Published On: Sun, Apr 13th, 2014

Columbus Meets the Maya and Chocolate

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Columbus Meets the Maya and Chocolate

By Robert D. Temple

Read introduction to the series here

On July 30, 1502, Bartolomé Colón landed on the north shore of Guanaja Island, off the coast of Honduras, and encountered a large vessel loaded with trade goods.  Bartolomé brought the news back to his older brother, and — Columbus being Columbus — the Admiral took ship and crew as his captives.  It was the first contact between Spanish and Maya people.

Columbus was on his fourth voyage to the New World and in a desperate situation.  In his previous role as Viceroy and Governor of the Indies, he had administered the colonies in Hispaniola with tyranny, brutality, and incompetence.  A new governor sent him back to Spain in chains, and he remained imprisoned for some weeks before pleading his case before King Fernando and Queen Isabel and obtaining release.  Stripped of his titles and now something of an embarrassment to the court, Columbus finally received grudging permission to make another trip across the Atlantic.  Spain had suffered a humiliating defeat by the Portuguese, who had won the race to the East Indies by sailing around Africa, and Columbus promised to make amends by finding the elusive westward passage.

The Admiral sailed from Cádiz on May 11, 1502, with four ships, Capitana (flagship), Santiago de Palos, Gallega, and Vizcaína, accompanied by his brother, Bartolomé, and his thirteen-year-old son, Fernando.  After stops in Morocco, Martinique, Hispaniola, and Jamaica, the fleet reached the Bay Islands off Honduras.  The explorers found Guanaja inhabited by the Paya people, whom they described as somewhat more advanced than the natives of the Antilles.  Columbus claimed everything for Spain, and called the place Isla de Pinos, a name quickly forgotten.

The Maya seafarers offered no resistance to the Spaniards.  The trading vessel had come from the west, from Yucatán.  It was eight feet wide and as long as the Spanish ships — some fifty or sixty feet.  Made from the trunk of a single ceiba tree, it had a palm-leaf structure amidships, “like a Venetian gondola,” that gave protection from sun, rain, and waves.  It probably featured raised, curved bow and stern of the type depicted in post-classic Maya murals.  Twenty-five men made up the crew of paddlers, and an unstated number of women and children were aboard.  They wore decent clothing, unlike the Antilleans, who mostly went naked.  Columbus realized they represented a higher level of civilization than any he had previously seen in America.

Maya traders had long-established routes and relationships throughout Mesoamerica.  At the time of the Spanish contact, a group of Chontal-speaking Maya called the Putún dominated trading from their great center at Xicalango, at the entrance to the Laguna de Términos, in what is now southwestern Campeche state.  Yucatán exported salt, salted fish, cotton fabrics, ceramics, honey, beeswax, marine shells, and stingray spines, receiving a wide array of utilitarian and luxury goods in exchange.  Boats engaged in extensive coast-wise trade around the peninsula and up the major rivers, into Mexico and Central America, well beyond the Maya cultural area.  Inland, Maya traders had a strong presence as far away as Cacaxtla, north of Puebla.

According to an account written by Columbus’ son, Fernando, the large vessel that they encountered carried abundant baggage and trade goods, the “costliest and handsomest” of which were beautifully worked “cotton mantles and sleeveless shirts embroidered and painted in different designs and colors.”  The cargo also included “long wooden swords edged with flint” and “flint knives that cut like steel” (both probably made with razor-sharp obsidian glass, not flint); bread (tortillas?); earthenware of fine quality; and copper goods including cups, bells, and hatchets.  The Maya also had kind of beer made from fermented corn, a beverage now called cheba.  Young Fernando drank some and gave it a favorable report.

Notably, the traders also carried “almonds,” “and these the Indians in the canoe valued greatly, for I noticed that when they were brought aboard with the other goods, and some fell to the floor, all the Indians stooped to pick them up as if they had lost something of great value.”  These “almonds” were cacao beans, widely used as currency in Mesoamerica — and as a beverage by the elite who could afford to drink money.  It was the first exposure of Europeans to chocolate.

Maya Canoes: Mural, Temple of the Warriors, (Chichén Itzá)

Maya Canoes:
Mural, Temple of the Warriors, (Chichén Itzá)

Impressed with “the great wealth, civilization, and industry of these people,” Columbus began to think that at last he was about to reach the long-sought riches of the East Indies.  The captive traders reported, by signs and through a Taino man the Spanish had brought as an interpreter, the existence of a land, several days’ journey distant, with abundant gold, pearls, and spices.  The Spanish were beginning to learn that this was a typical ploy to induce them to move on, to go away.

With this information, or misinformation, Columbus released all the Maya trading party except for one older man, who seemed to be their captain.  With whatever persuasion or force required, the man went with the Spanish as a guide and interpreter.  He told them his name was Yumbé or Iumba — possibly an obscenity — though Columbus renamed him Juan Pérez.

Strangely enough, Columbus did not follow up and investigate the advanced and interesting trading civilization revealed by this encounter.  Instead, the Admiral sailed east along the coast, soon reaching the limit of the territory where Yumbé’s language was understood.  The Spaniards reported sending him home with gifts, well satisfied.

Finding the source of the Maya trade goods just would not have been good enough for Columbus at this point in his career.  He was consumed with the need to redeem himself by finding a passage through to the South Sea and the Lands of Spices.  He went on to spend unsuccessful months looking for an opening to the west, exploring what is now the Caribbean coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.  Running out of options, he seems to have clutched at a straw.  At the mouth of the Belén River, about 75 miles west of present Colón, Panama — the city named for him — he picked up rumors of gold mines and a strait to another ocean.  In January 1503, he established a garrison of eighty men to hold the area until he could bring reinforcements from Spain.

That last-ditch plan collapsed under an attack by the local Guaymí people, and in April Columbus and his men abandoned the settlement attempt.  The ships sustained storm damage in the Caribbean, and the unfortunate Spaniards remained stranded on Jamaica for a year.  Help finally arrived from Hispaniola, and Columbus landed back in Spain on November 7, 1504.  He never returned to America and died eighteen months later, about 54 years old.

If the Admiral of the Ocean Sea had followed the obvious lead provided by his chance encounter with the Maya traders, he could have found his way to Yucatán and on to real wealth of America in Mexico, the route that Cortés took nearly twenty years later.  And the Old World might have begun to enjoy chocolate sooner.

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Guanaja Island is one of the three Bay Islands off the north coast of Honduras.  English pirates mispronounced the island’s name as Bonacca, and many of today’s residents, settlers from the Bahamas and Cayman Islands, still prefer that name.  Scheduled flights and ferries go to the island, and divers, snorkelers, and adventure travelers can enjoy several small resorts.

A Maya canoe, although much smaller than the one Columbus encountered, is displayed in the Museo de la Cultura Maya in Chetumal.  Murals in the Temple of the Warriors at Chichén Itzá depict canoes with raised, curved bows and sterns.

The ceiba (kapok, silk-cotton) tree — Ceiba pentandra, Mayan yaxché — is pan-tropical and common in Yucatán.  Its straight, columnar trunk, light gray or greenish and often studded with stout thorns, can grow to 200 feet tall and ten feet in diameter.  Other trees, such as mahogany and cedar, were also used for canoes, but it is especially easy to envision how a ceiba could become a huge dugout canoe.

Evidence of Maya wharves exists at several archeological sites around the coasts of Yucatán, although all are relatively undeveloped and difficult to visit.  Sites include Isla Cerritos, Vista Alegre, and Ichpaatún.

Of its many ancient trade goods, Yucatán still produces salt and honey.  A modern factory produces sea salt at Las Coloradas, on the north coast of the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, and there is a smaller-scale operation at Xtampú, just west of Telchac Puerto.  Salt works have existed at both places for thousands of years.  The local dark-colored wildflower honey is widely available, produced by traditional subsistence farmers as well as modern apiculturists.

The Cacao Museum, in Yucatán’s Ruta Pu’uc area, interprets the role of cacao in the Maya world.  And Mérida has wonderful chocolate shops!

 

Author photo jpg

Robert D. Temple, PhD, is the author of the award-winning bookEdge Effects and numerous  magazine articles, mostly dealing with matters of local history.  He lives in Yucatán, Ohio, and  Virginia.  Some of these articles appeared in slightly different form, under the title “Tales of the  Mayab,” in an anthology published by the Mérida English Language Library in 2013.

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