A Description of the Genus Cinchona



A Description of the Genus Cinchona


According to stories the first discovery of “Jesuit’s bark,” or cinchona bark, occurred in the 17th century. As the story goes a large storm passed through a village in Peru, knocking a number of the branches into a pool of standing water. It happened that a fever addled villager was walking by, and seized with terrible thirst drank from the stagnant and bitter water. When his fever suddenly abated this discovery was shared with others, and the power of this bark to help relieve and cure malaria was shared with the world (Clements 87). It took over 100 years after cinchona bark’s initial discovery to be popularized outside of the Spain, but following its use in curing Charles II many authors and scientific groups began to popularize its use (Sydenham). This sparked a dramatic increase in global trade of cinchona bark and it quickly became one of the most valuable exports which came out of Peruvian colonies in the 18th century. Cinchona bark is an excellent way to examine the increase in global trade in this time period, as well as the economic decline of Spain. Cinchona was initially monopolized by the Spanish, but aggressive campaigns by the French, English and Dutch lead to bark plantations appearing on Caribbean colonies and in British controlled areas of India (Rocco 85). Following this lack of monopolization bark cultivation in Peru began to drop in favor of the declining silver mines, another influence in the reduction of Spain economically over the course of the 17th century (Wiesner-Hanks 233).
The cultivation and widespread use of cinchona bark in the 17th century is not a matter of debate amongst historians however, it’s implications for the history of humoral medicine are a matter of debate for some historians. In Rebecca Earle’s book, The Body of the Conquistador, she argues that humoral ideas of medicine were a central concern for Spanish colonizers. In particular her argument focuses on the perceived need for Old World foods to maintain the balance of the Spanish body. This is in contrast to Fiammetta Rocco, whose book The Miraculous Fever Tree argues that trade in cinchona was a key activity for Spanish colonists. Cultivating a medical plant from the New World would seem to be in direct contradiction to Earle’s argument, however, the two points can be synthesized. Both authors are discussing the same geographical location, but focus on two very different time periods. Earle’s book focuses on early colonization, in the 15th and 16th centuries. Rocco on the other hand only begins her discussion at the middle of the 17th century following the discovery of cinchona by the Jesuits. With nearly a full century separating the two arguments, they do not directly contradict, but instead represent two interpretations of somewhat different evidence.


Aylmer Bourke Lambert






Jack Williams




Aylmer Bourke Lambert, “A Description of the Genus Cinchona,” HIST 139 - Early Modern Europe, accessed March 26, 2023, https://earlymoderneurope.hist.sites.carleton.edu/items/show/245.

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