by Dave DeWitt
Christopher Columbus “discovered” chile peppers in the West Indies on his first voyage to the New World. In his journal for 1493, he wrote, “Also there is much Aji, which is their pepper, and the people won’t eat without it, for they find it very wholesome. One could load fifty caravels a year with it in Hispaniola.”
Illustration by Cyd Riley.
Dr. Diego Chanca, the fleet physician for Columbus on his second voyage, wrote in his journal that the Indians seasoned manioc and sweet potatoes with Aji, and that it was one of their principal foods. Of course, both Columbus and his doctor believed that they had reached the Spice Islands, the East Indies. Not only did Columbus misname the Indians, he also mistook chiles for black pepper, thus giving them the inaccurate name “pepper.” But he did one thing right‑‑he transported chile seeds back to Europe after his first voyage, which began the chile conquest of the rest of the world.
Explorers who followed Columbus to the New World soon learned that chiles were an integral part of the Indians’ culinary, medical, and religious lives. In 1526, just 34 years after Columbus’ first excursion, El Capitan Gonzalo de Oviedo noted that on the Spanish Main, “Indians everywhere grow it in gardens and farms with much diligence and attention because they eat it continuously with almost all their food.”
Bernabe Cobo, a naturalist and historian who traveled throughout Central and South America in the early seventeenth century, estimated that there were at least 40 different varieties. He wrote that there were “some as large as limes or large plums; others, as small as pine nuts or even grains of wheat, and between the two extremes are many different sizes. No less variety is found in color…and the same difference is found in form and shape.” In Peru, he noted that next to maize, Aji was the plant most beloved by the Indians.
Chile peppers were such a novelty to the explorers that rumors were rampant about their medical properties. The Jesuit priest, poet, and historian, Jose de Acosta, wrote in 1590, “Taken moderately, chile helps and comforts the stomach for digestion.” The priest undoubtedly had heard rumors about the reputed aphrodisiac qualities of chiles because he continued his description of chile with the following warning: “But if they take too much, it has bad effects, for of itself it is very hot, fuming, and pierces greatly, so the use thereof is prejudicial to the health of young folks, chiefly to the soul, for it provokes to lust.” Despite the good father’s suspicions, the only thing lustful about chiles was the desire everyone, including the Spanish, had to devour them.
When the Spanish forces under Cortez arrived in Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in 1519, they were astounded by the size and complexity of the market at the great plaza of Tlatelolco. According to descriptions by Bernal Daz del Castillo, it resembled a modern flea market, with thousands of vendors hawking every conceivable foodstuff and other products. The noise of the market could be heard three miles away, and some of the soldiers who had traveled to such places as Rome and Constantinople said it was the largest market they had ever seen. Every product had its own section of the market, and chiles were no exception; they were sold in the second aisle to the right. Sometimes chiles were used as a form of money to buy drinks or other small items.
Most of the chiles sold in the market had been collected as tribute, a form of taxation used by the Toltecs and Aztecs and later adopted by the Spanish. The payers of the tribute were the macehuales, the serfs or commoners; the collectors were Indian officials, or later on, Indian officials who worked for the Spanish. The tribute consisted of locally produced goods or crops that were commonly grown, and the tribute of each village was recorded in boxes on codices of drawn or painted pictographs.
According to many sources, chiles were one of the most common tribute items. The chiles were offered to the government in several different forms: as fresh or dried pods, as seed, in two hundred-pound bundles, in willow baskets, and in Spanish bushels. After the chile and the rest of the produce was moved to the capital, it was stored in warehouses and closely guarded, and then sold. Chile peppers were considered to be the most valuable of the tributes.
One of the most famous tribute codices is the Matricula de Tributos, which is part of the Mendocino Codex. This codex was compiled for the first viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, who ordered it painted in order to inform the Emperor Charles V of the wealth of what is now Mexico. Glyphs on the codex indicate the tribute paid to the Aztecs by conquered towns just before the Spanish conquest; the towns on one tribute list (what is now San Luis Potosi) gave 1,600 loads of dry chile to the imperial throne each year!
The Mendocino Codex also reveals an early use of chile peppers as form of punishment. One pictograph shows a father punishing his 11-year-old son by forcing him to inhale smoke from roasting chiles. The same drawing shows a mother threatening her 6-year-old daughter with the same punishment. Today, the Popolocan Indians who live near Oaxaca punish their children in a similar manner.
Wherever they traveled in the New World, Spanish explorers, particularly non-soldiers, collected and transported chile seeds and thus further spread the different varieties. And not only did they adopt the chile as their own, the Spanish also imported foods that they combined with chiles and other native ingredients to create even more complex chile cuisines.
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