The Colonial History of Yerba Mate

The Colonial History of Yerba Mate

What did the first colonizers think of yerba mate? Did they forbid or adopt the practice?

The History of Yerba Mate is a new segment on our blog in which we’ll have several in-depth articles about a specific time in yerba mate’s history.

On the first part of this segment, we wrote about the history and origins of yerba mate. With that article, we got a general sense of all the people that drank yerba mate in the American Continent, and the role of the drink within each of their societies.

In this article, we will talk about the next chapter in yerba mate history, which will cover the roughly three centuries from the start of America’s colonization (16th Century) to the independence of most of its countries (late 18th Century, beginning of 19th Century).

We will focus mainly on the history of the area that is present-day-Paraguay, the south of Rio Grande do Sul and Misiones in Argentina. This is because this area was the main producer of yerba mate at the time.

The First Contact with Yerba Mate

Most of what we know about mate production and consumption at this time comes from different diaries, official writings, and laws. For instance, the first ever mention about yerba mate use was done by the Spanish conquistador Juan Francisco de Aguirre in 1536.

Europeans traveled around the American continent looking for gold and other treasures, in what it was called “El Dorado”. From their journeys, they noticed how people drank yerba mate, especially Guaraní people. They tried it and liked the ‘exotic’ taste as well as its stimulant benefits, which led to some taking dried and processed leaves (sapecadas) back to the different settlements they were using as bases.

This is how various historians established that the first regular consumption of yerba mate was in the Guairá region of what is present-day Paraguay. Chronics tell us that the first Spanish conquistadores did not only consumed yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) as a tea but also other Ilex varieties such as Ilex amara, used as an emetic.

Encomiendas and Jesuit Reductions

Encomiendas were a Spanish labor system established in 1538 after conquistadores realized they were not going to find El Dorado. This political and social regime was imposed on the native people living in America and lasted over a century.

With the Encomiendas, the owner of the land (called “encomendero”), a Spanish white male, would have a group of native American people working for them, and in exchange, he would protect them and teach them the Western, ‘Civilized’ ways of Christian Church. In reality, however, the natives were enslaved and forced to work doing different tasks.

One of them was to go to the now-Paraguayan jungle to find yerbales – a land where Ilex Paraguariensis would grow – and take the leaves to process. This was a highly laborious work that according to chronicles and letters, took many lives. In fact, priest Mariano Lorenzanos wrote to King Philip III asking him to stop the yerba production and consumption to both “stop the vice” and the cruelty of enslavement especially of people working at the yerbales.

Another social and political system that was also running in the areas of Paraguay, Rio Grande do Sul and north of Argentina were the Jesuit Reductions. According to Charles H. Lippe, Robert Choquette and Stafford Poole, this Christian missions ‘attempted to create a “state within a state” in which the native peoples in the reductions, guided by the Jesuits, would remain autonomous and isolated from Spanish colonists and Spanish rule’.

The main issue started when, by entering the jungle to look for yerbales, native people from the Encomiendas got into contact with native people from the Jesuit Reductions. Although the latter had been indoctrinated in Christianity by the Jesuits, the people from Encomiendas were not. This contact meant that some of the natives from the Reductions went back to their mystic, spiritual roots, rebelling against the Reductions.

In 1569 a new law prevented non-converted natives from having contact with converted natives. The punishment was death to the non-converted.

Because this fatal relation between indoctrinated and non-indoctrinated had begun due to the yerba mate consumption and production, yerba mate started to being considered a problem, a vice. The interesting fact, as Daniel Granada points out, is that while native people drank mate once a day or even less, Spanish people drank it all the time.

The War Against Yerba Mate

Cruelty for workers, intrusion with the religious establishment and addiction were the main issues around yerba mate production.

In 1596, Governor Hernandarias wrote the first decreet against the vices of the population at the time: gamble, alcohol and yerba mate. He burnt tons of leaves in public spaces and banned commerce with other regions. The punishment was a substantial fine as well as imprisonment. His decrees continued in 1603, where the main focus was to establish a better life and work quality for native people.

Other governors also started a crusade to diminish mate consumption and improve working conditions for those at the yerbales. Dozen of decrees were written but had little impact, as they were not obeyed.

Jesuitas urged don Diego Marin de Negron to abolish Encomiendas due to the awful work conditions, which they determined had killed hundreds of thousands of natives. This was considered an exaggeration and an opportunistic move to acquire more natives for the Jesuit Reductions. In fact, on Diego Marin de Negron released the enslaved natives from the Encomiendas but they needed to cultivate at the Jesuit Reductions.

At the beginning of the 17th Century, “vice” and “yerba mate” were still being used together constantly. Although the war against the drink continued, pushing merchants and consumers, the mate was already a crucial part of Paraguayan society. According to Javier Ricca, sources have established that in 1620, 170 tons of yerba mate was consumed in Asunción. The city had a total population of 500 Spanish, resulting in the exorbitant consumption of 0,8kg of yerba mate per day per person

Yerba Mate Legalized

Regardless of the campaign against yerba mate, the authorities of Asunción decided, in 1630, to legalize the exploitation of yerbales, the production, and exportation of yerba mate, and of course, its consumption.

This caused a huge increase in yerba mate consumption, which meant that by the end of the 17th Century the production was accelerated, and provided development and economic stability.

However, even though new decrees were approved to defend and improve the workers’ conditions, those continued to be extremely hard. This also had an environmental impact: natural yerbales were exploited and its existence was compromised. Instead, man-made crops, with new varieties and controlled harvesting started to be the way of production.

By 1789, approximately 2200 tons of yerba mate was exported from Paraguay. Another 250 tons were produced for the consumption of its almost 100.000 inhabitants.

In 1803, another set of legal proposals were made towards an improvement of the native people’s work and living condition. The idea was to acquire land and then distribute them to the people for their own use. However, this process was paused with the rebellion against Spain and the Independence of Paraguay.

After Independence

Although a lot changed with the creation of the new American nations, yerba mate was still an integral aspect of culture. Babier stated that around the mid 19th Century, the yerba mate consumers represented 25% of Peru’s population, 33% of Brazil’s population, 50% of Bolivia’s population, and almost 100% of Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina’s population.

On our next chapter of yerba mate history, we will talk about how mate was perceived on the brand-new countries, and how it was established as a crucial part of some of South American countries’ culture.

We hope you have enjoyed this article and we hope you continue this yerba mate’s history with us.

Mate. Silver. Audiencia de Charcas (Bolivia), 17th Century. Museo de América, Spain.
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