Foods of the Welser Conquista

A while ago, I came across a publication of letters written by Philipp von Hutten, an employee of the Welser banking family who was governing Klein-Venedig, the American territory in modern Venezuela that Emperor Charles V had leased to them as surety for their loans. The whole dispiriting and dismal story of this colonial venture is too long to recount here, so I will limit myself to the food references. These letter, many of which were meant for circulation, provided one of the earliest sources on the Americas in German. A general account notes:

Philipp von Hutten (center) mustering his troops in Venezuela, courtesy of wikimedia commons

Neither bread nor wine grow here and there is no meat other than deer, not many of them, and those not as large as in our country. There are tigers and leopards and many gamebirds. … They make bread from white grains which they call Mayz and which grows on stalks in ears like grain. They cut it and sow it in its season. It makes a good-tasting and strengthening bread which, however, they do not salt. They also have another kind of bread which they call Casumbe and which is made from a root.

These observations are reinforced in a letter of 1535:

We have food for a year which we brought from Hispaniola, (including) flour and wine, and we can always receive refresco from Santo Domingo. … There is good, strengthening bread in the country made from Mahiz though many do not like to eat it … There is fresh water, though no wine.

Germans always seem to have had reservations about maize as a bread grain. There is an account of experiments made in the late sixteenth century that was not well received, and of course more recent experience associated maize bread firmly with the famine years after 1945 when large amounts were imported from the United States. The absence of wine, too, must have hit the Welsers’ South German mercenaries as hard as it did the Spanish conquistadors. Both wine and flour were brought in, no doubt at considerable expense.

We have reason to doubt that many of the German conquerors enjoyed either much. According to a letter of 1535, the majority of the men lived in poverty, in perpetual debt to their employers:

We have found over 300 Christians in this country, all very poor, miserable and oppressed by debt. The Welser supplied them with clothing, food and drink in this country and give them all necessities on credit, but they cannot leave the country until they have paid off their debt.

Since the Welser never found any way to make agriculture or resource extraction profitable, they relied on military expeditions find gold, silver, rich mines, or people to subjugate. This strategy failed to pay dividends, though the hunt for the legendary El Dorado would continue in the region for centuries. In reality, the troops faced severe privation away from their bases:

It is a horror to recount what vermin such as snakes, toads, lizards or iguanas (Laceraten), wormy plants and roots, and many other kinds of unnatural foods our poor Christians ate on this path and expedition.

We should note that the reference to poor Christians (arme Christen) very likely needs to be read in purely economic terms – it was the poor, not the rich, that had to make do with such foods. A letter of 1538 goes into slightly more detail:

No vermin nor herb or root remained uneaten on this expedition, and neither did iguanas (Lacertas), snakes, toads, mice, and many such strange worms that it is an abomination to speak of it. It is hard to believe how good a cook hunger is. Also, many Christians surreptitiously and contrary to human nature ate human flesh. Particularly, one Christian was found who had hidden in the forest and cooked a quarter of a young child in a pot with herbs. A dog was sold for 100 pesos, a horse that had died of disease or been killed by the Indians for 1000 pesos for food.

The horror of the situation is hard to overstate. It is the small detail of mentioning the herbs in the cookpot that make the description credible; Many accounts of European encounters with Native Americans in the region agree that they, unlike Europeans, did not use culinary herbs or salt. I cannot imagine what encountering these heavily armed, desperately immiserated and angry cannibals felt like for the locals.

The letters from the Welser archives are published in Das Gold der Neuen Welt. Die Papiere des Welser-Konquistadors und Generalkapitäns von Venezuela Philipp von Hutten 1534-1541, hg: Eberhard Schmitt und Karl-Friedrich von Hutten, Verlag Frankenschwelle, Hildburghausen 1996

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