Explorer Columbus
Medicine Procurer

As an avid reader, map-maker Christopher Columbus scoured the printed page, especially while living in Lisbon, Portugal. He read of Marco Polo's travels to the Far East and how caravans had brought the riches of materia medica (medicine) from China, Central Asia, and what was known as the Orient. Thus he dreamed that he might find a way to this land of wealth and riches entirely by sea and reach the source of wondrous drugs. This dream became an obsession and even at his death in 1506, he believed that he had discovered not a new world, but another old one which was part of the Orient.

In fact, Columbus was quite knowledgeable about medicines since he supplemented his readings with trips to famous regional pharmacies.1 Of the many local physicians that he met, he chose two for his three ships, one for the Santa Maria and one for the Niña. Thus he was well equipped for identifying botanicals on his voyages. Indeed, on his last trip to the New World, he enlisted the services of an apothecary, a specialist in botany and pharmacology (such as it then existed).

Mastic Used Against Cholera in the Old World
Of the many plants possessing medicinal values, Columbus believed he had identified aloe, used for purgatives (strong laxative) pills in the late 15th Century, and mastic, highly prized for its antibacterial values and for its widespread use against cholera. (Cholera is an illness characterized by diarrhea and/or severe vomiting.) Columbus knew that the best aloe was produced on the island of Socotra near the entrance to the Red Sea. He also knew that the best mastic came from the island of Chios in the Greek Archipelago. He had personally witnessed the extraction of the resinous gum from the plant Pistacia lentiscus.

Mastic was so highly valued in Old World medicine that a reward was offered to the first crew member who could find it in the Indies. That reward was claimed by a seaman from the Niña who first sighted mastic on November 5, 1492 on the island of Cuba. Columbus had his botanical expert, the apothecary Maestre Diego, confirm the finding. In his log, Columbus wrote: "there is without doubt an exceedingly great quantity of mastic" in Rio de Mares (Cuba).

Because it was the rainy season in Cuba, he was unable to draw much resin from the trees to display to his sponsors, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Furthermore what he did collect was not hardened as is the case with mastic from Chios, the only mastic known to the Old World. In order to explain the lack of hardness to his sponsors - mastic resin quickly solidifies into a solid gum - Columbus rationalized that it was too early to harvest. He thought that unlike Chios mastic which harvests in March, the difference in Cuba's climate probably meant that New World mastic would best be harvested no sooner than January, two or more months later. Nevertheless, Columbus did report he could obtain "mastic, hitherto found only in Greece in the island of Chios, and which the Signatoria sells at its own price, as much as their Highnesses shall command to be shipped."2

New World Mastic Used for Stomach Aches
Alas! In the end, the "aloe" turned out to be the century plant (Agave americana) and "mastic" was later identified as gumbo-limbo or turpentine tree (Bursera simaruba). It's interesting that Columbus was told (in sign language) by the natives that gumbo-limbo - which exudes a resin that bears a striking resemblance to the real mastic tree and like it too has a turpentine-like taste - was "good for a stomach ache." Since mastic was associated with problems of the gastrointestinal tract (which the vomiting of cholera suggests), it is no wonder that in his rush to identify "mastic," he confused it with the real thing.

References

  1. Griffenhagen G. Materia medica of Columbus. Int Pharm J.1990;4:271-272.
  2. Hart and Channing. American History Leaflets CD Sourcebook of American History ©1995 Compact University.

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