Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World

December 18, 2008

Visitors to Seville mindful of Carmen still wend their way past the massive Royal Tobacco Factory, which was once capable of producing three quarters of the cigars smoked in Europe (and is now part of the University of Seville). It was there, according to the 19th-century traveller Richard Ford, that the factory girls, "more impertinent than chaste", rolled the cigars on their thighs. Maybe these visitors then halt at a churreria for a cup of the thick, fragrant chocolate that is properly prepared only in Spain and Mexico. Behind the tobacco and the chocolate lies a fascinating social history well expounded by Marcy Norton.

Her theme is not simply the trade in tobacco and chocolate but the role they played in wider society on both sides of the Atlantic, so she begins with a discussion of the significance of these products in native American society. Tobacco, as is well known, attracted the attention of the first European explorers; the first Spanish governor of Cuba, Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, used to hold his own tobacco parties. It is not always easy to be sure whether the herbs described in the earliest European accounts were tobacco: they were smoked, chewed, sniffed, and they certainly included the hallucinatory drug known as cohoba favoured by medicine men on Hispaniola. Norton is undiscriminating about this, for there is surely something interesting in the fact that tobacco, but not other weeds, was adopted by the Europeans.

What she does express clearly is the disapproval that Europeans felt for Indians who induced trances with these herbs. Here was evidence of savagery. Cohoba trances enabled Indians to speak to the gods. Nothing could provide clearer proof that they were bewitched; a path was being laid that led to wider accusations of devilry among Native Americans. Tobacco, a late-16th-century writer wisely opined, generated "a nefarious, foul smoke that appears like a volcano or the mouth of hell". And yet the same writer was puzzled to find that it seemed to cure many illnesses. Just as the explorers saw good and bad in the native peoples of the Americas, they saw good and bad in tobacco.

Chocolate has a happier story. Norton shows how chocolate was understood in Europe to define the grandeur of central American civilisation. Chocolate was drunk as a "wine" and was fit for kings. Both products began to be shipped in quantity only a century after Columbus' first voyage, along trade routes managed by adept Portuguese merchants; they helped create the massive royal tobacco monopoly. In the second half of the 17th century, more than 1,600,000 pounds of cacao arrived in Seville from Venezuela and central America; official tobacco imports were almost as massive.

Norton shows how these products were integrated into the life of Early Modern Europeans. The traditional flavourings of Mexican chocolate, which included chilli, were replaced by sugar. For a long while, it remained the custom to whisk the chocolate and create a foam, just as the Aztecs used to do.

Norton's attention to the wider social setting sometimes leads her off at a tangent, and she is generally careful not to claim a central role for chocolate and tobacco in the broader social transformations she describes; but part of the attraction of this lively, vivid book is its wide range. Overall, the book offers an original picture of how, through chocolate and tobacco, America conquered Europe.

Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World

By Marcy Norton
Cornell University Press
352pp
£17.95
ISBN 9780801444937
Published 1 November 2008

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