had been named the Cacique or Prince of the Principality of Poyais by the native chief King Frederic Augustus I of the Mosquito Shore and Nation.  According to MacGregor, Poyais was a paradise located on where the Black River emptied into the Bay of Honduras and overflowing with natural resources.  He claimed the water was pure and gold nuggets just lay on the riverbanks waiting for some industrious person to collect them.  The country was so fertile, he bragged, that there were three maize harvest a year.  Tree branches grew heavy with ripe fruit and abundant game froliced in their shade.  It sounded like heaven compared to dank rainy Scotland.  To publicize this paragon of lands, MacGregor published “Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, including the the Territory of Poyais”.  This was supposed to have been written by a Captain Thomas Strangeways.  He described the natives as lining up to serve the English settlers in the capital of St. Joseph.  The problem with all of this was it was completely fiction.

MacGregor did get land from King Frederic Augustus I in April 1820, but the only thing there were four run down buildings surrounded by jungle.  That hardly mattered as the book by “Captain Strangeways” gained readers and investors lined up to get a piece of Poyais.  There was a price to suit the means of every kind of investor.  The rich could buy 2000 bonds at 100 pounds a piece.  These would return 3% interest.  For the more modest investor, he offered land for sale at the rate of 3 shillings, 3 pence per acre (later 4 shillings), which was about a day’s wages in 1822.  The bonds alone netted 200,000 pounds in sales.  Then MacGregor set about selling positions in the military and in the government.  He even issued his own currency.  In just one year, MacGregor would have been a multi-millionaire in today’s money.

Unbelievably, seven ships set out for the fictional Poyais in 1823.  MacGregor must have been sweating, but he brazened it out.  250 settlers in all arrived in “Poyais” mid 1823.  When they arrived they found no town, no helpful natives and nothing as it was promised.  People went hungry and plagues of malaria and yellow fever took their toll.  Passing ships took some of the settlers to Belize, but even then two thirds of them died.  The British Navy had to send out ships to turn back more settlers that were on their way.

As for MacGregor?  He escaped to France with his ill gotten gains.  Then in France started the whole pitch again.  This time, he was not lucky and ended up in prison for his efforts.  He died in 1845 in Caracas.  The land that was the paradise of Poyais?  Still unsettled to this day.


Sources available on request


Manco Inca Yupanqui

Photo- Manco Inca - Artist Unknown
Photo- Manco Inca – Artist Unknown

The Inca had a great empire in what is now Peru, parts of Ecuador, western and south central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and Chile and a small part of southern Colombia.  They were the Roman Empires of the Americas.  However, they when the Spanish explorers first encountered them the Inca were coming off a debilitating civil war and in the middle of a smallpox epidemic.  160 Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Peru with Francisco Pizarro, and they took full advantage of the destabilizing political situation.

The civil war was between two brothers who both claimed the throne-  Atahuallpa and Huascar.  The war was only ended when Atahuallpa killed his brother, however, the kingdom was left weakened.  Pizarro appeared and Atahuallpa was carried to him on a golden throne lined with parakeet feathers wearing a necklace of large green emeralds and gold ornaments in his hair.  The wealth hungry Spanish were immediately interested.  The priests in Pizarro’s party tried to convert Atahuallpa to Christianity and the accept the King of Spain as the ruler of the Inca.  Atahuallpa refused.  He was the emperor of the Inca and had just fought his own brother to get there, now a bunch of strangers wanted him to give that up?  I imagine some choice Incan words were also shared.  The Spanish did not take kindly to this, and the Emperor was taken prisoner.  Realizing the Spanish were money hungry, Atahuallpa tried to bribe his way to freedom.  He promised them a room full of silver and gold.  They agreed, but when they got the goods Pizarro had Atahuallpa strangled.  So much for bribery.

After Atahuallpa’s murder, Pizarro had his younger brother , Tupac Huallpa, upon Atahualpa’s death, but he died shortly thereafter of smallpox.  They moved on to the next brother, Manco, and had him crowned as the Spanish’s puppet emperor and went about their business of making the Inca slaves and taking as much wealth as they could carry.  Manco was not treated well by his captors, who were rough men and did not respect any natives.  Pizarro’s brothers tortured him for the location of more wealth, and even kidnapped and raped both Manco’s wife and sister.  Manco tried to escape, but was captured and beaten, urinated on, and imprisoned in chains.  Really nice guys.  Knowing his captors hunger for gold, in 1536 Manco promised to show the Spanish where a solid gold statue of his father was located.  Manco got away and looked for ways to get back his empire.

In May of 1536, Manco led a massive army of 100,000 native warriors in a siege of Cuzco.  The Spanish only survived by occupying the nearby fortress of Sachsaywaman.  He did accomplish killing Juan Pizarro, one of the men who raped his wife and sister.  Pizarro sent reinforcements from Lima, but Manco had a plan for them.  Quizu Yupanqui, Manco’s general, ambushed the Spanish in a gorge and crushed them with rock slides.  Yupanqui was on a role and took out a second Spanish column a few weeks later and marched on Lima.  However, a surprise cavalry attack saved Lima before it could fall to the Inca.  Manco and his army were forced to fall back.

Manco set up an capital in exile in Vilcabamba in the Amazon jungle, and led guerilla attacks on the Spanish.  In 1539, Gonzalo Pizarro was sent to attack Vilcabamba, but sent two of Manco’s brothers ahead to negotiate.  Manco was having none of it, and sent his brothers’ heads back to the Spanish.  The Spanish attacked, and the Inca forces held them off with captured guns.  However, they were not proficient in using the guns and the Spanish got the upper hand.  Manco escaped Vilcabamba across a river, but his wife was left behind and was executed by the Spanish.  On the run and soaking wet, Manco Inca was still defiant and proud.  Surrounded by his warriors, he walked back to the river bank and shouted at the Spanish chasing him, “I am Manco Inca!  I am Manco Inca!”  Then he disappeared into the jungle.

The rebellions continued until Manco was assassinated by the Spanish in 1544.  He was succeeded by his son Sayri Tupaq.


Sources available on request

The Darien Scheme

Map of New Caledonia Photo: National Library of Scotland. Source: The Darien Adventure, Jim Malcom, OBE
Map of New Caledonia Photo: National Library of Scotland. Source: The Darien Adventure, Jim Malcom, OBE

Scottish settlement in America brings to mind Nova Scotia or any of the original thirteen colonies. There was one Scottish settlement which is much less known, but is just as important if not more so.

Since the crowns of England and Scotland had been united under James I, the fortunes of the two countries were tied closer than ever. However, things were not rosy in Scotland. Poverty, war, famine and homelessness was plaguing the land and threatening to have the Scottish identity swallowed up by their more prosperous neighbors the the south. William Paterson, a Scot who had made his fortune as one of the founding directors of the Bank of England, thought he had the answer. He met a sailor who told him of a beautiful area rich fertile land waiting for settlers and friendly native tribes. It was a bay on the Isthmus of Panama called Darien.

Paterson thought this was the perfect thing to revive the fortunes of Scotland by making it a major player in the transatlantic trade that was springing up. The Isthmus was narrow and cargo from the Pacific could be hauled overland through Darien to be shipped to Europe. There was money to made, Paterson knew it. He returned to Edinburgh and founded the Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies in June 1695.

Not everyone was thrilled about this development. Technically, the land had been claimed by Spain, but that never stopped anyone. The New World had been claimed by every European power that made it over there. Some people even said it could belong to the natives, perish the thought. The English East India company did not like their monopoly on transatlantic trade threatened, and lobbied Parliament. The English investors were forced to back out, but the company pressed on. Paterson opened up investment to ordinary Scottish citizens, and pound by pound the necessary sum was raised.

The five ships purchased for the voyage left Leith harbor on July 4, 1698 carrying 1,200 settlers. The landed at Darien on November 2 after a relatively easy journey. They named the peninsula New Caledonia and made a settlement of Fort St. Andrew and a stockade of New Edinburgh. Then it all started to go wrong.

The land was not good for farming and they could raise no crops. They had nothing of interest to the natives to trade. The spring brought rain and with it disease. By March 1699, 200 settlers had died and ten were dying each day. Roger Oswald described life in the colony as such, ‘{Flour rations} When boiled with a little water, without anything else, big maggots and worms must be skimmed off the top… In short, a man might easily have destroyed his whole week’s ration in one day and have but one ordinary stomach neither… Yet for all this short allowance, every man (let him never be so weak) daily turned out to work by daylight, whether with the hatchet, or wheelbarrow, pick-axe, shovel, fore-hammer or any other instrument the case required; and so continued until 12 o’clock, and at 2 again and stayed till night, sometimes working all day up to the headbands of the breeches in water at the trenches. My shoulders have been so wore with carrying burdens that the skin has come off them and grew full of boils. If a man were sick and obliged to stay within, no victuals for him that day. Our Councillors all the while lying at their ease, sometimes divided into factions and, being swayed by particular interest, ruined the public… Our bodies pined away and grew so macerated with such allowance that we were like so many skeletons.’

Remains of New Caledonia- Photo Credit
Remains of New Caledonia- Photo Credit

English ships and colonies were forbidden by order of the king to trade with the settlers. So the ships they sent out looking for supplies came back empty. One ship was captured by the Spanish and the crew imprisoned. News came that the Spanish were planning an attack on the settlement, and settlers turned tail and ran. Of the 1,200 who came, only 300 made it back to Scotland.

A second expedition had left for Darien in August of 1699 not knowing the fate of the settlers who went before. They found an abandoned colony. The second wave tried to rebuild, but were no more successful than the first. They were constantly short of supplies since no English colonies would trade with them and under threat from the Spanish. They did lead a successful pre-emptive strike against them at Toubacanti, but in the end the Spanish besieged Fort St. Andrew and took it in March 1700. A very few of those left made it back to Scotland.

The Darien expedition was an unmitigated disaster. The company lost over £200,000 and sent Scotland into more financial hardship. It also left bitterness as many felt the English had sabotaged their last bid for independence. It played a part in Scotland signing the Act of Union in 1707 so England would pay off the debts from the debacle. However, resentment festered and set the stage for the Jacobite rebellions ahead.


Sources available on request