Of the tree called cacao, which some call cacahuate and its fruit and drink and oil, and of how its fruit is used as coin in some parts, and they can be exchanged for anything that the Indians usually trade, and other particularities about these trees.

Translated by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert

The tree called cacao or cacaguat is not a tree of these islands, but of the Mainland. These trees can be found in New Spain and in the province of Nicaragua and other parts. I am placing it here, however, so that all these subjects will remain together, as I have said elsewhere. And this is among all others the tree most prized by the Indians, and their treasure. And the caciques or lords who cultivate these trees in their fields are considered to be rich calachunis or princes, because in the Nicaraguan tongue they call their chief lord calachuni, which is the same as calling him king, and they also call him teyte, which is the same as calachuni or king. The tree, in its wood, bark, and leaf, is in all aspects like an orange tree, and of the same color, freshness, and size, except that the orange tree leaves have a sort of small heart at their stem or stalk, from which the leave sprouts. These hearts are missing from the cacao leaf, although in all other ways they are similar to each other. But since I very much value painting in distinguishing between very similar things, I want to avail myself of it to be completely understood, since undoubtedly the eyes are a great part of the information we have about such things, and since they cannot be seen or touched, images of them are a great aid to the pen. And to this purpose, I would like to draw these trees as well as I know how to do it,[1] because even if they are not done as well as I would like, the meaning of the drawing, together with my written words, will be enough for someone else to draw them more naturally. The fruit they bear are large green pods, with some parts covered in a reddish color, as wide as a handspan or less and as thick as a wrist, more or less in proportion to their size. Inside they are filled with something like a curdled mass, like a walnut, or like a pumpkin or gourd, and in that paste or curdled mass there are four rows of almonds (cacao beans) from top to bottom; so that each pod contains twenty or thirty almonds more or less. As the fruit ripens, the fleshiness between the almonds dries off and they remain loose inside the pod, from which they are removed later and saved, as they are held to have the same value and estimation that Christians and other people reserve for gold and coins. Such are these almonds to them, as with them they purchase all other things. So that in this province of Nicaragua, a rabbit is worth ten of these almonds, and for four almonds they give eight apples or loquats of that excellent fruit they call mumonzapot; and a slave is worth a hundred of these almonds, more or less, the price set according to what is being purchased or the will of those agreeing to a trade. And since on that land there are women who offer their bodies for a price, as public harlots who make a living like this do among the Christians (they call such women guatepol, which is the same as saying prostitute or whore), whoever wants them for their libidinous purposes gives them eight or ten almonds for their intercourse, as he and she agree. I want thus to say that there is nothing among this people, in the places where this is accepted as coin, that cannot be bought or sold in the same way that among the Christians it is done with some good doubloons or a two-ducat coin. And even with these almonds men can practice fraud to deceive others by mixing into a batch of them some false and useless ones; and they do this by removing the shell or covering of the almond, like those of our almonds, and filling them with dirt or other things, and they close the gap so subtly that it cannot be perceived, and in order for the recipient to understand the deceit, when he counts them, he fingers them one by one with his index finger (the one next to the thumb) over each one, and no matter how well stuffed the false ones are, he can tell by his touch that they are not as smooth as the good ones. From these almonds the principal lords make a beverage, as will be described here, that they hold in great esteem; and it is not consumed except by the powerful and those who can. Common people do not dare or cannot satisfy their gluttony or palate with such a drink; since it is but to impoverish themselves willingly or swallow their coins or throw them where they will be lost. But the calachuni lords and principal personages drink it because they can, and they are offered tributes in these coins or almonds in addition to having them in their estates among their crops. And something will be said ahead of this drink and other benefits and medicines obtained from this cacao, from what I have been able to understand.

But first I want to describe the manner in which they raise or cultivate these trees, as a thing they value so highly, and it is like this. That after they have planted them in soil that seems to them  fertile and suitable to their growing, in a place with water nearby to irrigate them at the appropriate time, and they have arranged them in rows at appropriate intervals of ten or twelve feet one from the other, so they can best feed from the soil, they grow and form such a crown that beneath them all is shadow and the sun cannot see the ground, except for very few places between the branches. And because some years it happens that the sun will overheat and scald them so that the fruit is hollow, does not develop, and is lost, to remedy this they plant other trees among them that here they call yaguaguyt, which the Christians call black wood, which grow to double the height of the cacao trees and protect them from the sun and offer shade with their branches and leaves, and they trim them, cutting off branches and offshoots as they grow so they grow straight to serve their purpose. These trees are of such a nature that they live longer than the cacao trees and neither rot nor fall, and they are one of the strongest woods known. These bear very beautiful flowers, the black wood ones, I mean, pinkish or white in bunches, like fennel, and they smell good, and it produces as fruit some pods filled with lentils somewhat smaller than lupin beans and very hard. They never lose their leaves and are prized trees among the Indians, for the purpose I have mentioned as well as for building fences around their estates, as they say that it does not deteriorate or rot in a long time. I tore down a sacrifice house in Nicaragua, a quarter of a league or less outside the city of León, at the settlement of the Cacique Mahomotombo, who served me. We would remove the temples that in the Chorotega language, spoken at the site and by that people, they called teyopa, which has the same meaning as prayer-house, in order to separate them from those diabolical rites, sacrifices, and ceremonies. And I had the wooden posts taken to León, all made from this black wood I have mentioned, and built a stable in my house for my horses; and wanting to know from the cacique and the older Indians who had built that temple and house, they said it had been built many years ago; and from what I could understand it was a hundred years and many more, and the wood that had been underground, which had been about an estadodeep, was as green and fresh as if it had just been cut, and the axes snapped and broke off as we worked it. This wood often reminds me of the Arca foederis of the Old Testament[2], of the log called shittah from which the altar to the Lord was made. I do not know if this black wood of Nicaragua is shittah wood; but I know that the Indians hold it as certain that it never rots or is destroyed, unless it is burned; and so they say. In this island of Hispaniola, they think it is the same wood they call corbana, with which I do not agree.

Returning to the fruit of the coco or cacao or cacaguat, since they call it by these three names, I say that when they harvest it and its almonds are ripe it is from February forward. And the pods or seedcases in which the almonds grow can be harvested until the end of April and the almonds are taken out and are placed in the sun for a while during the day so they can be cured, and to drink it they do the following. They roast the almonds, like hazelnuts, until they are very toasted, and then they grind them; and since these people are fond of drinking human blood, they add a little bit of bija to turn it red and make it resemble blood. The ground cacao without the bija is a brown color. And after it has been finely ground by putting it through a grinding stone four or five times, they add a little bit of water as they grind it to make a thick paste, and they put aside this dough. When they want to drink it, in order for it to be good they must wait at least four or five hours after it was ground, or better yet from morning to evening, or even better overnight; and they can keep it like this five or six days or more. And they smear that paste over their cheeks and chin and nose, looking like they are covered in mud or tawny clay, and some of it very red since they mix it with bija; and once they had covered themselves in this, men and women, thinking that the muddier they are the more handsome they look, they go to the market or to do what suits them, and from time to time they suck that oil, scraping it off little by little with their fingers. To Christian eyes, this looks and is very filthy; but to those people it does not look revolting or badly done, or useless, since it helps sustain them and relives them from thirst and hunger and protects their complexion from the sun and air. And the Indians say that whoever has drunk cacao after fasting runs no danger of death from being bitten by any poisonous viper or snake, of which they are many in that land. To drink it they add a quart of water to thirty ground almonds, mixing it with their hands, round and round, like gruel. And once the mix is dissolved into the water in a gourd or cup, they get another one, or a glass from which they want to drink it and they place it empty on the ground, and holding the gourd in which the cacao is dissolved in their hands, they pour the liquid from a height or two handspans, more or less, into the empty glass from which they will drink; and it forms a tall froth at the top and they drink it like that, and it looks like a man drinking  dregs, and thus it looks disgusting to anyone who has not tried it. But to the one drinking it, it is a pleasant thing, and it is a good-tasting and very healthy beverage; and the froth remains around the lips and face, and when it is red because of the added bija it looks like a horrendous thing, because it looks like his own blood. And without the bija it looks brown, and one way or the other it looks nasty. But the Christians find it a very beneficial thing, and the Indians are very proud of this, and they hold it as a boon and gift, and say it is the best thing in the world and the worthiest of esteem.

To note: In the province of Nicoya, and the island of Chira, and as far as it can be found, they take the cacao and roast it well, as it was described above, and they ground it on a very clean stone with a bit of water, and they form a ball with the paste as big as a fist, after passing it four or five times through the grinding stone. And an Indian woman has a pot holding about two and half to three azufres and puts into it a bit of water, no more than half a quart; and they throw in the ball made from the cacao paste, and with a thin reed cane they stir it in at a slow and steady pace, without slowing down or rushing, but just as it is said and not in haste, since it can be spoiled, nor so slowly that it sticks to the pot or burns. And the heat must be kept low and steady from beginning to end, a low flame rather than a strong fire, and as it cooks and boils it becomes thicker, and then they add a bit of water at a time, from time to time. One of the Indian women must do this while another grounds the almonds; and as soon as the grinder finishes another ball of cocoa paste she takes it to the one stirring the pot and adds it to what is already cooking; and in this manner, adding seven or eight balls, they can use a third of a celemín[3] of almonds as a measure of all the cacao that goes into the pot, which remains boiling slowly, being stirred with the small reed cane while water is added bit by bit. And taking together the water that has been added while it is ground with what is added while cooking it, they use two azumbres or a bit more of water. And once all the cacao mass has been added they cook it for half an hour, or for the eighth part of a hour, until it thickens; and then they remove it from the fire and let it cool off until it is warm, or somewhat on the hot side of warm. And once it is thus, they take a scallop shell or a spoon of the cooked mass and place a handful, which could be five or six spoonfuls, in a large gourd that could hold an azumbre and a half of water, a little more or less. And over that paste or milky mass they pour enough water to fill the gourd, and when the oil rises to the top of the water they take the container and place is on a circle of woven palm fronds (like those of brass that they place on the table in Flanders to protect the tablecloths from plates and bowls containing hot food). Then the Indian woman, her hands carefully washed, places her palm over the cacao oil in the vessel and strains the thick oily liquid through her fingers over a container or glass, where she wants to deposit this oil or precious liquid, which then freezes or hardens after five or six hours, and it is as red as the color of the bija, if they mixed it in when they grounded it, and if they did not add any, it is a gold-tinted yellow. When the principal Indians and the lords drink this boiled cacao, they sip it slowly, so that no one takes but a sip or two, if he is a principal man: and if anyone takes more in the presence of the lord calachuni, he would be taken for a vicious and ill-behaved man. The calachuni or teyte takes three or four gulps, and his lips and chin get covered by the oily substance, and he looks like he has been smeared with a thick layer of dissolved saffron and shines like lard.

This oil is a sacred cure for many ills and sufferings and sores. I had my own experience with it while traveling by land from León in Nicaragua to the province of Nicoya. During one of those days I stopped at sunset to sleep on the seacoast; and since I wanted to set out early the next morning, on the day I arrived I wished to see a narrow pass we needed to traverse on horseback before it got dark, so that I would have seen it before proceeding on my way in the early morning; and while looking at it from a high rock battered by the sea, I saw a wave coming that I thought would knock me down, and I quickly jumped away to another rock to get away, but the rock was rugged and had sharp edges, and I was barefoot, my foot having come out of my shoe and hit a hard edge, and it opened almost from the toes to the heel. I found myself badly hurt and more than sixty leagues of unpopulated distance to Nicoya, and without a surgeon or any other remedy but God, and I bled a lot and saw myself in such straits that I felt I would not be able to escape death, the loss of the foot, or lameness. Finding myself in that predicament, I recalled that a servant of mine and two blacks and some Indians were carrying one or two pieces of salt pork for the road, and on the cover of a copper pot I had them put some of the salt pork and fry it well, and I used it to have the wound well singed, which in parts was a finger or more deep; and although the bleeding stopped somewhat (after I had bled a lot), it did not succeed. And then a black woman of mine said that since the Indians said that cacao oil was good for wounds and I was carrying some, I should put it on the wound, and so I did; I had nothing else with which to cure the wound, and melting it a bit I mashed some bits of it, filling the wound with them entirely, and covering it with strips of cloth soaked in the oil. Proceeding on my way, and with my leg suspended, I traveled in this way more than sixty leagues to Nicoya, where I rested for ten or twelve days. And after twenty-five days the wound was closed and healed, without going through further trouble. But it left a hard, raised bulge on the sole of my foot, as thick as a hazelnut, and I could not walk without a staff, and if I placed my foot on the ground I felt a lot of soreness and pain, and I walked by just placing the tip of that foot down and limping. My friends’ opinion was that I should put myself in the hands of doctors and surgeons, who would not lose anything with me nor would I gain anything with them. So I decided not to do it but to continue wrapping the foot in cloth soaked in that oil; and it pleased the Mother of God that after sixty days more or less of being wounded the bulging flesh had settled and vanished and I had no mark left on my foot, as if there had never been a wound there. In truth I would have willingly given five hundred castellanos to find myself as healed as this oil left me. And so I give infinite thanks to God, who in his mercy gave me the blessing of carrying that oil with me, as I was carrying more than two bushels of those almonds. On an island called Pocosi, in the Gulf of Orotiña, I had them all turned into this oil by that black woman of mine who knew how to prepare it very well. And later I took some of it to Spain, and in Avila I gave a flask of it to the Empress, our lady, now in Heaven; and Her Majesty having asked me if it was good for wounds, I told her what I knew from experience.

The coco or cacao, ground and cooked with a little bit of water, makes an excellent oil for cooking and many other things; and I remember that before the events I told above, I had stopped at the settlement they call Mambacho, where an Italian, a good companion and friend of mine called Nicolá, gave me and my people a very good dinner of many fish and eggs, all cooked with this oil; and upon my inquiring about the source of the lard he told me that it was cacao oil, and that it was an excellent thing for wounds, and he had used it several times when he was wounded, and it was very effective for treating any illness or pain or pimple or swelling, or boil; which I fully believe, given the experience with my foot.

And since much has been said about cacao above, I do not want to overlook another form of drawing out the oil, which is used in Tabaraba and Cheriqui and around that land, and it is like this. They take the almonds and they roast them, and they cannot be given another name but that of almonds, since that is what they are, like the almonds from the almond trees of Castile, except that these are not as long, just a tad smaller, but they look like perfect almonds. Tasted whole, they are somewhat bitter, and when their light skin, its peel or rind, is removed, they are not whole, and they split into sections without appearing to be broken, but rather they detach one from the other, and thus it appears as if they are separate things brought together. When the pods in which they are born ripen, some Indians eat the pods and almonds together, removing the thickness of the pod’s rind, thick as a writing pen, and eat the rest. I have tasted it and in my opinion is not a good food nor is it good tasting, although the Indians praise it as a very healthy thing.So, returning to my subject, once the almonds are toasted, they remove the light skin, and they ground them two or three times without a single drop of water. The paste is liquid enough from its own moisture, and while they are being ground they  place a small pan that can hold an azumbre of water, more or less, over a sweet and slow fire, and they fill it with good water up to half, and after it has boiled slowly they put the cacao in (grounded as has been described), and with the thin reed cane or a very clean stick they stir it around, until, lifting the stick or cane once or twice, or many more times, you can see it is cooked after it has boiled well; and you can tell it is done when no trace of the cacao is left on the stick, which comes out clean, and everything is liquid, and cooked, and flows like water. This done, they gently tap the center of the mass or pot, downwards, as if to open it; and the oil rises to the top and it is gathered cautiously with a large spoon, careful not to pick up the cacao with the oil, because the oil is the main flower and virtue, and what remains of the cacao is less important and of less value. And thus what is gathered with the spoon is set aside. After they have taken out as much as possible in this way, they pour half, or a third, or a quarter of the cacao left after removing the oil into a gourd filled with clean water that has been kept out of the fire (and the rest in other gourds), and stir it, and the remaining oil that could not be removed by the spoon rises to the top of the water, and that, as a broth, is excellent and very healthy. And if they want to collect the oil that remains, as I have told, they subtly use a feather to gather it as well as they can; because the oil attaches to the feather and then they shake the feather over the container where they want to collect the oil, and the oil comes off the feather, and they go back for the rest. But this oil does not come out as free of water and cacao as through the first method I described; and the water and cacao that remains, after taking the oil out, can be drunk and it is very healthy. If taken while fasting it is good against venom, and the Indians have confirmed that on any day they have taken this oil they can be cured from the bite of any viper or snake. I have myself ascertained that since the bite of short snakes is poisonous, whoever is bitten dies by the third day or sooner; and these must be adders or asps more likely, according to what is written about asps, which are smaller snakes than vipers, but both of them are extremely poisonous. And against that and all other poisons the Indians consider cacao to be a good remedy.

[1] Lám. 3, fig. 23 and 14.

[2] Exodi liber, cap.XXXVII.

[3] A measure of volume for nuts, grains, or legumes equivalent to approximately four quarts.