• Nick Charlie Key

Piracy, Witches & Hot Chocolate

In the year 1672 one of the most famous books on botany was published in England. It’s author was a man named William Hughes, and to anyone who knew him he was seemingly nothing more than a simple gardener. He loved plants of all kinds and was by this stage in his life, working on the country estate of the Viscountess Conway. He had already published a book solely devoted to grapevines. But when this new book hit the shelves, it revealed an entirely different side to William Hughes that no-one would have expected. You see, for most of his early life, William Hughes had been a pirate.

He had had no idea at the time that his book would make him somewhat of a celebrity in the late 1600s, but nevertheless it did, and for one very particular reason, chocolate.

William had set sail for the America’s sometime in the 1630s and at this stage, he had never even heard of cacao at all. Now, before some of you think I’m simply pronouncing the word cocoa weirdly, there is a simple but important difference between the two. Cacao is the word referring to the plant, indigenous to South America as well as the name given to the beans from this plant. Once these beans have been roasted and ground up, then it becomes known as cocoa, as in cocoa powder, the delicious essence of any hot chocolate drink.

William Hughes however, had never seen nor heard of either of these. He was British after all and they were extremely late to the game in the exploration and consequently unfortunate exploitation of the peoples and land there. They were firmly in Spains shadow when it came to cross atlantic exploration. Even so, his eventual bestselling botanical treatise would become one of the very first accounts in the English language of the planting and production of cacao.

But back to the 1630’s we go and we find Hughes aboard a pirate ship sailing the crystal blue waters of the caribbean. They of course didn’t like to call themselves pirates, they preferred the term privateers, as they had a sort of government-sponsored sanction to prey upon vessels from rival nations. They sailed from island to island, from Florida to Jamaica and everywhere in between, capturing and plundering ships as they went. William, being a young man at this time still, was a rather low ranking pirate aboard his ship. Because of this he was given alternately the more dangerous jobs or the most boring ones. One of these jobs ticked both boxes for most pirates, and consequently was the one given to William. This job involved being sent out in a small dinghy from the main ship to explore unknown coastlines for places to land, food to eat and fresh water to drink. But William Hughes was not like most pirates. He had a deep fascination for plants, and these excursions allowed him the time and space to fully indulge his hobby. He would stumble upon plants that he had never seen before and some that he could never have even dreamt about. He made notes about various crops such as sugarcane, limes and prickly pears, of which he wrote: “sucking large quantities of prickly pear coloureth the urine purple”. And now some of you have just discovered a new party trick.

But these entries paled in comparison to his love for a fruit which he described as the “deservedly esteemed, chief ingredient of a drink named Chocolate.” He dubbed it The American Nectar and for him it became symbolic of the lush riches of the so-called New World.

William Hughes was by no means the first European to discover chocolate, not by a long shot. That honour was given to one of the most famous explorers in history more than a hundred years earlier. On his fourth voyage to the Americas, Cristopher Columbus ran into a canoe of native Hondurans packed to the brim with cacao beans. He didn’t know what they were at the time, mistaking them for a different species of almond, or indeed how valuable they were to the local people. Christopher Columbus’ son Ferdinand wrote the following in his diary:

"In the boat were many of the almonds which the Indians of New Spain use as currency. These Indians in the canoe valued them 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."

To the locals, cacao was money and it quite literally grew on trees. There are accounts of slaves being purchased for one hundred beans, and even counterfeiters filling empty cacao shells with dried clay to fool unsuspecting merchants.

While the Europeans were ignorant of the value and popularity of chocolate, the indigenous Central American tribes knew better. Artefacts found in what is now Columbia are packed with imagery and even physical traces of cacao. These artefacts date back to at least 1400 BC and show the remains of cacao having been fermented, crushed and consumed with hot water on special ceremonial occasions.

The hot chocolate drink that we know today is nothing quite like how the ancient civilizations used to make it though. They would add vanilla, honey and even edible flowers into the rich and frothy mixture. They would also add a touch of annatto to the drink. Annatto is a fine powder made from the ground up seeds of the achiote tree. The seeds were red as bricks and gave the foamy chocolate drink a bright red colour which to them symbolised blood. This was their way of expressing just how important cacao was to them, that it is of equivalent importance to the very life blood that runs in their veins.

The first recorded encounter of a European being offered the bitter beverage was in 1518. A group of Spanish explorers was introduced to a tribe somewhere in the Caribbean that was of Mayan descent. The Spaniards were invited to dine with them and were served a Turkey stew with corn tortillas, finished off at the end with a warm cacao drink. The first two elements were met with delight, the drink however was politely consumed at the meal but widely regarded amongst the men as having been too bitter for the European palates. To them it was an incredibly strange drink that they had no desire to ever have again.

This was a sentiment shared by many explorers who would follow in their footsteps, with most Europeans absolutely hating the taste of it. An Italian traveler by the name of Benzoni was traveling in Nicaragua when he was first introduced to the drink. After having tasted it, he wrote in his diary that the hot chocolate drink was “more fit for pigs than humans.” Another traveler, a Jesuit this time, compared the sacred foam to faeces. Although I’m quite sure he didn’t say that to their faces.

It took a hundred years or so of trade and settlement before the European taste buds started to grow accustomed to the bitter flavour. It is theorised that this was as a result of the Spaniards having decades of diplomatic meetings with the locals and their leaders. At each of these meetings they were served chocolate and sipped it according to custom continuously throughout. After a while these habits were taken on and passed down into the new settlements. There was also the added side effect of the mild caffeine hit, as yet unexperienced in Europes coffee-less society, which gave them a rather enjoyable buzz. It was the perfect precursor to the massive caffeine hit they had in store for them when coffee made its way to Europe in the mid to late 17th century.

By whichever circumstances chocolate became famous, it took Spain by storm. By the early 1600’s it was being sold in the streets by travelling merchants and chocolate houses (like modern day coffee shops) were popping up on every street corner. From here it was disseminated throughout the continent and beyond by missionaries, traders and explorers to far off lands. England however was caught in a love affair with their own newly discovered drink from Asia, Tea.

Back to our intrepid pirate botanist William Hughes who would, at this time, be the man to enlighten them. By the time he arrived in the Americas, Spain was already well and truly committed to their chocolate habit. Hughes was fascinated by it and described in eye-watering detail, the vast variety of ingredients the drink could include. There are too many to read from this list, but think about any well stocked spice rack and fruit bowl, then just start picking combinations at random and you’ve made yourself a fresh and invigorating cup of frothy chocolate.

By this point, all of the major South American empires had fallen, hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples traded or murdered by European guns. To fill their need for labour, and with the native populations dwindling, they began importing slaves from Africa to work the fields and plantations. Out of this intermingling of multi-continental cultures came the new, sweeter and more palatable hot chocolate that is the ancestor of what we know today.

In the end, and as is so often the case, it was all thanks to the ladies of this new culture who really made the drink their own, refining the taste for the men they worked for as well as the men they lived with. It was the knowledge passed on to him by these proud women that presented Hughes with the information he would take back home with him. Hughes was a pirate, yes but one who through conversation alone, managed to bring back to England one of the worlds greatest treasures.


Let me set the scene for you. We find ourselves in Guatemala in the 1600’s. The society has been heavily Catholicised from their Spanish invaders and subsequently their view on marriage and relationships has become heavily influenced by this fact. The night is warm, humid and the moisture in the air has formed into a low hanging mist that slowly rolls in over the mountains surrounding the city of Santiago de Guatemala. A young woman of mixed heritage has spent this very night with her first ever lover. Her name is Melchora de los Reyes, and now she is no longer a Doncella, unfortunately for her, this also means that she has become ineligible for marriage.

This is a very big deal. For women in this time, marriage was their security net and there’s no way Melchora would have just given it up like that for a one night stand. There’s no way of really knowing what she was thinking of course, whether she lost herself in the moment, or if her lover made her promises that he would be the man to marry her. Whatever the case may have been, that man decided in fact that he would not marry her.

Melchora de los Reyes was inconsolable. She had been lied to, left alone and worse had been rendered unfit for marriage in the eyes of her community. But all was not lost, there was still one ray of hope that could save her from all of this, and it was something many women before her had done as well. She went to a small hut, just outside of town to where a woman known as La Hechizera lived. This woman was a sorcereress and she had a vast array of potions and magical mantras for sale to women who found themselves confronted by unfaithful lovers, runaway husbands and even a cure for unrequited love.

Melchora was given a small parcel of special powders and in order to bring her lover under her spell, she was told to mix them into his morning cup of hot chocolate. She took the parcel home and the next day did as she was told. Somehow, the man wised up to what had happened and reported her to the Spanish Inquisition for being a witch. She was quickly arrested and taken away. This series of events came as a surprise to her, but if there’s one thing we’ve learnt from Monty Python, it’s this: no-one expects the Spanish inquisition.

De los Reyes was just one of many women tried for witchcraft in Latin American during this time. And many of them were also specifically accused of bewitching people through the use of magical Hot Chocolate.

For ages, hot chocolate was believed to have it’s own inbuilt magical properties. The Mayan ruler Montezuma used to drink hot chocolate every evening as an aphrodisiac as he believed it gave him strength and stamina. But by now, Hot chocolate had become an everyday drink, no longer the reserve of high born royalty or diplomats. As mentioned earlier it was prepared only by the women in the community and this led to a sense of fear at times amongst the men, as they never quite knew what the women could be putting into it.

It was this very fear that led a man by the name of de Fuentes to report his wife Cecilia to the Spanish Inquisition as well. He told them of how she had snuck magical powder into his Hot Chocolate and subsequently he was no longer able to, uh, stand at attention shall we say. He claimed he also felt himself compelled to be the one making the hot chocolate for his wife, an unthinkable act for a man of this era. The inquisition was inclined to agree with him, for a man to have the desire to serve his wife breakfast in bed could only be the work of the devil himself. They need not investigate any further, Cecilia was sent immediately to jail.

The records unfortunately don’t say what became of Melchora de los Reyes, but after all, the officials of the time weren’t concerned about the welfare of a woman who been pushed over the edge of hopelessness by an unfaithful and uncaring man. In their eyes she was a threat to men everywhere, and one they needed to make sure wouldn’t poison anyone else ever again. But, for as long as we can still tell their stories, why don’t we all raise a mug of hot chocolate to the memories of these strong and resourceful women.


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