“My endeavors should not have been for the bringing and fitting of roots, seeds, and other vegetables, to our climate, for to increase the number of rarities which we have here in our garden already; in which I perceive much may be done if further industry were used” --William Hughes
In his 1672 treatise, The American Physician, William Hughes takes a botanical approach to the plants, trees, and roots grown in the Americas. But for Hughes, botany is not simple biological study, but a religious act bringing one closer to the true nature of life. In fact, it has the power to shift economies and the course of humanity. He describes how Adam’s transgression against God separated man from a deep understanding of the world around us and now we must rely on our senses. The common corruption of the mind by the senses, means that traders of cacao must take caution to suppress their yearning for the bean and not let greed overcome them.
Hughes writes in awe of the power and artistry of God in creating “the form of things [that] are so exceedingly varied” (102) and wishing he had more time to worship God’s creations, declaring, “the common age of man… too short to admire them sufficiently” (102). Reverence of creation shows how knowledge must be reconstructed in a fallen world through the senses to come closer to the natural intelligence of Adam. If man has time and good discernment of the natural world from cacao to common crops, purer knowledge can be constructed coming closer to 'truth' by observing the natural world. This understanding of the power of the senses to grasp the eternal extends into a metaphor about the strong hand of God being behind the beauty of cacao: “so wonderfully numerous are those works of the Creator which are daily exposed to our view” (102).
Hughes’ botanical research is also a business proposition, demonstrating to readers the vast potential of various plants that could be exploited for the benefit of England. His study argues that large production in Jamaica would be beneficial for England with the ultimate goal being “to increase the Rarities which we have here in our Gardens already” (21). The primary objective was to be able to take the plants grown in the Americas and transplant them into England.
However, he does present one regret: that his age was limited in its knowledge of technology and the environmental differences between England and Jamaica simply would not allow large-scale farming of the ‘rarities’ in Britain. An artificial climate would be necessary to sustain the indigenous plants of Mesoamerica, and he believed “much may be done, if further industry were used but I [he has] have yet met with no opportunity to accomplish the same” (21). That said, his perception that it could someday be done shows to what extent he hoped to bring the world’s horticultural wonders to his homeland.
After “To the Reader”, a highly structured description of the plants in the Americas, the treatise on cacao begins with hope that this astounding Jamaican find could remedy the corrupted nature of man present after the Fall. Throughout the text, he compares dozens of valuable and trade commodities to cacao including roots, plants, shrubs, fruits, and herbs. The fact that the comparison always favors cacao shows how dignified a commodity it was. In these comparisons, there is never the same amount of respect and awe offered to other flora as to the cacao tree.
About the cotton tree, Hughes observes, “the leaves are small” and the pods have a “thin crusty shell” (68), while of the cacao tree, he paints the picture of a spectacular trunk with “boughs and branches thereof extend themselves on every side” carrying leaves “in every part smooth” and producing “saffron colour” flowers (104). The cacao tree becomes visible as a marvel to the Englishman through vibrant vocabulary that dives into the fruit, describing it from the outside then moving towards the shell to find the kernels—the “cacaos themselves” (107). He cautions that while it is sometimes referred to as cacao-nut, this is an incorrect description: cacao is a kernel, not a nut.
Once it goes over the physical properties of the tree and bean, the treatise takes a resolutely monetary and economic approach to the description of cacao and other resources. Throughout the text, there is reference to “planters of cacao” and their authority over the bean. This authority is inaugural in his writing as the labor force behind the production of cacao was not mentioned prior to this text. Indeed he argues (incorrectly) that the tree itself had not yet been described to English readers (103). Yet, he hitches botany to plantation management as only a person interested in horticulture would.
Passages highlight the significant influence that the planters and harvesters of cacao had on the value and rich culture of the cacao bean. Planters possess an unparalleled knowledge of the bean and how it grows, knowledge that contributed directly to the success of plantations. Hughes, for his part, brings that knowledge to the canon of botany, developing England’s expertise and, by extension, greater dominion in growing crops and in trade.
With his understanding of knowledge from planters, Hughes concedes that the transfer of cacao trees to different climates is simply not possible. Botanically speaking, a crop that prefers the warmth of Jamaica could not grow in the cold climate of England. Worse yet for the British, cacao beans exhibit a similar climate-dependence such that, “by transportation, the Air of different places hath such an operation upon them, that many are corrupted and spoiled before they arrive here; and so they are often, by reason of moisture” (110).
Climate thus has an enormous impact on trade: if alterations in the quality of the air physically change the qualities of cacao, then botanic knowledge is crucial to establishing better trading conditions. Beyond air, other aspects such as terroir—the composition of the soil—and soil quality impacted the taste and grade of the cacao. Once it was established, as Hughes documents in his treatise, that Jamaica had highly desirable soil and the local growers had extensive botanical knowledge of local cacao strands, Britain’s colonization of Jamaica (which they reached in about 1661) and increased plantation efforts found a handy justification.
Because chocolate retained its original features from its natural habitat if it was grown in Jamaica, that only increasing the quality of cacao traded, which in turn improved the quality of chocolate made in England.
Chocolate fared better in England as a direct result of the knowledge of merchants learning from growers how to improve its trade and stimulate more growth in plantations and ever more extensive colonization of lands appropriate to that cultivation.
About 150 years after the initial European “discovery” of cacao (circa 1520), Hughes produced what he hailed as the landmark summary of its botanic qualities. He argued for the first time that understanding well how cacao grew would have direct impact on the quality of the chocolate made and consumed in England. In that observation, he shifted the focus from the medical knowledge of the bean and its trade to the need for proper plantation development. The role of England in that expansion could significantly enhance their role in global trade. Knowledge of botany could make merchants more discerning in what they bought and change how England approached the sourcing of cacao and other crops.
Economically, chocolate underwent an important change, as well: commerce shifted from indigenous production to mass production on British (and Spanish)-owned plantations. At the time, direct sourcing fed the colonial power of the European countries in the New World. Nevertheles, Hughes’ emphasis on the importance of Jamaican soil and knowledge of the trees' habits to the final taste of chocolate in England highlighted the importance of direct sourcing for higher quality.
Hughes, William. The American Physitian; Or, A Treatise Of The Roots, Plants, Trees, Shrubs, Fruit, Herbs, C. Growing in the English Plantations In America: Describing the Place, Time, Names, Kindes, Temperature, Vertues and Uses of Them, Either for Diet, Physick, C. ; Whereunto Is Added A Discourse Of The Cacao-Nvt-Tree, And the Use of Its Fruit; with All the Ways of Making Chocolate. The like Never Extant before. London: Crook, 1672.