A drawing of vanilla from the Florentine Codex, 16th Century

Vanilla flourished wild in the damp shade of Central America’s lowland forests long before humans discovered its tantalizing aroma and undertook its cultivation. It’s possible that the plethora of seemingly wild vanilla found today in southern Belize is vestigial, left behind by the Manche Chol Maya. Before we get going, it’s important to know that 500 years ago, a good cup of chocolate included not only cacao, but also annatto and vanilla. (But no sugar!)

Now let’s start with a bit of history.

Herman Cortes traversed Chol territory in 1525, cutting across what is now the southwest corner of Belize, at the end of a journey from the southern part of what is now the state of Veracruz on the gulf coast of Mexico. His chronicle of the entrada, a lengthy letter to Emperor Charles V, includes several references to the cacao he came across in the region. Cortes was well aware of the value placed on cacao by the indigenous peoples he encountered on his travels, having noted in an earlier letter to Charles V that “they use it as money throughout the land and with it buy all they need”. He had no idea, however, of the role that cacao would play, together with vanilla and annatto, in sustaining the local economy as the Spanish vied for domination of the Southern Maya Lowlands.

In the 16th and 17th Centuries, the Spanish attempted to subdue, by forced relocation and conversion to Catholicism and by use of the encomienda system, the Maya peoples who inhabited the Southern Maya Lowlands, an area made up of the southern parts of Campeche and Quintana Roo in Mexico, the Peten in Guatemala, and Belize. The Itza, who inhabited the central Peten, determinedly fought this fate and managed to retain their independence until the end of the 17th Century. The Itza elite consumed, for ritual purposes, great quantities of cacao- based beverages. While they grew a small amount of the three important ingredients for chocolate, cacao (Theobroma cacao),

Elite Maya enjoyment of cacao flavored with vanilla

annatto (Bixa orellana) and vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), it was only enough for local consumption on a small scale. Because of its soil and climate, the central Peten was an inhospitable place for growing cacao.

The Itza found a way to surmount their shortage of cacao, annatto and vanilla, and simultaneously bolster their own power base by taking control of both the production and trade of cacao, annatto and vanilla in a large area of Mexico and Central America. This control was retained right up until the Itza succumbed to Spanish domination in 1697.

Another group of Maya, the Chontal Maya of Acalan, which translates as “Place of Canoes”, were excellent seafarers, in control of extensive maritime trade routes that stretched east around the Yucatan peninsula and all the way down the coast to the important trading center of Nito on the Gulf of Honduras. They traveled these enormous distances to engage in the trade of luxury goods, including cacao, which they produced, and also feathers, jaguar pelts and slaves. In the wake of the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan, however, their trading activity ceased. The Itza stepped into the breach and reassembled the Chontal exchange system and resumed use of their trade routes.

Control of this trading system meant that the Itza were assured an uninterrupted supply of cacao, annatto and vanilla for their personal consumption. It must also have been very lucrative; numerous Maya fled south from the Spanish incursion on the Yucatan to resettle in locations close to Itza territory, thus creating new outlets for trade. The Itza went to any means necessary to maintain their power and control of their extensive trading system and to protect their territory from the advance of the Spanish. They bullied their neighbors, enslaving them, raping their women and sacrificing a hapless few who were fool enough to offer aid to the Spanish. In 1630, they viciously attacked the Manche Chol, ultimately inciting the Chol to revolt against Spanish domination. They warred with the Lacandon for control of the Salinas de los Nueve Cerros, the only source of salt in the region. They then used their control of this precious resource to force the Lacandon, and the Manche Chol to exchange their valuable commodities, including cacao, annatto and vanilla, for salt. It is the Manche Chol, who lived south and east of the Peten, with whom our story continues, as much of their territory was within what is present day southern Belize.

With its numerous fertile river valleys, Manche Chol territory was ideally suited to growing cacao. In their orchards, called pakab in the Cholti language, the Chol grew great quantities of cacao, annatto and vanilla. In 1620, the Dominican friar Gabriel de Salazar made a circuit around Central America that took him, among other places, the length of Belize, along the shoreline and through Chol territory. Salazar noted the large cacao and annatto orchards in the Chol villages along the coast of Belize: Yaxhal, Paliac, Campin and Tzoite. Chol territory continued, tracing a crescent shape, south and west away from these settlements to the towns of Manche, Chocahau, Yaxha and Yol (in present day Guatemala). From these villages, the Manche Chol would transport their precious cargo to the Itza capital of Noh Peten.

It was not only the Itza who forced the Manche Chol into trade; the Spanish got in on the action too, extorting cacao, annatto and vanilla from the Chol in exchange for overpriced metal tools and other wares. In fact, the Chol, surrounded by the Itza to the northwest, the Yucatec to the north and the Kek’chi and the Spanish of Verapaz to the southwest, managed to engage in trade with all their neighbors, some forcibly and some voluntarily. This attests to the value of the resources in the possession of the Manche Chol and illustrates that they must have intensively produced cacao, vanilla and annatto in order to be able to supply everyone around them.

In 1689, the Manche Chol were rounded up by the Spanish and forcibly relocated to the Valley of Urran in the Guatemala highlands. The terrain was absolutely foreign to them; J.E.S. Thompson made the observation that it was like banishing “Sicilians to the remoter highlands of Scotland”. It wasn’t long before they started to perish. In 1699 it was noted by Marcelo Flores, a Spanish captain, that some Chol still occupied what had been their lands in eastern Guatemala and southern Belize. In 1710 there were only four Manche Chol left in the town of Belen in the Valley of Urran. In Toledo West, the Chol quink (Chol man) is still remembered and venerated for his nearly supernatural abilities, by people whose ancestors arrived in southern Belize less than a century ago. This perhaps indicates that the Chol survived much longer than written history records, hidden in their own homes, shrouded by the towering rainforest, slipping into the dark undergrowth, gliding out of sight in rivers known best by them. Whatever the case, their ultimate disappearance meant the loss of their acumen with regard to the cultivation of vanilla.

When the Spanish forcibly relocated the Lacandon in 1695 and defeated the Itza in 1697, the cacao-based trading network collapsed. With no buyers for their vanilla, and the need to elude capture, the few remaining Chol certainly abandoned their farms. The encroaching bush would have quickly obliterated the annatto. Some cacao would have survived for many years; even today cacao is occasionally found growing near to ancient Mayan settlements in the Columbia River Forest Reserve. But the vanilla, unencumbered by the human need to keep it close to the ground for ease of pollination and harvesting, abandoned by the Chol who planted it, would have proliferated in the moist fertile valleys. Perhaps it is these vanilla plants, mute testimony to the rise and fall of a people, that we find today in southern Belize.

Belize Ag Report