French   French
Spanish   Spanish
English   English

"The Precious Leaf Called Coca"

from "Royal Commentaries of the Incas" (Book 8, chapter 15)
Garcilaso de la Vega (1606), translated by Harold Livermore (1966)

It would not be right to pass over the herb the Indians call cuca [note: in Aymara, 'coca' is 'kuka'] and the Spaniards call coca, which was and still is the chief source of weatlh of Peru for those who engage in the trade; we should indeed give a full account of it, such is the esteem in which the Indians hold it, by reason of the many remarkable virtues they had discovered in it of old, and the many more that the Spaniards have found in applying it to medicine. Padre Blas Valera, a close observer who spent many years in Peru and left it more than thirty years after I did, writes of both kinds of use, as one who had personal experience of them; I shall simply repeat what his Paternity said, and later add the few points he omitted, so as not to run to length by going into detail. He says:

Coca is a certain small tree as big and as high as a vine. It has few branches, but many delicate leaves as broad and half as long as one's thumb. They have a good smell, but not soft; Indians and Spaniards alike call the leaves cuca. It is so agreeable to the Indians that they prefer it above gold, silver, and precious stones; they display great care and diligence in planting it and greater in harvesting it. They pluck the leaves by hand and dry them in the sun; and when so dried they are eaten by the Indians, but they do not swallow them, merely savoring the taste and swallowing the juice.

The great usefulness and effect of coca for laborers is shown by the fact that the Indians who eat it are stronger and fitter for their work; they are often so satisfied by it that they can work all day without eating.

Coca protects the body from any ailments, and our doctors use it in powdered form to reduce the swelling of wounds, to strengthen broken bones, to expel cold from the body or prevent it from entering, and to cure rotten wounds or sores that are full of maggots. And if it does so much for outward ailments, will not its singular virtue have even greater effect in the entrails of those who eat it?

It has another great value, which is that the income of the [Catholic] bishops, canons and other priests of the cathedral church of Cuzco is derived from the tithe on the coca leaf, and many Spaniards have grown rich, and still do, on the traffic in this herb. Nevertheless, some people, ignoring the facts, have spoken and written strongly against this little bush, moved only by the fact that in former times the heathens offered coca to this idols, as some wizards and diviners still do: because of this it is maintained that the use of coca should be completely suppressed and prohibited.

This would certainly be good counsel if the Indians merely offered this herb and nothing else to the Devil. But the former heathen (and the idolaters of today) sacrificed crops, vegetables, and fruits that grow below ground and above, offered their drink and cold water, and wool, and their garments, and cattle, and a great deal else, in short all they might possess, and as they cannot be deprived of these things, neither can they of coca. They should be instructed to abhor superstition and serve truly one God, availing of all these things in a Christian fashion.

Thus far Padre Blas Valera.

To supply what is missing for full measure, we may add that the bushes are as high as a man. They are grown by placing the seed in a nursery as is done with greenstuffs. Small holes are dug for the plants, as for vines, and they are layered like the vine. Great care is taken that no root however small is bent, for this is enough to cause the whole plant to wither. The leafs are plucked, each branch being taken separately between the fingers, which are run along it as far as the new shoot, which must be left or the whole branch shrivels. Both sides of the leaf are exactly like that of the arbutus in color and shape, but they are very thin and it would take three or four of them to equal the arbutus in thickness. [ .... ]

When the leaves have been plucked and are dried in the sun; they are not completely dried or they lose most of their greenness which is much prized, and turn to dust because of their delicacy; nor must they remain damp, or they grow moldy and rot in the baskets which they are packed for carriage. They must be dried to a point between these extremes.

The baskets are made of split canes of which there are plenty, both large and small, in those provinces of the Antis. The outsides of the baskets are covered with the leaves of the thick canes, which are more than a tercia broad and more than half a vara long; thus the coca is prevented from getting wet; for water soon damages it. The baskets are woven with a special kind of hemp that grows in the district.

When one considers the quantity of each of these things that is necessary to turn the coca to account, one is rather inclined to give thanks to God for supplying everything wherever it is needed than to attempt to describe it, for it seems incredible. If it were necessary to bring all of these requirements from outside, the labor and cost would outweigh the value of the product. The herb is plucked every four months, or thrice yearly, and if the ground is carefully weeded so that all the plants grow in that hot, wet soil are removed, each harvest is brought forward by a fortnight, so that there are nearly four a year.

For this reason, a greedy tithe collector bribed the overseers of the most important and wealthiest estates in the district of Cuzco to see to it that the fields were frequently weeded. In this way he deprived the collector for the following year of two-thirds of two-thirds of the tithe on the first crop. This led to a bitterly contested suit between them, the result of which I never knew, for I was only a boy at the time.

Among the other virtues of coca, it is said to be good for the teeth. With regards to the strength it gives to those who chew it, I remember a take I heard in Peru froma gentleman of quality and merit called Rodrigo Pantoja, who, while travelling from Cuzco to Rimac, came across a poor Spaniard (for there are also poor people over there as there are here) who was walking along with a little daughter of two years old on his back. Pantoja knew him and they fell into a conversation.

The gentleman asked: "Why are you burdened like that?"

The other replied: "I have no means to hire an Indian to carry the little girl, so I am carrying her myself."

At this Pantoja looked at the man's mouth and saw it was full of coca, and as in those days the Spaniards abhorred everything the Indians and drank as if there were idolatries, and especially chewing coca (which seemed a vile thing to do), Pantoja asked:

"Then if your need is so great why are you chewing cocas as the Indians do, when Spaniards hate and detest the stuff?"

The soldier replied: "Sir, I used to abominate it no less than the rest, but necessity forced me to imitate the Indians and chew it, and I can tell you that if I didn't chew it I couldn't carry this burden. It is because of it that I feel strong and vigorous enough to cope with the task."

Pantoja was surprised to hear this, and repeated the story in many different places. Afterwards the Spaniards were inclined to believe the Indians when they said that they ate the herb because they needed it, and not from greed. And this can be credited, for its taste is not pleasant. Later we shall say how it is transported to Potosi and describe the trade in coca.

"Their Tame Animals: The Flocks They Kept" (Book 8, chapter 16)

[......] The llama is also used by Indians and Spaniards for the transport of merchandise to all parts, though they travel the best between Cuzco and Potosí where the land is flat. The distance is of nearly two hundred leagues; and they also go between the mines and many other places with all sorts of supplies, Indian garments, Spanish wares, wine, oil, preserves and everything else that is used in the mines. The chief article they bring to Cuzco is the herb called coca,. In my time there were in Cuzco flocks of six hundred, eight hundred, and a thousand and more head for the carriage of these goods. [......]

[......] The journey between Cuzco to Potosí takes four months, two going and two coming back, without allowing for the time taken to dispose of the merchandise. A choice llama was worth eighteen ducats in Cuzco, and an inferior one twelve or thirteen. The chief articles of merchandise they carried were coca and Indian textiles. All this was true when I was there and I saw it with my own eyes: I do not know what happens nowadays. I met many of the wayfarers, and on some routes they could sell a basket of coca for more than thirty pesos of assayed silver. Although carrying burdens of such value and returning with loads of silver amounting to thirty, forty, fifty, or a hundred thousand pesos, neither Spaniards nor Indians ever feared to sleep in the open with no other company or security that their comrades, for there were no thieves or bandits. The same security existed in dealing with the merchandise to be carried, or the crops collected for the Spanish landowners, or loans of money. However great the amount of the sale or loan, there was no written document or obligation -- everything was done verbally, and those concerned always kept their word. [......]

[......] In peacetime, when there was no fighting, many soldiers, very noble gentlemen, avoided idleness by engaging in this trade of bringing coca and Indian textiles to and from Potosí and selling it wholesale and retail. In this way men, however noble, could employ their resources in carrying on business. [......]

return to top