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.


Three Flags Day

A postcard depiction of the raisin of the American flag over St. Louis on March 10, 1804. Photo Credit- Missouri History Museum
A postcard depiction of the raisin of the American flag over St. Louis on March 10, 1804. Photo Credit- Missouri History Museum

The Louisiana Purchase was a big deal.  (Read more about the ins and outs of it in this post:  It was a great deal for the United States, but it was somewhat of an administrative nightmare.  The territory being turned over was huge.  Also, it technically belonged to the French as part of a secret treaty with the Spanish in 1769.  However, since the Third Treaty of San Ildefonso was secret, Spain still administered the territory to keep up appearances.  Confused yet?  So were a lot of other people.  Many of the Spanish officials didn’t know they were working for the French until it came time to turn things over to the Americans.

The official turnover to the United States was on April 30, 1803.  However, paperwork and logistics were slow and the process dragged into the summer and fall of 1803.  Money finally changed hands and that winter, there was an official ceremony in New Orleans, which was the capital of the territory.  One problem.  Because it was winter, there wasn’t much travel going on and the news didn’t filter northward.  St. Louis was a growing city, both in population and importance.  They didn’t get the word they were Americans until March 1804.  An even bigger problem was the city was still in Spanish hands, many of whom didn’t know they were technically working for the French.  It was decided to take the bull by the horns and implement both treaties in the space of 24 hours.  A notice was posted by the Spanish governor of St. Louis, Carlos de Hault de Lassus, on March 8, 1804 notifying the citizens about the impending changes.

Mayor Bernard Dickmann stands in as Capt. Amos Stoddard during a commemoration of "Three Flags Day" on March 9, 1935, at First and Walnut streets, site of the original ceremonies in 1804. Dickmann is at the podium holding papers. To his right, also in 19th-century garb, is Louis LaBeaume as Charles de Hault de Lassus. Missouri History Museum photo
Mayor Bernard Dickmann stands in as Capt. Amos Stoddard during a commemoration of “Three Flags Day” on March 9, 1935, at First and Walnut streets, site of the original ceremonies in 1804. Dickmann is at the podium holding papers. To his right, also in 19th-century garb, is Louis LaBeaume as Charles de Hault de Lassus. Missouri History Museum photo

On March 9, 1804, the ceremonies began in front the governor’s mansion and a small crowd.  De Lassus and the US Army representative, Amos Stoddard, signed a sheaf of papers.  Then De Lassus spoke to the crowd, “By order of the king I am now about to surrender this post and its dependencies. The flag which has protected you during nearly 36 years will no longer be seen… From the bottom of my heart I wish you all prosperity.”  At his words the flag of Spain was slowly lowered and the flag of France rose in its place.  The French flag was only supposed to fly for a total of six hours, but St. Louis had originally been a French town and many of the citizens remembered their roots.  There was a cannon salute and a huge party.  Who doesn’t love a party?  So the Americans allowed the French flag to fly until noon the next day.  People gathered in the church and sang French songs and generally had a great time.  At noon March 10, 1804, the French flag was lowered and the stars and stripes took its place.  France had declined to send a representative to sign over St. Louis, so it was agreed Stoddard would sign for both countries.

The day has been commemorated as the Day of the Three Flags.  The event was reenacted at the corner of First and Walnut streets in St. Louis, MO, site of the original ceremonies in 1804, in 1935.  


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

Expedition to Spain-    George and Charles’ Not So Excellent Adventure

Charles as Prince of Wales Photo Credit - Historical Portraits Public Domain
Charles as Prince of Wales Photo Credit – Historical Portraits Public Domain

Previous postings have discussed James I infatuation with George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.  The Duke was extremely handsome, and had the king wrapped around his finger. (For more speculation this relationship, please see this post: )  The king called him “Steenie”, which was short for Stephen as the Duke bore a resemblance to a painting of St. Stephen.  Prince Charles, eventually King Charles I, was more reserved than his father so it was difficult to judge how Buckingham and the Prince got along.  However, together they did manage to embark on one of the larger fool’s errands in English history.

James was angling for a betrothal for Prince Charles with the Infanta of Spain.  English/Spanish marriages did not have the greatest track record-   Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary I and Philip- but James pushed on.  There was a minor problem with James’ son in law, Frederick attempting to claim the throne of Bohemia.  (For more on James’ daughter Elizabeth and her husband, please see this post: )  In 1618, the Protestant Estates underlined their opposition to a Catholic nominee by throwing people out the window.  They offered up the throne to any aspiring Protestant prince, and Frederick jumped in 1619.  In the end Frederick lost Bohemia to the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor and his home country of the Palatinate to the Spanish.  Rather awkward during marriage negotiations with Frederick’s  brother in law.  However, the Spanish assured James they were only in the Palatinate to make sure Frederick left Bohemia.  They just conveniently forgot to give it back.  But James swallowed the ridiculous story and pressed on with the marriage negotiations.

The Duke and the Prince came up with the brilliant idea of travelling to Spain to convince the Infanta in person to become his bride.  Sending the heir to the throne with a small retinue to a hostile country.  This might be the dumbest plan ever conceived.  However, James was so intent on avoiding a war with Spain he agreed.  In a letter to Buckingham, he called him “my sweete boyes and deare ventrouse Knights worthy to be putt in a new romanse.”  James may have gone round the bend at this point.

The plan was like something out of a bad movie.  The two came up with the unbelievably bad pseudonyms of “Tom and Jack Smith” and traveled complete with disguises.  Unfortunately, these were only false beards, which fell off en route.  They made it to Madrid and Charles was dead set on climbing the garden wall to see his future bride.  I believe the two of them didn’t have the sense God gave a goose between them.  The Spanish on the other hand were laughing fit to kill at the farce.    They were in the catbird seat, as they now had the heir to the throne and the King’s favorite in their control.  The perfect hostages.  Knowing that James must be desperate for the marriage to allow these to go on this madcap journey, the Spanish writing every demand they could think of into the marriage contract.  They insisted there would be a publicly protected Catholic Church in England where the Infanta could practice her religion and that said church would be open to the public for worship.  The also wrote in that Charles would be required to take instruction in the Catholic faith from the Infanta’s chaplain, and the religious education of any heirs would be in the charge of the Infanta and her staff until their adolescence.  What they were asking for in essence was heirs to the throne to be raised Catholic and King Charles to be instructed in Catholicism.  This was a bombshell in proudly Protestant England.

Pearl-studded portrait of the Duke of Buckingham, 1625 Photo Credit- Google Cultural Institute

The Spanish went on to say that the marriage treaty would be under a one year trial period where Charles would stay in Madrid and James and his government would have to align their policy to Spain’s liking.  Finally, James woke up and realized this was an extraordinarily bad deal.  Whether he had an epiphany that he was being played, or was genuinely frightened he would not see he his beloved “Steenie” or “babie Charles” again no one is sure.  However, it was enough to galvanize him into action.

Luckily, Charles and Buckingham were becoming rapidly disenchanted with their stay in Spain.  They figured out they were being treated not as honored guests but as hostages and were duly humiliated.  Also, there were tensions between the Spanish and the English party as Sir Edmund Verney had struck a priest in the face when he attempted to administer Catholic last rites to a dying English page.  It was time to go.  They blithely agreed to whatever the Spanish suggested and then once on the ship home made it clear they were not holding with anything they signed.  

Buckingham and Charles spun the whole trip into a Protestant triumph instead of a Spanish farce.  When Charles returned home in October 1623 bells were rung and bonfires lit in celebration.  The country prepared for war with Spain remembering the blow they struck to the Armada in Elizabeth’s time.  However, this time things did not go as smoothly and the army got the plague before they could even land in continental Europe.  Of the 12,000 men they had recruited only 3,000 made it to Zeeland.  They had to slink home in defeat.

Charles eventually married a French princess to gang up on Spain.  However, that caused its own problems, and that is another post.


Sources available on request


Carlos II-  The Bewitched King

King Charles II of Spain
King Carlos II of Spain

When Carlos was born on November 6, 1661 there was universal rejoicing in Spain that there was a legitimate male heir.  What they did not realize that Carlos had grave health issues.  The child was not expected to live long.  Along with mandibular prognathism, a.k.a. the Hapsburg lip  (his lower jaw being larger than his upper) which made him unable to chew food properly, his oversized tongue left him prone to drooling and he didn’t learn to speak until he was four years old.  Although he was treated like an infant, Carlos survived.  He was breast fed by a series of wet nurses until he was six, however, some reports place the age of his weaning as high fourteen.  The boy did not learn to walk until he was eight.  Yikes.  

All of this was due to the extensive inbreeding in the royal family.  Carlos’ parents were a prime example of this Philip IV married his niece, Mariana of Austria.  This was common for the Hapsburgs and Carlos’ family tree literally did not branch.  Someone whose direct ancestors were all unrelated to their spouses would have 32 great great great grandparents, Carlos only had 14.

His father, Philip IV, died when Carlos was four, leaving his mother Mariana as regent.  The family didn’t know and/or couldn’t admit inbreeding was the cause of Carlos’ problems, so they put out Carlos was cursed.  The called him El Hechizado or Carlos the Hexed. The Inquisition was in full swing and literal witch hunts ran through court looking for someone who cursed Carlos.  The Inquisition General “questioned” some prisoners and they came up with this story.  Carlos had been cursed at the age of fourteen.  This did not explain his previous health problems, but who is keeping track?  Someone gave Carlos a cup of chocolate containing ingredients taken from a corpse.  And who did this?  Carlos’ mother, Mariana, was accused of casting the he and he could only be cured if they were separated.  Convenient for anyone else trying to gain power.

The Queen Mother was furious, but Carlos bought this hook, line and sinker.  He sent his mother away and got an exorcist from Vienna to come perform an exorcism on him.  Needless to say, it did not work, so obviously the Queen Mother must have cast another spell.  Mariana had enough and replaced the head of the Inquisition with her man, and then had the failed exorcist tried.  It was a mess, and Carlos did not get any better.

Unbelievably, the found two princesses to marry this man.  Luckily, neither marriage produced any children.  It is assumed that he was infertile if not actually impotent.  His life was miserable.  He prone to high fevers which kept him confined to his bed. It’s also said that he suffered from seizures, that he invariably vomited on carriage rides due to chronic motion sickness, and that his eyes oozed liquid in open air. In addition to his physical shortcomings, Carlos was purportedly dim-witted and he was left basically uneducated.  Towards the end of his life he became paranoid and made life difficult for everyone.  When he died in 1700 it was a relief.  

Except that his lack of heir was disastrous.  Carlos had named Philip, Duke of Anjou as his heir, but the disagreements over that kicked of the War of Spanish Succession.  Since everyone was related to everyone, it seemed everyone had a claim.   Inbreeding remained a problem for European royalty, but Carlos II remains one of the worst examples.


Sources available on request