Codex Medoza, c. 1540. Attributed to Francisco Gualpuyogualcal and to Juan González. Transport method of cacao (next to jaguar skins) under the early Aztec Empire. Public Domain, Bodleian Library, Oxford University.
Bartolomé de Las Casas presents a horrific picture of post-Columbian indigenous life documented during the first fifty years of Spanish imperial rule. Insofar as plantation cacao, long before tobacco*, sustained colonial trade and was poised to become a transatlantic boon, the chocolate trade was a direct beneficiary of imperial violence.
Las Casas’ account of destruction serves Cacaosophy as a de-colonial corrective to this month’s North American celebrations: Columbus Day (8th) and National Chocolate Day (24th).
A Dominican Friar, priest-procurator of the Indies, agent of resistance, and posthumous father of Liberation Theology, Las Casas made many trips to New Spain for his Church and his Crown. Over the course of the decades he would ultimately spend there, he bore witness to and documented the atrocities that attended the violent take-over of pan-Caribbean Taíno and Aztec life. Accounts of destruction in Hispaniola that open his A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies include swift mass killings—pockets of slaughter and burning alive that belied the Spanish mission to convert the souls of peoples who could not have known Jesus. Others involve gaming that saw Conquistadors challenge each other to see who could slit a throat faster. In Puerto Rico and Jamaica, they tortured informants to find gold, subsequently “plaguing them with toil” to retrieve it from the mines. On the Mainland or Tierra Firme, expanding out across the peninsula from the seat of the former Aztec Empire in Mexico, those refusing to scout gold were enslaved.
Among other illuminations he preserved for posterity, Las Casas reminds us that genocide was the order of the day and indigenous survival occurred primarily thanks to the Spanish plan to exploit the land for food as much as gold. When too many millions had been killed to sustain imperial agriculture, Spain forced the migration of Africans to become part of their labor market (a practice famously endorsed by Las Casas early in his life and only denounced later). Designs on pan-American and then transatlantic trade crops through massive-scale farming required herds of workers. The way to ensure that extensive hours of work were accomplished with the least economic strain to the owners was to harness human beings into levels of servitude—from indentured to enslaved—with as little agency as possible and the hourly threat of beatings and even death hanging over them.
While he never mentions cacao directly, Las Casas talks a lot about the plight of enslaved indigenous and African workers from the beginning of conquest—c. 1521, the fall of México-Tenochtitlán to Cortés—to 1542 when he writes his polemic. Under the Aztec Empire, cacao had been cultivated for the imperial chocolate drink, to serve as currency, and as a tax to be paid to Moctezuma II. The ubiquity of this cultural product continued under Spanish rule. We know that whatever else they were doing, people farming in Hispaniola—now Haiti and the Dominican Republic—Jamaica, and Tierra Firme sewed, cultivated, and harvested cacao as well.
Here are some treatments Las Casas witnessed inflicted upon indigenous and African laborers of the Spanish Caribbean by the ruling Castilians.
In Nicaragua, the seizure of land and crops strikes Las Casas with force:
On one occasion the governor decided on a re-allocation of slaves, either on a whim or (as some say) because he wanted to remove them from a number of his companions with whom he was no longer on good terms and share them out among his latest cronies. As a result of this upheaval, the natives did not get a chance to sow some of the fields, and consequently there was not enough grain to go round. The Christians seized all the maize the locals had grown for themselves and their own families and, as a consequence, some twenty or thirty thousand natives died of hunger, some mothers even killing their own children and eating them. (37)
Possible exaggeration in the numbers dying of hunger and how mothers stayed alive notwithstanding, his outrage speaks to one of the main weapons of domination: preventing people even from using land to feed themselves. Sovereign possession of land rendered local communities powerless and endangered. A second step after seizure is the imposition of servitude.
Each of the settlers took up residence in the town allotted to him (or encommended to him as the legal phrase has it),52 put the inhabitants to work for him, stole their already scarce foodstuffs for himself and took over the lands owned and worked by the natives and on which they traditionally grew their own produce. The settler would treat the whole of the native population – dignitaries, old men, women and children – as members of his household and, as such, make them labour night and day in his own interests, without any rest whatever; even the small children, as soon as they could stand, were made to do as much as they could, and more. […] And they have used and still use even pregnant women and the mothers of newborn babes as beasts of burden. (39)
Forced child labor achieves two goals for the ruling class: first, they increase their workforce exponentially. Second, they immerse the generation after conquest into their post-Columbian identity from the start: servile subject of the Crown. In Las Casas’ words, the new normal of indigenous existence took the form of “tyrannical slavery.”
[…] throughout these four hundred and fifty leagues, butchered, burned alive or otherwise done to death four million souls, young and old alike, men, women and children. And this figure does not include those killed and still being killed today as a direct result of the tyrannical slavery and the oppression and privation its victims are forced to endure on a daily basis. (43)
Given to politically-charged monikers like “beast of burden,” Las Casas again and again comes back to the literal weight of what enslaved people carried on their backs. He depicts them on all fours awaiting cargo to be loaded and crawling in pain. Early indigenous images of cacao beans in large textile sacs suggest that this mode of transporting the beans would have been adopted by the Spanish, who might well have heaped them upon the backs of slaves. The images are startling and fully capture the dehumanization at work in a social order predicated on submission:
Another occupation in which the natives perished wholesale was shipbuilding. For a distance of one hundred and thirty leagues, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, he had natives carry anchors weighing three and four quintales.81 So heavy were these that the flukes of the anchor would bite deep into their bare shoulders and backs. He used these same naked and defenceless people to transport cannon overland,82 and I myself saw many of them stumbling along in agony. (63)
In 1542, exactly 50 years after the accidental arrival of the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, Las Casas wrote that Spain crushed the juice right out of the cultures and bodies that had thrived there. If his account of the early New World Empire guided our relationship to the goods we still consume because of this transatlantic encounter, we might celebrate October’s cacao-infused holidays mindfully as beneficiaries of the violence of conquest.
*See Marcy Norton, “On the supply side, cacao was already a commodity produced for colonial consumers and there already existed an infrastructure for Atlantic trade; so once there was a perception of demand, little adjustment was needed to turn it into a staple of the transatlantic trade. However, tobacco did not become a long-distance, much less transatlantic, commodity until the end of the sixteenth century […]” (144).
Las Casas, Bartolomé. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Trans. Nigel Griffin. London/New York: Penguin Books, 1992. [Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias. Seville, 1552.]
Norton, Marcy. Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2010.
Codex Medoza (1542). Public Domain Review.