- Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World
Among the defining ambitions of Atlantic history is to elaborate the ways that various exchanges between the Old and New Worlds were reciprocal in character—a goal that is fully realized throughout Marcy Norton's outstanding new book. Hers is a history of commodities, but in the fullest sense of the term; that is, the exchanges she describes are often more cultural in nature than they are economic. Norton deftly demonstrates that tobacco and chocolate quickly came to serve as "a bridge between material and symbolic levels of experience" for early modern Europeans (p. 9), mirroring the role they had long played in Mesoamerican cultures. Beginning her study with the initial encounters of the Spanish with indigenous Americans during the early sixteenth century, she mines a variety of texts to show how the conquistadores shared in the "material grammar" of tobacco-smoking [End Page 748] rituals that "signaled peace" (p. 50); similarly, they also first "tasted chocolate in the context of diplomacy" (p. 51). Europeans' precarious status in the Americas often made such "role-playing" necessary for establishing good relations with natives, even as their "mimesis" subtly undermined imperial civilizing ideologies (p. 48). At the same time, Norton traces the creative adjustments that native peoples made in order to retain a prominent place for tobacco and chocolate in their besieged societies as the Spanish consolidated their power over Central and South America.
Most of her book, however, is devoted to the reception of these "new" commodities among the Spanish. The fourth chapter examines the changes they helped engender among migrants to the New World, the criollos (creoles) whose embrace of tobacco and chocolate was often condemned as a slippery slope toward "going native." But Norton's study pays greater attention to the gradual but erratic absorption of these Amerindian goods into Spanish home culture. Working in the vein of historians like Anthony Pagden, Norton shows how Spanish intellectuals deployed indigenous peoples' uses of her titular commodities as a lens for understanding and even critiquing their own society. In his famous 1530 treatise, for example, Peter Martyr described native exchanges of cacao as a form of "happie money," which he portrayed as the "antithesis" of the Old World's "destructive greed" for gold (p. 53). Here as elsewhere in Norton's account, chocolate usually tended to fare better in transplanted contexts than did tobacco: its less threatening theological connotations allowed its acceptance as "benign, neutral material culture" more easily assimilated into Christian traditions (p. 78), as when the Church authorized its consumption on liturgical fast days.
The reception of tobacco (which receives more attention in the book than does chocolate) was much more ambivalent. In early accounts like Martyr's, tobacco was usually "aligned with native depravity" (p. 55). Despite well-publicized efforts like those of the Sevillian physician-merchant Nicolás Monardes in the 1570s to "reconcile … tobacco's therapeutic potential with its well-imprinted suspect associations" to pagan idolatry (p. 118), Norton argues that the long-term persistence of these heathen connotations delayed tobacco's acceptance into mainstream European culture until the early seventeenth century, at which point its "penetration … into Atlantic-bordering European countries was more or less simultaneous" (p. 155). Here Norton probably overstates the time lag involved in tobacco's popular diffusion throughout Europe. (Not until her epilogue does she mention that the plant's use and cultivation spread rapidly throughout Asia and Africa during the [End Page 749] sixteenth century.) In fact, there is considerable evidence—most notably, from Elizabethan England—indicating that tobacco was fairly well established among Western European consumers by the 1580s. Protestant cultures like England and the Netherlands lacked some of the theological scruples that inhibited tobacco's acceptance in Catholic Iberia, so perhaps Norton's insistence is partly a function of her book's exclusive emphasis on Spain and its New World dominions. (Let this be fair warning to anyone expecting Norton...