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    Dominicana On Line - El Portal de la República Dominicana

    Conquistadors' Diet

    Studying the inventories of cargo transported by 148 ships that arrived to the island of San Juan, today called Puerto Rico, traveling from Hispaniola and the island of Sevilla between the years 1512-1513 and 1515-1516, it has been possible to calculate the volume and value of the trade flows as well as the food that composed the diet of the conquistadors and first colonizers of the Antilles.

    This information was kept for almost 500 years in the rare accounting archives in the General Archive of the Indies, in Spain, which contains the tables of the merchandise transported between the mentioned ports.

    These documents show that trade between Borinquen and Hispaniola was an exchange of basic foodstuffs (cazabe, corn, bacon and beans), animals (cattle, pigs, horses, chickens, goats, burros and dogs) and manufactured goods: hammocks, bateas, or pans, as much for panning gold as for multiple uses and the so-called “Haitian shirts”, made in Yáquimo, today Jacmel.

    The individuals that arrived with Juan Ponce de León to the neighboring island in 1509 did not occupy the farms, as all dedicated themselves to the search for gold deposits and to assaulting Indian villages to obtain slaves.  The war against the Indians removed any possibility of obtaining food peacefully from the indigenous villages.  From then on, the stores of cazabe, corn, beans and bacon from Spain were essential to survival.

    Of the ships that made the journey between the islands, many left the river port of Yuma, in Higüey, toward San Germán, in the western part of San Juan.  The navigation between one point and the other made almost a straight line with an optional stop on the island of Mona.  The town of Caparra, or Puerto Rico, was too far, though some ships still landed there.

    One of the many “merchandise inventories” of the ships that arrived to Puerto Rico and San Germán from Hispaniola supplies a clear example of the dimensions of the shipments.

    The merchandise inventory of the caravel San Cristóbal, written upon its departure from the port of Río Yuma in Higüey, August 27, 1512, contains 986 loads of cazabe, 56 measures of corn, 1 measure of beans, 15 measures of bacon, 1 jug of lard, 25 chickens, 4 cows, 4 yearling calves, 62 pigs, 21 dogs, 59 service pans and 43 gold pans.

    Each of the 37 ships that arrived to San Germán and Puerto Rico from Hispaniola in 1512 and 1513 presented to the local authorities a similar inventory of merchandise, containing information on volumes and prices as well as the names of those on the ship and the cosigners of the merchandise.

    All of this merchandise and these animals were important in that era of the conquista.  Cazabe, corn, bacon, lard and beans ensured a basic diet rich in carbohydrates, protein and fat, which was completed with other foods imported from Spain, among them olive oil.

    The merchandise inventories from Castilla almost always mention olive oil on the shipments.  Other European foodstuffs that completed the early colonial Dominican, Puerto Rican and Antillean diet were olives, capers, garlic, almonds, sugar, cookies, preserved fruit, dates, chick peas, pomegranates, wheat flour, figs, quince, honey, mustard, walnuts, raisins, cheeses, particularly the cheeses of the Canaries, sardines, salt, vinegar and, after some time, wine.  In addition to these provisions, the shipments registered significant quantities of spices, particularly cloves, cinnamon, pepper and ginger.

    The documents of each of the 148 ships arriving to the island of San Jun in the years mentioned refer, one after another, to the details of what each passenger brought, whether a trader, a sailor, an immigrant or an official.  The series of documents from the second decade of the 14th century is incomplete, but after four years, we have a database available that allows us to study the structure of prices and volumes of the inter-island and metropolitan trade of the conquista of the Americas.

    By Frank Moya Pons, de la Revista Rumbo


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