Early Spanish Encounters With The Divine Plant

This passage from Dr. William Mortimer’s classic “History of Coca” will give you some idea of the diversity of experiences that the early Spanish had with the divine plant that formed the basis of Inca Empire’s religious, economic and social life. As you can see, some were contemptuous, and some were ignorant, but many were also enlightened and some were overwhelmed with visions of the potential of this plant for both commerce and for the healing arts. 

The Incas regarded Coca as a symbol of divinity, and originally its use was confined exclusively to the royal family. The sovereign could show no higher mark of esteem than to gift of this precious leaf upon those he wished to endow with an especial mark of royal favor. So when neighboring tribes who had been conquered by the Incas, acknowledged their subjection and allegiance, their chiefs were welcomed with the rank of nobles to this new alliance and accorded such honors and hospitalities as gifts of rich stuffs, women and bales of Coca might impress.  

At the time of Mayta Ccapac – the fourth Inca, his queen was designated Mama Coca – “the mother of Coca,” as the most sacred title which could be bestowed upon her. From so exalted a consideration of the plant by royal favor, it was but a natural sequence that the mass of the people should regard Coca as an object for adoration worthy to be deemed “divine.”   

Cristoval Molina, a priest at the  hospital for the natives at Cuzco, from whose work we have drawn our account of the rites and festivals of the Incas, related the method of using Coca by high priests in conducting sacrifices, as Cieza with the material instinct of the soldier, saw only the physical or  superstitious element in the use of Coca  among the Indians, so this priest traced for us its spiritual association with the ceremonies of the people. Thus there was early interwoven the factors of prejudice and superstition, a popular adoration of the masses, and a blending of these with a religious regard for Coca, for the teachings of the Church were engrafted upon existing customs in order to hold the people.  

The first scientific knowledge of Coca published in Europe was embodied in the writings of Nicolas Monardes, a physician of Seville, in 1565, from material possibly gained from Cieza, though it would seem that he had intimately examined the Coca shrub. A translation of this work was made a few years later by Charles l’Ecluse – a botanist and director of the Emperor’s Garden at Vienna – which was published in Latin at Antwerp, and this is often quoted as the earliest botanical reference to Coca. The Kew Library possesses a translation of this book, “made into English” by John Frampton and printed in black letter with the curious title:  “Joyful News out of the Newe Founde Worlde, wherein is declared the Virtues of Hearbes, Treez, Oyales, Plantes and  Stones”.  

As showing the discernment in this botanical description of Coca made so many years ago, it may not be uninteresting to read a paragraph translated from the very language of Monardes :  

“This plant Coca has been celebrated for many years among the Indians, and they sow and cultivate it with much care and industry, because they all apply it daily to their use and pleasure. It is indeed of the height of two outstretched arms, its leaves somewhat like myrtle, but larger and more succulent and green (and they have, as it were, drawn in the middle of them another leaf of similar shape); its fruit collected together in a cluster, which, like myrtle fruit, becomes red when ripening and of the same size, and when quite ripe it is black in color. When the time of the harvest of the leaves arrives, they are collected in baskets with other things to make them dry, that they may be better preserved, and may be carried to other places.”

This description will hold equally good to-day. The peculiar leaf within a leaf arrangement formed by the curved lines on either side of the midrib, being a marked characteristic of Coca. When Hernando Pizarro returned to the court of his king, with the first fruits of the golden harvest from the New World, he probably took with him specimens of Coca. This plant could not have failed to have awakened at least the curiosity of the invaders, because of the numerous golden duplications of the Coca shrub and of its leaf that had been found in the gardens of the Temples of the Sun, at Cuzco and elsewhere among the royal domains of the Incas. So that whatever the prejudices may have been regarding the use to which  Coca was put by the Indians, these golden images at least would prove sufficient to excite admiration and comment.  

Another voluminous writer upon the early Peruvians is Joseph de Acosta, a Jesuit missionary who made a passage across the Atlantic in 1570, which he assures us: “would have been more rapid if the mariners had made more sail.”  After his arrival at Lima he crossed the Andes by the lofty pass of Pariacaca to join the Viceroy Toledo, with whom he visited every province. In the higher altitudes of the mountains the party suffered severely from the effects of the rarefied atmosphere, with which he was afterwards prostrated upon three successive occasions, while he also was severely annoyed from snow blindness, for which he relates a homely remedy offered him by an Indian woman, who gave him a piece of the flesh of the vicuña, saying, “Father, lay this to thine eyes, and thou shalt be cured.” He says: “It was newly killed and  bloody, yet I used the medicine, and presently the pain ceased, and soon after went quite away.”

Of Necessity, Some Spaniards Begin To See The Light 

Father Acosta was a man of great learning, an intelligent observer, and had exceptional opportunities for collecting his information. His work on the Natural History of the Indies ranks among the higher authorities. He has given a very extensive description of Coca, and, referring to its employment, says: “They bring it commonly from the valleys of the Andes, where there is an extreme heat and where it rains continually the most part of the year, wherein the Indians endure much labor and pain to entertain it, and often many die. For that they go from the Sierra and colde places to till and gather them in the valleys; and therefore there has been great question and diversity of opinion among learned men whether it were more expedient to pull up these trees or let them grow, but in the end they remained. The Indians esteemed it much, and in the time of the Incas it was not lawful for any of the common people to use this Coca without license from the Governor. They say it gives them great courage, and is very pleasing unto them. Many grave men hold this as a superstition and a mere imagination. For my part, and to speak the truth, I persuade not myself that it is an imagination, but contrawise I think it works and gives force and  courage to the Indians, for we see the effects which cannot be attributed to imagination, so as to go some days without meat, but only a handful of Coca, and other like effects. The sauce wherewith they do eat this Coca is proper enough, whereof I have tasted, and it is like the taste of leather. The Indians mingle it with the ashes of bones, burnt and beat into powder, or with lime, as others affirme, which seemeth to them pleasing and of good taste, and they say it doeth them much good. They willingly imploy their money therein and use it as money; yet all these things were not inconvenient, were not the hazard of the trafficke thereof, wherein so many men are occupied. The Lords Yncas used Coca as a delicate and royall  thing, which they offered most in their sacrifice, burning it in honor of their idols.” Again, when speaking of the importance of the trade in Coca, he says: ”It seems almost fabulous, but in truth the trafficke of Coca in Potosi doth yearly amount to above half a million of dollars; for that they use four score and ten or four score and fifteen thousand baskets every year.”

This extensive mining centre in the southern part of Bolivia is some three hundred miles south of Sandia, which is today the very heart of the Coca region of Caravaya. These mines were at an altitude of seventeen thousand feet, and Garcilasso says the Indians applied the term Potosi, literally “a hill” to all hills. In the Aymara tongue Potosi means, “he who makes a noise” and the Indians have a legend which suggests the derivation of the name from such a source. When  Iluayna Ccapac caused his people to search this mountain for silver, a great noise came from the hills warning the Indians away, as the protecting genius destined these riches for other masters. Within a short time after the Incas had discovered silver here over seven thousand Indians were at work mining the precious ore.    

Once the Spanish were secure in their governance they forced the Indians to labor in veritable slavery through an enactment which drafted a certain number from each of the adjoining provinces. This law, known as the mitta, instituted under Toledo, required all Indians between the ages of eighteen and fifty to contribute a certain labor, which amounted to eighteen months during the thirty-two years in which they were liable. For this they were paid twenty reals a week, and a half real additional for every league distant from the village of Potosi. During the year 1573 the draft of Indians for this labor amounted to 11,199,  while a hundred years later – in 1673 – it drew only 1,674, showing that cruelty and hardship had depopulated the province nearly ninety per cent.

So extensive were the mining operations at Potosi that the place had the appearance of a great city. Every Saturday the silver was melted down and the royal fifth was set aside for the Spanish crown, and although this amounted during the  years 1548 to 1551 to three million ducats, it was considered the mines were not well worked. In those times the markets or fairs were important functions, and that of Potosi was looked upon as the greatest in the world. It was held in the plains near the town, and there the transactions in one day were said to amount to from twenty-five to thirty thousand golden pesos. Coca being a prominent commodity in the reckoning, owing to its absolute necessity in the arduous work exacted from the Indians.

Because of this need the highest price was obtained for Coca in this region, where every indication was presented for its use – the extreme altitude of the mines, the mental dejection of slavery, and the enforced muscular task of the Indian with insufficient food. This labor was found to be utterly impossible without the use of Coca, so that the Indians were supplied with the leaves by their masters, just as so much fuel might be fed to an engine in order to produce a given amount of work. Garcilasso tells us that in 1548 the workers in these mines consumed 100,000 cestas of Coca, which were valued at 500,000 piasters.  

This absolute necessity was the sole reason for the Spanish tolerance to the continuance of Coca; they saw that it was indirectly to them a source of wealth, through enabling the Indians to do more work in the mines. As the demands of labor increased the call for Coca, situations for new cocals, where a supply of the plant could be raised to meet this want, were pushed further to the east of the Andes, in the region of the Montaña. To make favorable clearings numerous tribes of savage Indians, who had not been previously subdued by the Incas were driven from the Peruvian tributaries of the Amazon further into the forests.  

Agustin de Zarate, who was contador real or royal comptroller, under the first Viceroy, Blasco Nuñez Vela, in his history of the discoveries of Peru, in writing of Coca, says: “In  certain valleys, among the mountains, the heat is marvellous, and there groweth a certain herb called Coca, which the Indians do esteem more than gold or silver; the leaves thereof are like unto Zamake (sumach); the virtue of this herb, found by experience, is that any man having these leaves in his mouth hath never hunger nor thirst.”  

Garcilasso Inca de la Vega – as he delighted in terming himself – has very rightly been classed as an eminent authority on Incan subjects. His father, who was of proud Spanish ancestry, illustrious both in arms and literature, came to Peru shortly after the Conquest, served under Pizarro, and after the overthrow of the empire, when the Incan maidens were assigned to various Spanish officers, his choice fell upon the  niece of Inca Huayna Ccapac, who in some manner had been preserved from the massacre which had followed upon the death of her cousin, Atahualpa. It seems fitting that a son of such parentage should embody in his writings facts which he had obtained from both branches of the family tree, and because of this his work is accepted as a reliable presentation.

That this Incan author was well qualified to speak upon Coca there can be no doubt, for he owned an extensive cocal on the River Tunu, one of the tributaries of the Beni – which drains the Montaña for Pancartambo – where there are still numerous cocals. This plantation was started in the twelfth century during the reign of Inca Rocca, when that king sent his son with fifteen thousand warriors to conquer the savage tribes of Anti-suyu.  

Lloque Yupanqui advanced to the River Paucartambo and thence to Pillcu-pata, where four villages were founded, and from Pillcu-pata he marched to Havisca, and here in the year 1197 was located the first Coca plantation of the Montaña on the eastern base of the Andes. This Incan plantation became an inheritance of Garcilasso from his father, but was forfeited by the historian because of his parent’s early defection to the cause of Gonzalo.

And Then The Light Begins To Take Effect

The work of Garcilasso is interesting as embracing with the relation of others that of Father Bias Valera, whose manuscripts have since been lost, and in this embodied record we have the only available account of one who was a close observer of Incan customs during a residence of many years in  Peru. To the peculiar wording of the work of this author we may trace an oft-repeated error regarding the Coca shrub, which he describes as “a bush of the height and thickness of the vine.” Whether this designation of vine refers to the grape, which in some vineyards is grown as a low clump resembling a bush, or whether the term vine simply alludes to the delicate nature of the Coca shrub, can only be inferred. It has introduced a source of inaccuracy among some who have since drawn their description of the plant from this record. One author has even amplified this early comparison by saying that the Coca bush “twines about other plants for support.  

Valera, in describing the leaves of Coca, says: “They are known by Indians and Spaniards alike as Cuca, delicate, though not soft, of the width of the thumb and as long as half a thumb’s length, and of a pleasant smell.” In his day the Indians were so fond of Coca that they preferred it to gold, silver and precious stones. He has given us a careful account of the diligence which is necessary in the several stages of its  cultivation and the importance of the final gathering of the leaves, which he says, “they pick one by one by hand and dry them in the sun.” He, however, wrongly viewed the method of use, and supposed that the leaves were merely chewed for their flavor and that the juice was not swallowed.  

Referring to the general employment of Coca for a variety of purposes, he says: “Coca preserves the body from many infirmities, and our doctors use it pounded for applications to sores and broken bones, to remove cold from the body or to prevent it from entering, as well as to cure sores that are full of maggots. It is so beneficial and has such singular virtue in the cure of outward sores, it will surely have even more virtue and efficacy in the entrails of those who eat it !” Nor did this observant author fail to recognize another important use in which this famous plant was practically serviceable. A tax of one-tenth of the Coca crop was set apart for the clergy, of which he says: “The greater part of the revenue of the bishops and canons of the cathedrals of Cuzco is derived from the tithes of the Coca leaves.”  

There is a marked contrast between the open, conscientious manner of Valera’s writings with that of other Spanish authors, who displayed an abhorrence for all the customs of the Indians. Thus Cieza, reflecting this superstitious prejudice, tells us that the old men of every tribe actually conversed with the arch-enemy of mankind. Referring to the Incan rite of burying bags of Coca with their dead, as a symbol of support for the departed in a journey to the eternal home, he mockingly says, “as if hell was so very far off.” The good padre, in his appeal for the continuance of Coca, has shown a liberality for such a period of bigotry which might be well for the consideration of others in even this more enlightened age. Thus he writes:

“They have said and written many things against the little plant, with no other reason than that the Gentiles in ancient times, and now some wizards and diviners, offer Cuca to the idols, on which ground these people say that its use ought to be entirely prohibited. Certainly this would be good counsel if the Indians offered up this and nothing else to the devil, but seeing that the ancient idolaters and modem wizards also sacrifice maize, vegetables and fruits, whether growing above or under ground, as well as their beverage, cold water, wool, clothes, sheep and many other things, and as they cannot all be prohibited, neither should the Cuca. They ought to be taught to abhor superstitions and to serve truly one God, using all these things after a Christian fashion. Surely, an impartial judgment, which is worthy of present acceptation.” 

Garcilasso has added to this account some further particulars made familiar to him through his intimate acquaintance with the cultivation and care of Coca. In his quaint verbiage, which has possibly suffered through translation, he says of the shrubs: “They are about the height of a man, and in planting them they put the seeds into nurseries, in the same way as in garden stuffs, but drilling a hole as for vines. They layer the plants as with a vine. They take the greatest care that no roots, not even the smallest, be doubled, for this is sufficient to make the plant dry up. When they gather the leaves they take each branch within the fingers of the hand, and pick the leaves until they come to the final sprout, which they do not touch, lest it should cause the branch to wither. The leaf, both on the upper and under side, in shape and greenness, is neither more nor less than that of the arbutus, except that three or four leaves of the Cuca, being very delicate, would make one of arbutus in thickness. I rejoice to be able to find things in Spain which are appropriate for comparison with those of that country – that both here and there people may  know one by another. After the leaves are gathered they put them in the sun to dry. For they lose their green color, which is much prized, and break up into powder, being so very delicate, if they are exposed to damp, in the cestas or baskets in which they are carried from one place to another. The baskets are made of split canes, of which there are many of all sizes in these provinces of the Antis. They cover the outside of the baskets with the leaves of the large cane, which are more than a tercia wide and about half a vara ( 1 vara = 33 inches) long, in order to preserve the Cuca from wet, for the leaves are much injured by damp. The basket is then enveloped by an outer net made of a certain fibre.” Referring to the extreme care essential for its preservation,  this Incan author concludes: “In considering the number of things that are required for the production of Cuca, it would be more profitable to return thanks to God for providing all things in the places where they are necessary than to write concerning them, for the account must seem incredible.”

Father Thomas Ortiz, who accompanied Alonzo Niño and  Luis Guerra in their expedition in 1499, described the use of  Coca by the natives along the coast of Venezuela under the term “hayo”.  

Antonio de Herrera, who was royal historian under Philip II, drew his facts from correspondence with the conquistadors, and his history, which is divided into eight decades, covers the period of the Spanish discoveries. In speaking of the customs of the northern provinces, he refers to “the herb which on the coast of the sea is called hayo”. The word hayo has been shown to belong to the vocabulary of the Chibchas and is generally applied to Coca by several tribes bordering upon the northern coast of South America.

Among some of the earlier Spanish writings of this section Coca is alluded to as “hay,” and doubt has been expressed as to whether this is identical with hayo, presumably derived from agu, to chew; but the absence of the final vowel, according to a writer who is familiar with this region, does not signify, while it is absolutely certain that all the species of Erythroxylon which are today used in Venezuela and along the  Caribbean Sea are termed hayo. Even the Erythroxylon cumanense, HBK, is called by this name and not that of ceveso as mentioned in the description published by Kunth.  

The account which Ortiz gives of the plant used by the Indians of Chiribiche does not exactly correspond with the Coca shrub, though what he says of the leaves and their use among the Indians is correct. Gomara, in speaking of the customs of the Cumana, confirms the account given by Ortiz. At present Coca is not very extensively grown through Venezuela. The ancient cocals on the peninsula of Guajira are becoming extinct on account of excessive drought, while the cultivation of tobacco has proved a more profitable industry and is better adapted to the climate.

We know that prior to the Conquest the province of the  Incas extended north to Quito, having been conquered by Huayna Ccapac some years before for his father, Tupac Inca Yupanqui, by which conquest the powerful State of Quito, which rivaled Peru in wealth and civilization, was united to the Incan Empire. When Huayna Ccapac succeeded his father, this newly acquired kingdom became his seat of government, and here with his favorite concubine, the mother of Atahualpa, he spent the last days of his life. Because of this removal of imperial influence far from the original home of the empire at Cuzco may be attributed one source of the final weakness of the Incas, for it may be recalled that at the time of Huayna Ccapac’s death the kingdom, which now extended over such immense territory, was for the first time divided under two rulers, one-half being given to his son, Huasca, and the other half to his son Atahualpa. It therefore seems quite probable that as the interests of the government extended northward the customs of the  people of the lower Andes should follow, and be propagated among a people where similar conditions called for whatever  beneficial influence might be derived from the use of Coca.  From Quito travel northward, aided by the canoe navigation of the Cauca and Magdalena rivers, would rapidly carry the  customs of the people of the south to the northern coast,  where, as shown by early historical facts, commerce was so extensive as to favor the adoption of the habits of the interior.  

There are still many tribes along the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta who have preserved their ancient customs and habits from prehistoric times, for it is known that the Spanish were never able to completely attain possession of this region. It has been suggested that these Indians had never been subject to a king as were the Incas, while their country was so extremely fertile that when pursued by the Spanish they merely destroyed their homes and took up habitations elsewhere, depending upon a bountiful tropical vegetation for their support. In marked contrast to the Indians of New Grenada, the Peruvians were accustomed to subjection under their Lord Inca, and at the time of the Conquest they were obliged to  submit themselves to their new masters, for if they abandoned their homes and the lands which they had cultivated to flee to the barren mountains or snowy plains they must also give up their means for subsistence. Piedrahita speaks of the use of Coca along the northern coast, and says that the leaves were  chewed by the Indians without lime, an addition which he suggests was earned from the Incan domains to the northern  Indians by the Spaniards after the Conquest.

The expedition of the French mathematician La Condamine, which went to Quito in 1735 to measure an arc of the meridian in the neighborhood of the equator, and thus verify the shape of the earth, was made memorable through a host of important scientific discoveries, primary among which was the introduction  of many new plants into Europe; among these was caoutchouc or India rubber.  Accompanying this expedition was Antonio d’Ulloa,  a Spanish naval officer; Godin, Bouguer and the botanist, Joseph de Jussieu, whose name is associated with the classification of Coca. Condamine was the first man of science who examined and described the quinquina tree of Loxa, of which Linnӕus in 1742 established the genus Cinchona.

Jussieu travelled on foot as far as the forests of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, collecting botanical specimens from the richness of the Peruvian flora. Many of his exploratory trips were hazardous in the extreme, and in 1749, while crossing the Andes to reach the Coca region of the Yungas of Coroico, he  nearly lost his life. Added to the dangers of the route the glistening brilliancy of the sun reflected from the snow seemed  to threaten him with blindness. In the Arctic region travelers are subject to a similar discomfort, and commonly wear a visor-like protector to shield their eyes. The sun shade illustrated is carved from wood with slots cut beneath the peak to permit vision.

Jussieu sent specimens of the Coca shrub to Paris, and these, examined and described by the explorer’s brother Antoine, were afterward preserved in the herbarium of the Museum of Natural History there, and have served as classic examples of many subsequent studies of the plant. But the glory of meritorious labor pursued through great trial and privation was not to be enjoyed by this explorer. Just as many another collector before and since his time has suffered the loss of treasures when work was about completed, so this intrepid botanist lost the choice gatherings of fifteen years through robbery, under the belief that his boxes contained a more merchantable wealth than plants. In 1771, after an absence of thirty-four years, Jussieu was taken home, bereft of reason, as a result not alone of hardships, but from that unfulfilled desire which makes the soul sick, and he died in France, leaving many manuscripts, which are still unpublished.

The Jussieus were a family of botanists for several generations; contemporary with them were several noted naturalists who followed their classification. Among these, Augustin  Pyrame Candolle, of the College of France, and Antonio Jose  Cavanilles, a Spanish ecclesiastic, each described Coca from the examples which had been sent by Joseph.

Many interesting accounts have been written of the expedition of La Condamine, and as a result of these early researches several of the powers have been prompted to send botanical expeditions to the South American forests. Among these there is given in the writings of Captain Don Antonio d’Ulloa a brief account of the country of Popayan, in the jurisdiction of Timana. While following Father Valera’s  description of Coca, he adds: “It grows on a weak stem, which for support twists itself around another stronger vegetable  like a vine. The use the Indians make of it is for chewing, mixing it with chalk or whitish earth called mambi. They put into their mouths a few Coca leaves and a suitable portion of mambi, and chewing these together, at first spit out the saliva which that mastication causes, but afterwards swallow it, and thus move it from one side of the mouth to the other till its substance be quite derived, then it is thrown away, but immediately replaced by fresh leaves.”

He confounds Coca with betel, saying: ”It is exactly the same as the betel of the East Indies. The plant, the leaf, the manner of using it, its qualities, are all the same, and the Eastern nations are no less fond of this betel than the Indians of Peru and Popayan are of their Coca; but in other parts of  the province of Quito, as it is not produced, so neither is it used.” But he was conscious of the physiological effects of Coca from its employment, and wrote: “This herb is so nutritious and invigorating that the Indians labor whole days  without anything else, and on the want of it they find a decay in their strength. They also add that it preserves the teeth sound and fortifies the stomach.”  

The early writings upon Coca were not, however, all of foreign authorship. Peru numbered among her men of letters a noted physician and statesman who drew his facts from a keen observation of the people of whom he wrote. I refer to  Dr. Don Hipolito Unanue, of Tacna, whose name is intimately linked with the political and educational history of Peru. He published the Mercurio Peruano, the first number of which appeared in January, 1791, a paper which gave an impetus to the writings of his countrymen, in which there are many interesting details of Peruvian customs.

From his political interests in a land where insurrection was a common occurrence, Dr. Unanue could appreciate the advantage possible from the use of Coca in the army. He tells of an incident of the siege of La Paz, in 1771, when the inhabitants, after a blockade of several months, during a severe winter, ran short of provisions and were compelled to depend wholly upon Coca, of which happily there was a stock in the city. This apparently scanty sustenance was sufficient to banish hunger and to support fatigue, while enabling the soldiers to bear the intense cold. During the same war a body of patriot infantry, obliged to travel one of the coldest plateaus of Bolivia, found itself deprived of provisions while advancing in forced marches to regain the division. On their arrival only those soldiers were in condition to fight who had from childhood been accustomed to always carry with them a pouch of Coca.

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