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An 18th-C Who's Who

A propos of nothing, today was the royal wedding of the Brit and the American. Stateside, it is National Devil's Food Cake Day. That's a chocolaty reference and has the added bonus of reminding us of the difference between cacao (the bean) and chocolate (the confected drink turned crafted bar that we enjoy as a treat). Fortuitously for this blog, traditional Devil's Food Cake uses cocoa (the dense powder, invented in the 19th century, made from ground beans with the butter removed) rather than crafted chocolate as its base flavor. Now for an abrupt transition to the matter at hand: images of cacao tree.

The last few posts have explored visual representation as a key medium in the transfer of ideas about cacao from the Americas to Europe. By the publication of Sir Hans Sloane's Voyage in 1725 with this specimen of a branch and pods that have been petrified by time at the Natural History Museum in London, there was already enough documented method and wisdom to warrant summation studies that looked back over the century of reception.

For most of Europe that period began after 1640—the date of the first translation of Antonio Colmerno de Ledesma’s landmark treatise on chocolate, Curioso Tratado (1631), by Don Diego de Vades-Forte, the pseudonym of James Wadsworth. By 1643, a translation had been done into French by René Moreau and Latin followed in 1644. A dozen other treatises and essays rolled off the presses, most of them fully indebted to Colmenero, before Sloane voyaged to Jamaica in 1687. Then, during the great age of dictionaries and encyclopedic compendia, cacao took its place among the discovered and classified flora of the world.

In 1787, Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz had a host of antecedents to choose from and constructed a most unique genealogy of chocolate wisdom at the beginning of his own study, Essay on Cacao, its cultivation, and the different preparations of chocolate [Dissertation sur le cacao, sur sa culture, et sur les différentes préparations de chocolat]. It is here that he tells the anecdote about Maria Sibylla Merian's caterpillar caper. This extended essay on cacao constitutes a mere aftertaste within the scope of Buc'hoz's earlier, less humble project, World History of the Plant Kingdom, or New Physical and Economic Dictionary of all the Plants That Grow on the Surface of the Earth [Histoire universelle du règne végétal, ou nouveau dictionnaire physique et economique de toutes les plantes qui croissent sur la surface du globe, Paris, 1775-78]. That planetary study built upon an already ambitious precursor, the Natural History of the Plant Kingdom of Europe [Histoire naturelle du règnes végétal, Paris, 1772]. That said, neither of them treats cacao, which makes the 1787 publication an aftertaste of some import.

Buc’hoz's first mention of cacao appeared in the fancifully named, The Garden of Eden: Earthly Paradise Restored in the Queen's Trianon Garden [Le Jardin d’Éden: le paradis terrestre renouvellé dans le jardin de la Reine à Trianon, 1783]. In this visual botanical documenting the exotic species made to grow on the grounds of Versailles, he included a plate for Theobroma cacao with a short description of the plant.

Fig. 1: "Theobroma Cacao, Linn. Le Cacotier," Le Jardin d' Éden, 1783.

Courtesy of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, Jamaica Plain, MA.

The Dissertation sur le cacao, sur sa culture, et sur les différentes préparations de chocolat expanded considerably on the short notice in the Jardin d’Éden. For one thing, it treats not only cacao tree, the plant, but also chocolate, the beverage derived from it by the Maya (and perhaps the Olmec before them) and then the Aztec. It is both a traditional botanical, with pages of detailed description of the trees physical and agricultural characteristics, and a summation of the cultural reception of cacao.

In it, Buc’hoz furnishes lists at the beginning that offer three perspectives on the history of cacao’s reception in Europe. List 1 covers various scientific and lexical reference works that mention cacao. Highlights of this list are Carl Linnaeus, father of binomial nomenclature and biological classification, George Clifford III, a wealthy banker and Director of the Dutch East India Company, whose prolific exotic gardens were catalogued by Linnaeus in the herbarium, Hortus Cliffortianus; and Phillip Miller, member of the Royal Society, chief gardener at the renowned Chelsea Physic Garden--established 1673 to furnish medicinal herbs to the society of Apothecaries--and author of The Gardener's Dictionary containing the Methods of Cultivating and Improving the Kitchen Fruit and Flower Garden (1754, first edition 1731).

List 2 presents botanist-artists who provide an illustration of the tree, some of them inaugural in their vantage point or unique in their grasp of the plant’s ecology. List 3, which appears several pages later after a description of the tree’s physical properties, includes memorialists, doctors, and explorers who have written on cacao.

Of interest here is the list of illustrations Buc’hoz cites in 1787. As a prolific botanical artist, a costly task that bankrupted him later in life, Buc'hoz had an affinity for the herbalists of history who had not only written about but also drew cacao. List 2 features French, British, and Dutch publications that have been translated into French. In an order that is neither chronological, nor alphabetical, and may well reveal a hierarchy of authority, the herbarium artists are:

  • Sir Hans Sloane, 1725

  • Maria Sibylla Merian, 1705

  • Mark Catesby, 1771

  • Elizabeth Blackwell, 1739

  • Léonard Plukenet,1696

  • Nikolaus Joseph Freiherr von Jacquin, 1786

The list ends with Buc’hoz’s1783 image published in the Jardin d’Éden, as though his own work stands on the shoulders of giants. This homage to 18th-century botanicals doubles as a who’s who of explorer-illustrators. Everyone on this list has the distinction of having sketched from nature, or printed what artists had sketched. (Sloane used the work of G. D. Ehret and Everhardus Kickius in Voyage, and in the Jardin, Buc'hoz adapted some of his drawings from Christoph Jakob Trew's Plantæ selectæ, 1750-1773, who himself sketched after Ehret and others.) With massive tomes to their credit, each of them contributed extensively to the ever-expanding knowledge and appreciation of world plant life through visual history. Buc'hoz's list shows that they already constituted a pantheon of the botanical illustration in the late 1780s.

Sloane of course traversed Jamaica and several other Caribbean islands. Catesby, for his part, drew the species of cacao that had been imported to his geographical area of interest, the Bahamas. Strikingly, two of the first four names on the list are women. Alongside the legendary Merian, who sketched the cacao growing in Surinam in the 1690s, sits her legacy two generations hence: Elizabeth Blackwell. Her 500-image book of useful plants, illustrated at least in part with specimens taken from the Chelsea Physic Garden, represents the “coco-nut tree” and includes a short paragraph about its uses as an herbal remedy, the way it had come to be used by apothecaries.

Fig. 2: Elizabeth Blackwell, "The Coco-Nut Tree," A curious herbal, 1739. Biodiversity Heritage Library, Public Domain.

Plukenet, a botanist from the age of Merian and Sloane, did not voyage abroad. He maintained William III's gardens at Hampton Court Palace and, like Blackwell, drew from that domesticated exotica. Like Sloane, he focused his attention on the leaf, one of several figures on the page. Jacquin, for his part, explored the West Indies at the request of Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I. He snuck the cacao pod into a busy drawing of several other species. It may be that they end the list because their images of cacao do not offer it as the subject of portraiture, in the tradition of Merian, but as a specimen in the context of like species.

Fig. 3: Nikolaus Joseph Freiherr von Jacquin, Collectanea Austriaca, Part 4, 1786. Table 3, Figure 5.

Wellcome Library,, Public Domain.

Hidden in the first few pages of the Dissertation sur cacao, Buc'hoz's homage to botanical illustration rounds out the wisdom of cacao in ways few treatises could have before 1780. Though he did not collect specimens as many of his predecessors had, Buc'hoz did produce as many drawings and prints as they did, and also undertook the hard work of collecting them into a curiosity cabinet of visual knowledge. He does not reproduce the images of his botanical forebearers in the Dissertation but does cite their precise locations, and most of his references, though not all, are correct. The contribution of a bibliography of namers, artists, and writers on cacao elevates this treatise to a reference work.

A final contribution to the encyclopedic vision he wanted the average reader to have of the plant makes this text unique. Alongside Theobroma cacao, Buc'hoz digs back into history to remind readers that a second strain, Guazuma, had been identified by Charles Plumier, botanist to Louis XIV, in 1703. His Nova plantarum americanarum genera described 106 new genera of American plants for the first time in its day. Guazuma, the cacao no one remembers, was among them.

Fig. 4: Charles Plumier, "Guazuma," Nova Plantarum, 1703. p. 36. Biodiversity Heritage Library, Public Domain.

Buc'hoz added a plate of this species to his Jardin under the name Theobroma guazuma, after Linnaeus' name for cacao. He ends the Dissertation with a discussion of this species, which was oddly well known at the time. Wild in Jamaica, he says, Guazuma is cultivated in Europe “out of sheer curiosity” in the gardens of collectors of exotica (des curieux). The tree produced fruit more suited to animal feed than human consumption--and rarely fruited in the cool climes of the north, even if it could be kept alive. Its flexible wood could be curved into circles and used to make barrels. No food of the gods, Guazuma nonetheless took its place in cacao history thanks to Buc'hoz's encyclopedic impulse.


Visual Bibliography

Blackwell, Elizabeth. A curious herbal, containing five hundred cuts, of the most useful plants, which are now used in the practice of physick, Vol. 2, 1739.

Catesby, Mark. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, Vol. 2, 1771.

Jacquin, Nikolaus Joseph Freiherr von. Observationum botanicarum, Part I, 1763 (text) and Collectanea Austriaca, Part 4, 1786 (text & image).

Merian, Maria Sibylla. Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, 1705.

Plukenet, Léonard. Almagnestum botanicum (text) and Phytographia, Part 4 (image), 1696.

Plumier, Charles. Nova plantarum americanarum genera, 1703.

Sir Hans Sloane, A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, Vol. 2, 1725.

Trew, Christoph Jakob. Plantae selectae, Vol. 8, 1771.

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