Open main menu

Littell's Living Age/Volume 129/Issue 1671/Coca

From Chambers' Journal.


Coca, much talked about lately in connection with the doings of a wonderful pedestrian, is the leaf of the Erythroxylon coca, a climbing-plant, seldom attaining six feet in height, bearing small white flowers succeeded by red berries. The leaves, about an inch and a half long, are of a pale bright green and quite smooth, somewhat resembling those of the myrtle. When fit forgathering — an operation performed three or four times a year — they fall off at the slightest touch of the hand; and after being dried in the sun, are collected in baskets large enough to hold half a hundredweight of leaves. The plant is little known in this country.

Although strange to European experience, coca has been in high favour with the Indians of South America for centuries, as an infallible preventive of hunger and weariness. Peter de Cieza tells us the Peruvian Indians of his time, esteeming the coca-tree of far higher account than the best wheat, nourished it carefully in the mountains of the Andes, from Guamanga to the town of La Plata; and when they acquired a new piece of land, at once set about calculating how many baskets of coca it would yield. So great was the demand for it, particularly at the mines of Potosi, and so extensively was it cultivated, that in the years 1548, 1549, 1550, and 1551, the plantations gave an annual return to their proprietors of from forty thousand to eighty thousand "pieces of eight." This is not to be wondered at, considering that the Indians had such hearty faith in the virtues of coca, that, believing the more they ate of it the stronger they became, they were never seen without some leaves in their mouths, from the time they rose in the morning till the time they turned in for the night; while before setting out on a journey they took especial care to fill their leathern pouches with coca-leaves, and their calabashes with "a whitish sort of earth" to be eaten with them. The simple leaf sufficed their necessities at home, unless bent upon a little extra exhilaration, in which case they took tobacco-leaves and coca-leaves in combination.

An English gentleman staying at Jamaica in 1789, received from a Mr. Reader, who had just returned from a visit to Peru, a small horn spoon and a calabash containing about a pound of a white powder; accompanied with the information that the Indians, when travelling, took a spoonful of the powder whenever they felt hungry, and if thirsty as well, washed it down with a draught of water; and thus provided could compass a thousand miles afoot without requiring anything else in the way of refreshment. Upon examination the white powder proved to be nothing but lime from calcined oyster-shells; such as, many years later, Humboldt saw set out for sale in the public market at Popayan, for eating with dried coca-leaves, or for mixing with chewed leaves preparatory to being made up into pellets or pills.

Ulloa declares the Indians thought so much of cuca or coca, that rather than go without it, they would part with anything or everything they possessed. "They put," he says, "into their mouths a few coca-leaves and a suitable portion of a kind of chalk called membi, and chewing them together, at first spit out the saliva which that manducation causes, but afterwards swallow it; and then move it from one side of the mouth to the other, till the substance is quite drained." The herb, he avers, fortifies the stomach and preserves the teeth, and is so nutritive and invigorating, that the chewers of it could labour whole days without taking any other food. Another writer depones that coca-eaters can work for eight or ten days without sleeping, untroubled by hunger, thirst, or fatigue. After this we are not surprised to learn that the Bolivian Indians, who take coca from infancy, are able to hold their own easily with mule-mounted travellers. Such among them as have won for themselves a reputation as "good walkers" are employed to carry government despatches, being capable of accomplishing twenty leagues a day for several successive days with nothing to sustain their energies save coca and lipta — a preparation of cooked potatoes, pounded into a pulp and burned to ashes with a maize-cob, which imparts a pleasant saline flavour to the otherwise insipid coca-leaf.

The Indian and half-caste women of the Upper Amazons are given to indulge overmuch in ypadin, made by baking coca-leaves in an oven, pounding them in a wooden mortar until half-pulverized, and then mixing them with the ashes of the burnt leaves of the candelabrum-tree, in order to neutralize the evil effect of pure coca-powder. As coca-eating happens to be abhorrent to the ruling powers in Ega, the ypadin-loving dames are compelled to raise their coca-trees in retired forest nooks, to hide away their modest gatherings, and take their solace secretly. Mr. Bates thinks that ypadin does no harm if taken in moderation; but if indulged in to excess, it destroys the appetite, and in time produces great nervous exhaustion. Humboldt, conceding that Indian messengers can travel for many days without any other aliment, pronounces against the use of the delectable mixture of leaves and lime, on the ground that, while exciting the secretion of the saliva and of the gastric juice, it takes away the appetite without affording any nutriment to the body; and an Edinburgh Reviewer, disgusted with a traveller's laudation of coca, does not scruple to assert that it is certain those who used it were remarkably short-lived. The Bolivian Indians, however, if we may accept the testimony of one who lived some years among them, are rather remarkable for their longevity; and if the coca-leaf is really very deleterious, it is hard to understand how it has retained its repute so many hundred years.

Supposing coca to be all its admirers assert, it does not follow that its introduction into countries yet blissfully ignorant of its virtues is at all desirable. Your coca-eater only works by fits and starts, ordinarily he ranks amongst the laziest of the lazy. Besides, what may be meat to the Indian in the healthiest tropical land in the world, may be poison to the energetic sons of colder climes; and the fact that in South America coca-eating is steadfastly eschewed by the ruling race, speaks strongly against the vaunted harmlessness of the practice. It is impossible it should be harmless; neither the body nor the mind can be defrauded of due sustenance and rest with impunity; though the payment of the penalty be deferred for a time, it is sure to be exacted. Of stimulants we have enough and to spare. Those already used and abused may very well suffice those who cannot, get along without something of the kind. Nobody that we know of wants to work day and night, or to dispense with meat and drink. Even if anybody does, it is possible that their end may be achieved by other means. From the Moluccas to the Yellow River, from the Ganges and the Indus to the shores of the Black Sea, the betel-leaf is, as old Gerarde says, "not only unto the silly Indian meat, but also drink in their tedious travels, refreshing their weary spirits and helping their memory." Abyssinian sentinels on night-duty keep drowsiness at a distance by chewing the leaves of the Catha edulis; Magnenus records that a soldier at the siege of Valencia, in 1636, underwent the greatest fatigue and lived without food for a week, thanks to a few quids of tobacco; and we ourselves knew a man who, when compelled to work through the night, kept himself awake and up to the mark by merely chewing tea. Tea being within everybody's reach, perhaps it would be as well if, before setting about importing coca-leaves, the medical gentlemen who have displayed such enthusiasm in behalf of coca, were to try the effect of tea and lime, and let the world know the result of the experiment.

It is surely a pity that three such important products as coca, the cocoa of the breakfast-table, and the cocoa-nut, though completely distinct both botanically and in their properties and uses, should have names so provokingly similar that most people, we believe, are puzzled to say which is which. The Erythroxylon coca of which we have been speaking has no connection with the cocoa-tree (Theobroma cacao), which yields the well-known beverage cocoa or chocolate. Equally distinct from both is the cocoa-nut palm (Cocos nucifera), the fruit of which supplies the inhabitants of many tropical coasts and islands with a great part of their food, and also furnishes the cocoa-nut oil of commerce. It is the more solid ingredient of this oil, known as cocoa-nut butter, that is so much used as an unguent when mixed with a little olive-oil to give it softness. Among the many changes of nomenclature constantly going on, could nothing be done to remedy the perplexity caused by so many diverse articles being known by names so closely resembling each other?