In 1502, Columbus set sail on his fourth and final voyage to the Americas. As usual, he was trying to get to Asia. He believed that the islands of the Caribbean were just off shore from China and Japan. His first landfall was in the Bay Islands, about 30 miles north of Honduras. As his ship sat at anchor, the crew saw a tremendous dugout canoe.
Columbus’s son, Ferdinand, reported that the canoe was filled with a cargo of almond-like beans. He was amazed to see that the natives valued the bean so highly that when one dropped, they all stooped to pick it up as if an eye had fallen. It was a Maya trading canoe, and it carried a cargo of cacao beans, which the Mayans used as money. Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans to come in contact with the source of chocolate.
The Maya dominated the east coast of Central America from 250 to 900 AD. Their culture, art and architecture were on a level with that of ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy. They were also great chocolate masters.
An illustration on an 8th century vase from northern Guatemala shows a Mayan king seated on his throne, below him a vase for chocolate drinks. The Maya used chocolate during important negotiations, like cementing marriage relationships or negotiating for a bride.
The Aztecs learned about chocolate and cacao from the Maya. And both cultures worshiped the god who gave chocolate to the world.
It wasn’t a drink for ordinary people. It was a drink for the elite, and had a sanctified aspect. It was consumed symbolically as human blood, similar to communion wine.
When the Spaniards first arrived in Mexico, they saw people drinking chocolate so they tried it. They thought it was horrible. In fact, it tasted and looked so disgusting to them that they had thought it was basically “fit for pigs.” It made your mouth black. Or if they mixed it up with a red spice called achiote, it made your mouth ominously red. It wasn’t until later that they realized how good it was.
The first person to call the Americas “the New World” was an Italian living in Spain. In 1516, he wrote a book called “The New World.” It described the events that were taking place in Mexico and the Caribbean, including the use of cacao beans as currency. He called their money Happy Money because they did not pull the earth apart searching for gold and silver the way the explorers did. Their money grew on trees.