Henry Stubbe: The Chocolate Guru

 

It took Dr. Henry Stubbe’s The Indian Nectar, or, A discourse concerning chocolata (1662) one hundred and eighty four pages to make the case for one conclusion: chocolate is the new miracle of Europe. In an era desperate for a wonder drug, this essay presents Britain the ultimate cure-all: a chance to reverse the great fall of mankind. Disguised as an academic medical piece, The Indian Nectar is a powerful piece of propaganda for the absorption of chocolate into English culture. It sells by invoking one authority no one dares question – God himself – and backs up its claims by borrowing liberally from authorities of the day. Fortunately for the author, his late arrival on the chocolate scene put him in the position of having plenty to borrow. Take it from Stubbe, take it from the experts, take it from the medical evidence, take it from the Bible: chocolate is Europe’s new miracle.

        

The Indian Nectar is a daunting piece of scholarship. It’s long, uses medical lingo that the common person doesn’t understand, is so fast and loose with references to outside research that it’s hard to keep track of whose work is actually being presented, and it reads like an unedited stream of consciousness. In the midst of all that, it’s easy for the reader to miss its three-prong tactic to winning Britain over—to his own agenda. Stubbe pitches chocolate to legitimize his own role as a medical expert. Nothing short of a well-wrought strategy would suffice to sell both the drug and its expert. The following examples of each tactic demonstrate that Stubbe’s “stream of consciousness” format brilliantly distracts from his self-promotion.

 

The bulk of The Indian Nectar’s content is medical, which makes sense given the author’s training as a doctor. The notable difference for this particular medical document among the earlier ones treated on this site, however, is that the authoring doctor didn’t do any of this research himself. He had never been to the Americas, hadn’t experimented with cacao, and relied heavily on work of other doctors. From the get-go, Stubbe namedrops his way to authority by citing and referring to society’s already established luminaries. The forward alone references four doctors and the king, while hardly mentioning chocolate. “When I first entered the practice of Physick, I had the Honour of your Testimonial: and now I publicly acknowledge as well your favours,” writes Stubbe to Dr. Thomas Willis, hailed today as a father of neuroscience. (He goes on to mention William Harvey, Robert Boyle, and, of course, Antonio Colmenero.)

 

In his day, a testimonial of the quality or importance of the ideas in a publication from a gentleman of rank was a worthy and necessary credential for publishing. The “favor” to which he refers was the friendship or goodwill  of a superior with the power to open doors. The forward later mentions that this is “the Discourse I promised you [Dr. Willis].” Citing Dr. Willis’s backing of and desire to read the author in the first sentence introduces us to this piece’s first rhetorical technique: legitimacy by association. And it’s the first indication that this isn’t merely a text about chocolate; chocolate is the vessel Stubbe uses to legitimize his authority. If he knows people who matter and those people care about this discourse, then the reader should, too.

 

A secondary technique emerges throughout the remainder of the discourse – it leans on some authorities but not before tearing others down. As the treatise starts into its concluding chapter (122) it finds “undeniable, that hot Drink not only quencheth it [thirst] at present, but prevents its returns, better than cold.” Given the ever-changing nature of science and medical knowledge, it’s a bold claim to call something undeniable – particularly something you haven’t personally studied. Rather than following that sentence up with backing evidence, The Indian Nectar goes for a different approach; it immediately attacks the progenitor of humoral theory, one of Europe’s most trusted authorities: "…and that musty Definition of Aristotelian Philosophy, that…..Thirst is a desire of cold and moisture… is notoriously false" (122).

 

Calling the work of a revered authority "musty" and his ideas "notoriously false" is a bold move. This dual tactic is reminiscent of politicians who have no platform of their own to stand on and compensate by leaning on their endorsements and tearing down their opponents; they distract the audience from their own lack of substantive platform by discrediting someone else’s. If Britain can no longer trust the notoriously false Aristotle, maybe they will turn to Stubbe.

 

A similar tactic emerges when the text doesn’t back its medical claim with evidence, but instead immediately attacks a respected authority. On the following page, the idea of an undeniable fact surfaces again in that chocolate is “of an unquestionable nourishment; for, as it is the chief sustenance of the Spanish Indies; this cannot be colourably denyed.” Once again, proof of “unquestionable nourishment” isn’t established, but the sentence continues on to attack someone else who tried to deny it: “though Pope Urban the Eighth did declare it in discourse…that it was meerly a drink...yet few believe him infallible.” Not infallible is a much softer blow than “notoriously false”, but serves the same purpose – to undermine the trust Britain has in people whom Stubbe can pit against his chocolate wisdom. It’s often easier to win people over at the cost of one’s opponent than to build a case strong enough to stand on its own, and that’s certainly true in the case of a doctor who had never even visited the Indies.

 

So where does that leave the reader? Six chapters detailing the maladies chocolate can cure remind him of the weakness of man, while the art of discrediting people once thought trustworthy—the likes of Aristotle and the Pope!—leaves him skeptical. The Indian Nectar is structured brilliantly to effectively build a straw man out of past authority, which it knocks down by round (chapter) seven. Who can Britain trust now? One hundred and twenty two pages in, the reader needs an authority she can trust, and the text delivers.

 

In one final attempt to demonstrate that not only does Britain need chocolate, it needs Stubbe’s expertise on the subject, the text goes for the Hail Mary pass and shifts gears as it wraps up in a discussion of religion. What is man’s ultimate weakness? Mortality. Without corruptible minds, weak wills, and bodies subject to death, disease, and degeneration, man would live like a god! Malady would claim no victim and render medicine irrelevant. Isn’t that the aim of medical practice – to combat the mortality of man? The Indian Nectar reminds the reader that there was a time before man was so vulnerable – before the great fall of Adam. The text leans back into its overarching strategy of borrowing from its supporters by citing St. Austin (St. Augustine). While popular opinion about the respectability of medical philosophers and doctors may vary over time, this man of God’s reputation endured intact into the seventeenth century--and Stubbe milks it for all it's worth.

 

According to St. Augustine, “Adam in Paradise, before the fall, could have erected at pleasure, and that the motions of the flesh were so perfectly subordinate to his will” (136). Since then, humans have endured various frailties and  and essayed a host of remedies. At the heart of the matter is venery. Humankind is not as sexually strong and lucrative as they once were, and that weakness interferes mightily with his God-given right and commandment to populate the earth. If there’s one thing that can reverse the fall of Adam, it would be to return humankind to its sexual prowess. Luckily, the text reminds the reader, “by the fall his Nature was debilitated, not lost” (136).

 

If man—and here he means men—can reclaim his sexuality, he can restore his true nature. The text stays the course as it rejects logical solution after logical solution: meat won’t do the trick, salt won’t save the day, and so on. Finally, enter chocolate, which inclines “a man to Venery beyond the natural [postlapsarian] disposition.” Britain is desperate for a wonder drug and Stubbe delivers – chocolate will restore man’s flagging venery. Renewed vigor will then heal man’s other woes.

 

To lock in its victory over the people of Britain, this section concludes that the author brought up chocolate with “no further intent, than the support of that Nature, which God gave us, and which, as I have shewed out of St. Austin hath been much impaired by the fall.” With the unlikely support of the church father most known for rejecting what he called “concupiscence” (that is, the drive behind venery), Stubbe invites the reader to turn to chocolate for sexual, and even spiritual renewal. Chocolate will return to man his dominion over his own flesh, the way God always wanted it. And with that, chocolate with its origin in anything-but-Christian-Mesoamerican was christened an Anglican cure.

 

Though in appearance, this treatise seems to be a jumble of ideas and a continuous flow of absurdities that could alienate him from his experienced peers, it takes on another meaning in 1660s London. By writing on chocolate, a yet obscure object of British medical inquiry, Stubbe was in fact distinguishing himself from the physicians around him--particularly the Royal Academy of Science--with his foresight. In fact, the writing of this treatise coincides with the period when his career lurched forward and he became the physician to the newly restored King Charles II in Jamaica—home of the earliest British cacao plantations. In a cruel twist of fate after all of his speculation about Edenic virility, the climate disagreed with him and he returned to England in 1665.

 

Nonetheless, Stubbe hitched his medical star to chocolate and ensured that he made himself the foremost expert upon it in the early Restoration. His renown would either rise or fall with chocolate and, as it stands, its success was legendary. Medical foresight disguised as spiritual redemption made this treatise and Stubbe one of the foremost authorities on early European chocolate wisdom.

 

See "Recipes" (coming soon) for Stubbe's enterprising British rendition of the traditionally Spanish drink.

 

 

Resources

 

Stubbe, Henry. The Indian nectar, or, A discourse concerning chocolata… London: Andrew Crook, 1662.

 

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