Cacao beans have always been prized their powerful pharmacological benefits. One of the earliest surviving European accounts of native methods of making chocolate from cacao beans, published in 1556 by a man identified only as having returned to Venice from an expedition in the company of Cortés, praises the fortifying power of the beverage: “This drink is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else”. The idea was that something in the drink fought fatigue and hunger and increased endurance—no small attainment for the little bean from which it was made. And no small benefit to soldiers on the march. It is no surprise, therefore, that it was Cortés who was the first to send word of the cacao bean’s marvelous energizing powers to Europe, when, in an excited letter to King Charles V of Spain, he called chocolate the ‘drink of the gods’. In so doing he ultimately provided the scientific names for both the species, Theobroma cacao, and for theobromine, caffeine’s pharmacological cousin, which combines with caffeine to endow cacao with the analeptic powers that won the admiration of Cortés. For, although Europeans have since learned to prepare and serve chocolate in myriad forms, both liquid and solid, that delight the sensorium, the conquistador was far more interested in cacao’s pharmacological effects than in its gustatory worth.
It was not Cortés, however, but some unknown Spaniard of his day (whether Jesuit missionary or merchant, no one can be sure), who first crossed the Atlantic with the beans themselves and the secrets of chocolate making, and the initiation of caffeine and theobromine into the culture of Europe began. Once the Spanish court had a taste of the remarkable new stimulant, their appetite for it began to rival that of their Aztec counterparts. Cortez, his age of exploration having ended, was returned to the New World, this time not as a conquistador, but to establish cacao plantations for Charles V in Haiti, Trinidad, and Fernando Po. The venerable tradition of using the fortifying powers of chocolate to extend the soldier’s physical endurance continued at least through World War II, when the United States issued chocolates as rations to American troops.
However, the Olmecs, the Maya, and the Aztecs had discovered the god-given, magical, energizing powers of cacao long before the Spanish arrived. Among the Aztecs, cacao’s pharmacological power was so jealously prized that, apart from the nobility, only soldiers on campaign and the pochta, a hereditary class of merchant adventurers, were permitted to use it. Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, Montezuma I (1390-1464), seventh King of Mexico, finally promulgated a law that no one who had not participated in armed conflict, not even the king’s son, could enjoy the privilege of consuming it. Reserving the energy drink for his troops seems to have been a successful strategy. Under his rule, a loose confederation of 500 cities paid tribute in luxury goods to Tenochtitlán, his capital, including gold, feathers, gemstones, amber, jaguar skins, and, of course, cacao, as well as an ample provision of bodies for sacrifice to the martial gods the Aztecs propitiated.
Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, Montezuma II, (1466-1520), eleventh King of Mexico, grandson of Montezuma I, sat on the Aztec throne in the year Cortés arrived. If we are to believe his own accounts and those of the Spanish conquistadors, Montezuma II’s imperial banquets were examples of gastronomic artistry reminiscent of the feasts of the early Roman Emperors, in that they began with rare birds and exotic fruits imported from the far reaches of the domain. Also, as at Roman feasts, performers then amused the assembled with singing and dancing. But the final course of the banquet was something that neither Cortés, nor any other European, Asian, or African, ancient or modern, had ever encountered: After ceremonially washing their hands, the respectful serving women would bring xocoatl, pronounced ‘chocolatl’, a cold, thickly frothing, bitter beverage brewed from roasted cacao beans, seasoned with vanilla or spices, which they served in golden goblets to the king. Witnesses vary as to whether the guests and household were also so honored. (Others add that Montezuma II, like some of the Roman Emperors, sent runners to the mountains for snow, which he mixed with chocolate to create a sherbet.)
According to early and probably exaggerated Spanish accounts, Montezuma II downed 50 cups of chocolate daily, including many consumed to fortify himself before consorting with his concubines. Because they knew nothing of caffeine’s and theobromine’s physical and mental stimulating powers, the Aztecs were convinced that the strength and inspiration chocolate imparted were gifts from the feathered god, Quetzalcoatl.
Cacao’s importance as the vehicle of a stimulating drug is also attested in the fact that cacao beans were so valuable in pre-Columbian America that they were used as a medium of exchange in the Maya marketplace. The Maya used cacao beans as currency throughout their domains, and prices were fixed ‘by the bean’: eight to ten for a rabbit, a hundred for a slave, four for a squash. We do not know if the average Maya peasant could afford cacao or how he used it if he could. When the Maya were defeated by their rivals, the Aztecs, sacks of cacao beans were among the items of tribute exacted from them.
Referencing this monetarization of cacao beans, an eighteenth century French pharmacopoeia explains,
Some Authors say, that the Cacao is in such Use in Mexico, that it is the chief Drink of the Inhabitants of the Country, and that they give it as Alms, or Charity to the poor…The Nuts, among the Indians and Spaniards, for current Money, even in those Countries where Gold and Silver are naturally produced; there is in them Food and Raiment, Riches and Delight all at once! (Pomet, Lemery, and Tournefort, A Compleat History of DRUGGS, Book VII, Of FRUITS, ‘Of the Cacao, or Chocolate-Nut’, 1712. Translated from the French, R. Bonwicke, et al., London.)
‘Cacao’ and ‘chocolate’, which both derive from early meso-American antecedents, and their cognates are today among the most widely used non-Indo-European words in the world. In fact it is certainly significant, as observed by E. N. Anderson in The Food of China (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988) that ‘the most widespread words in the world—borrowed into virtually every language—are the names of the four great caffeine plants: coffee, cacao, cola, and tea’. So there can be no question: it is the power of caffeine, and in the case of cacao, of caffeine and theobromine, that sets these botanicals apart from ordinary comestibles and enables them to substitute for gold or silver.
Bonnie K. Bealer and Bennett A. Weinberg are experts on the subject of caffeine and its effects and are the authors of The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug and The Caffeine Advantage: How to Sharpen Your Mind, Improve Your Physical Performance, and Achieve Your Goals–the Healthy Way.