Why Columbus Matters

Okay, back to the history of candy for a brief second or so.

Part of the right of passage in growing up is dealing with the mythology of Christopher Columbus. I remember in Kindergarten learning of the importance of Columbus Day, and why this man was important to America. It took three years before I started asking, “where did all the people that Christopher Columbus met come from?” By tenth grade, the legend was thoroughly debunked when I heard tales of Leif Erickson and Newfoundland (true or not), and somewhere within that time frame, I also realized that Columbus had never actually stepped foot upon what we today call the United States of America.

The story, or lack thereof, doesn’t stop there either. Anyone who has taken an in depth history class in college will likely tell you that that Columbus was a product of the Age of Exploration. He was sycophantic, self-promoting, social climber, who was only half as smart as he believed he was. And these are some of the kinder conclusions that some historians have arrived at.

In my readings, I can’t help but arrive at these same conclusions. But…


It seems as if Columbus is the near perfect representation of his era for two distinct reasons.

1) His path to profit had as much to do with sugar, if not moreso, as it did the spices from India: The history involving sugar is complicated, and almost as important as that of ground pepper. The short version is this – The Venetians had a monopoly on the overland spice routes, and used those profits to set up trading ties with various sugar producers, or outright set up plantations of their own throughout the Mediterranean. The Venetians biggest rivals? The Genoans, which is where Columbus comes from.

The Genoans, ever looking for a way to screw over the Venetians, tie their fortunes with the Portuguese, who had just invented the Caravel, a ship that would extend their reach beyond the Mediterranean and the coasts of Europe. The Portuguese, coming across various islands in off of Western Africa – the Madeira chain, the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, and Sao Tome. These islands, a generation or two after the establishment of these plantations, is where Columbus cut his navigational teeth. It was here that he married wealthy Felipa Perestrello Moniz, who’s father was Bartolomeu Perestrello an explorer who had been involved with the discovery of the Madeira Islands, and had helped establish several of the sugar plantations in this region of the world.

While Colubus had never met his father in-law (who had passed away in 1457), he would have certainly been aware of how his wife had come into their money – via exploring and establishing the sugar plantations.

We are told that Columbus was looking for a new trade route to India with his voyages. This is only partially true. Columbus would have been aware of the value of sugar, and would have sought to leverage that knowledge to his benefit. This is exactly what happened on his second trip, when he took cane clipping from the Canary Islands, and planted them in the Caribbean. He would eventually establish his own plantation. He was a horrible administrator, and made no profit from it.

The details of all of the above are interesting, but go beyond the scale of this post. Suffice to say – Sugar played a huge role in Columbus’s motivations, far more than we give it credit for. This point alone makes him an interesting part of candy history. But there’s another aspect of his legend that cements his legend.

2)He was the first European to come across chocolate: It’s a shorter story, but equally fascinating when taken in consideration with the first point. On his fourth journey, he explored clsoe to central America, and came across a native trading boat. In it were beans that the natives treated “with great value”, as his son wrote in the ship’s log. These beans, as described, were what we recognized today as seeds from Theobroma cacao, also known as the cocoa bean.

Of course, not knowing what the beans were, nor what they were used for, Columbus let them be, and someone else would end up bringing them back to Europe.

So when discussing the history of candy, there are two points in time which play critical roles. Sugar becomes cheaper, which made it more accessible across the various social classes of Europe; and the European discovery of the cocoa bean.

Christopher Columbus, his legend aside, played a distinct role in both of those events.