Book IV Chapter XXII of Jose de Acosta's Natural and Moral History of the Indies, entitled "Of Cocoa and Coca"

Ogilby, John-America_being_an_accurate_description.cocoa.pdf

Image of Cocoa and its use, taken from John Ogilby's America (close up of image provided).

The cocoa bean, or the fundamental basis for chocolate, is native to the Americas.  Cocoa beans, which are the dried and fermented seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree, are thought to have been domesticated and consumed by early indigenous Americans as early as 1400 B.C. [1] They have played an important role throughout history, particularly in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, where they acted as a form of currency and as the main ingredient for a popular chocolate drink.  Following European colonization of the New World, the popularity of cocoa beans and chocolate fostered their inevitable distribution throughout the world.

The different uses of cocoa in 16th century Central America are described in José de Acosta’s Natural and Moral History of the Indies, written and published in 1590.  Acosta was a Spanish Jesuit missionary who lived in the Americas for nearly twenty years, integrating himself with the indigenous peoples and acquiring knowledge of their culture and civilization.  He compiled this knowledge into an ethnographic history.  Acosta’s work was very popular and provided an interesting perspective into life in the Americas.  It was translated into English by Edward Grimestone and republished in London in 1604.

The ethnography provides many of Acosta’s firsthand accounts with indigenous peoples and Spaniards alike.  In Book IV Chapter XXII of Natural and Moral History of the Indies, Acosta describes the cocoa bean and its social importance.  He begins his description by saying, the bean is, “so much prized among the Indians, and even among Spaniards, that it is one of the richest and most frequent objects of trade in New Spain.” [2] The cocoa bean was so highly valued that it was used as a set form of currency, with a certain number of beans acting as a certain amount of money.  The commodity even acted as a form of alms for the poor.

In Guatemala and throughout Mesoamerica, the cocoa bean was used as the chief ingredient for a beverage Acosta calls chocolate.  He says that indigenous people love this drink so much that it is “prized to the point of folly.” [3] Even though Acosta has his criticisms of the chocolate drink itself, saying that it is nauseating to those not accustomed to it, and that it requires great effort to consume it, he acknowledges the importance the drink had in society.  It was offered to noblemen in the New World, and would soon become a favorite of kings, queens, dukes, and nobles in the Kingdom of Spain and throughout Europe.  Acosta hints at this global dispersion of the once localized commodity when he mentions a load of cocoa beans being exported from the port of Huatulco in Mexico.

Despite this chocolate drink being rather acrid and strong, it was popular among Spanish settlers who colonized Central America.  Because cocoa beans had been cultivated for so long a time in the region, there were an extraordinary number of variations in the chocolate drink it created.  It could be prepared in different temperatures, with different processes of fermentation and extraction, and with different ingredients added.  Acosta also emphasizes that spices, particularly chilés, were added to the drink to offset the bitterness of the cocoa. [4]

John Ogilby’s America is another ethnographic history of the New World, though published nearly ninety years later than Acosta’s Natural and Moral History of the Indies, in 1671.  Within it is not only a short description of cocoa beans and their use in chocolate production, but also an image of this chocolate production.  The image depicts three Native American men using some sort of brewing instrument to create the chocolate drink.  The techniques depicted in the picture, with the center figure on his knees roasting the beans, and the two men on the right grinding the beans into a paste, are accurate representations of the drinks’ manufacturing.  Native Americans would crush this pasty mixture of ground roasted cocoa beans, and mix it with water and spices until the consistency was similar to that of “whipped honey.” [5] The small bowl that the central figure is holding would have been a typical vessel from which to drink the beverage.  The production of the chocolate drink depicted in Ogilby’s America is very similar to Acosta’s descriptions of production, demonstrating the widespread making and consumption of chocolate in Mesoamerica.

Interestingly, the image within Ogilby’s America shows not only the use of cocoa beans as the main ingredient for chocolate, but also as a form of currency, a practice also mentioned by Acosta.  Directly to the left of the three men preparing chocolate are two men trading with the collected beans.  This image was created nearly a century after Acosta’s first observations on the economic use of cocoa beans.  However, they are still shown to be of great use to society, acting not only as an ingredient, but also as a means of trading and performing transactions.

Hernan Cortes, the famous conquistador responsible for the fall of the Aztec Empire, returned from the New World to the Kingdom of Spain in 1530, introducing chocolate to the Spanish court and to all of Europe. [6] The hot, sweetened and spiced chocolate beverage took hold as one of the most popular drinks among the nobles in Spain. [7] However, what made the drink so popular in the other courts of Europe was not the addition of spices to the chocolate, but the addition of cane sugar.  This enhanced the beverage’s sweetness and made it not only tolerable for Europeans, but extremely pleasurable. [8]

The significance of the cocoa bean in the early history of Mesoamerica and the surrounding areas cannot be denied.  It served both an economic function through its use as a form of standardized currency, and a social function through its use in chocolate, which was enormously popular.  It therefore makes sense that chocolate became a worldwide commodity soon after European settlement of the New World.  By 1650, chocolate was a popular drink among the courts of Spain, Austria, England, and France, and cocoa trees were being domesticated in West Africa and parts of Asia.

[1] Young, Allen M. The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History of Cacao. p. 2.

[2] Acosta, Jose De, Natural and Moral History of the Indies. 209.

[3] Acosta, Jose De, Natural and Moral History of the Indies. p. 210.

[4] Acosta, Jose De, Natural and Moral History of the Indies. p. 210.

[5] Young, Allen M. The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History of Cacao. p. 20.

[6] Young, Allen M. The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History of Cacao. p. 34.

[7] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. p. 133.

[8] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. p. 115.


-Written by Kyle Stelzer


Acosta, José De, Jane E. Mangan, Walter Mignolo, and Frances M. López-Morillas. Natural and Moral History of the Indies. Durham: Duke UP, 2002. Print.

Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 2007. Print.

Young, Allen M. The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History of Cacao. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1994. Print.