Chocolate history

Reader Jeb McLeish has brought to my attention an early attempt to do the metaphysics of chocolate: The Natural History of Chocolate by D. de Quelus (1730):

The Spaniards, who were first acquainted with Chocolate after the Conquest of the new World, have laid it down for an undoubted Truth, that Chocolate is cold and dry, participating of the Nature of Earth. They have supported this Determination neither with Reason nor Experience; nor do they know from whence they learnt it; perhaps they have taken it upon the Words, and from the Tradition of the Inhabitants of the Country. Let that be as it will, it is natural from false Principles to draw false Conclusions, of which the two principal are as follow.

The first is, That Chocolate being by Nature cold, it ought not to be used without being mixed with Spices, which are commonly hot, that so they might, both together, become temperate and wholesome. This was the Jargon and Practice of those Times. For the same Reason the ancient Physicians erroneously imagining that Opium was cold in the fourth Degree, never fail’d to correct this pretended Coldness in their narcotick Compositions, with Drugs extremely hot, as EuphorbiumPellitoryPepper, &c.

Their second Conclusion was, That Chocolate being dry and earthy, and from thence supposed to be of a styptick and astringent Quality; if it was not corrected, must necessarily breed Obstructions in the Viscera, and bring on a Cacochimy, and a great Number of other incurable Diseases.

These Prejudices have from the Spaniards pass’d into other Nations. To prove this, it will be unnecessary to cite a great Number of Authors, for whoever has read one, has read them all, the later having done nothing but copy the former; they have even sometimes improved their Dreams, and exaggerated this pretended Coldness of Chocolate, and at length push’d the Matter so far, as to make it a kind of cold Poison; and if it was taken to Excess, it would bring on a Consumption.

de Quelus is attacking the idea that chocolate is somehow an Aristelian substance, identified by a mixture of wetness, dryness, heat and cold:

It is not very extraordinary that People who are more ready to believe than to examine, (such as the World is full of) should give into the unanimous Opinion of so many Authors; and it would be strange if they were not carry’d down by the Stream of a Prejudice so general. But I cannot sufficiently admire that Chocolate being so much decry’d, has not been entirely laid aside as unfit for Use; without doubt there was nothing but the daily Experience of its good Effects, which could support it, and hinder it from giving way to Calumny.

Now to overturn this old System, it is sufficient, in my Opinion, to observe with how little Skill and Penetration they then treated of the whole Natural History; one ought not to be amazed that they have affirmed Chocolate to be cold and dry, in an Age when, for Example, they could say Camphire was cold and moist, which is a kind of Resin, from whence one Drop of Water cannot be extracted, whose sharp Taste, and penetrating Smell, joined to the extreme Volatility and Inflammability of its Particles, even in Water itself, are such evident Signs of its Heat, that it is difficult to conceive upon what account they persuade themselves of the contrary.

A clever and perceptive man, but he failed to realise that chocolate is greater than the sum of its parts, as revealed before. Chocolate cannot be made of four flavours, humours or elements, since it exceeds the properties of these things.

However, he notes the chocolate was discovered in Mexico in the 1520s, giving us a point at which we can safely say that western history was set on the path to True Endarkenment.

12 thoughts on “Chocolate history

  1. D. de Quelus was clearly wrong – proof being that a chocolate tika masala is as rare as a precambrian rabbit.

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  2. Discovered in 1520? Very incorrect talk in the USA, where it is generally admitted, for instance, that there were people who knew the Americas before Columbus. Or Lief Ericson.

    But there’s a little-known aspect to chocolate history, a last-ditch English opposition to the Endarkenment that seems to be unknown to conventional history.

    In “The True History of Chocolate” by Sophie D. Coe & Michael D. Coe (Thames & Hudson, 1996) we find on page 157 that “in 1579 English buccaneers contemptuously burned a shipload of cocoa, thinking the beans were sheep droppings” in the port of Guatulco. 100,000 “loads” of the stuff, a load being 24,000 beans. That’s a shitload of chocolate!

    And who is the hero of this tale, the bold Englishman who burned so much soul-destroying stuff? Well, just how many Englishmen were working the west coast of Mexico in 1579? Right, none but Sir Francis Drake, who did indeed raid Guatulco (or Huatulco) in April of that year, apparently his last exploit before heading north to seek the Northwest Passage. And yet I can’t readily find any reference to this exploit anywhere. The souces seem reliable enough, but the dots have not been connected.

    Maybe at your next chocolate orgy it would be well to appease the spirits by pouring out a libation in memory of the lost 2.4 billion cocoa beans.

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  3. “And yet I can’t readily find any reference to this exploit anywhere.”

    The World Encompassed by Francis Fletcher. Appendix V from Hakluyts Voyages.

    The reality of this “heroic” action is somewhat telling.

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  4. p.s I checked as I was sure I had read about it (I love reading Hakluyt). I think I was confusing it with the one when a slave ship was captured and as the slaves were worth more than the crew, part of the crew were and then captured by the Spanish (not nice if you are a. a pirate and b. protestant).

    But the ‘raid’ is also memorable as it was little more than an act of petty thievery. Settlement was undergoing unrest, slaves were in front of the judge the day Drake arrived suspected of trying to burn part of the settlement down.

    They raided the houses of the 16 Spaniards based in the place, got some plate from one house and mugged one Spaniard for a few jewels when he attempted to flee (I suspect he may have been the only one with any portable wealth).

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    1. Yes, but the incident I referred to was that according to the Chocolate scriptures, he burned a shipload of chocolate, not noticing that the cargo was not sheep feces or the like.
      That this would not be in Hakluyt is not surprising; but the apparent lack of reference to it anywhere else seemed note worthy. (BTW I thought the adjectives in my earlier recounting, not tomention a noun or two, would not be taken as a serious description of the correct attitudes to be taken to the wanton if ignorant destruction of an enormous amount of chocolate.)

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  5. that should have read crew were dumped (in favor of the more profitable slaves) and then captured… no honor amongst these thieves of the high seas.

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