In honor of Columbus Day–or Indigenous Peoples’ Day, depending on your location–we are going to reflect back on a classic historical misunderstanding between Christopher Columbus and indigenous Mesoamericans. We have previously remarked on Columbus’s misidentification of red chili pepper as a relative of black pepper, but he didn’t stop there, he also had some issues when identifying that vital ingredient of chocolate–the cocoa bean!
On August 15, 1502, during his fourth and final voyage to the New World, Columbus encountered a large boat near an island off the coast of what is today Honduras. It was the largest indigenous vessel he had yet seen, measuring “as long as a galley, 8 feet wide, and with 25 paddlers with palm roof.” It was laden with various goods for trading, along with a number of dried cacao beans. Cacao beans actually have a very thin membrane or shell that surrounds them that will be removed before they are made into chocolate. However, while the beans still wear this light shell, they do rather closely resemble almonds and that is exactly what Columbus mistook them for.
Columbus’s son, Fernando would later write about that encounter, observing that the indigenous Mesoamericans “seemed to hold these almonds [referring to the cacao beans] at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen.” Columbus and his party could tell that these beans held great value to these people–they were actually a form a currency–and since these beans looked somewhat like almonds, he assumed they were simply another almond variety as yet unknown in Europe.
Columbus ultimately brought some cacao beans with him to the Spanish court, but they paled in comparison to the other, more metallic, riches brought back with him, and the cacao beans were dismissed by the Spaniards for the time being.