The story of how Yerba Mate was first discovered and then spread through South America is a fascinating tale that includes legends, politics, religion, intrigue, slavery, war and innovation.
Y erba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis) is a native plant of the subtropical region of South America. The production has been limited to the Southern Cone of South America since the seventeenth century. Unlike tea, coffee, and to a lesser degree chocolate, Yerba Mate proved much more difficult to cultivate and therefore harder to transplant to other regions more accessible to European and North American markets. Today, it is an integrated industry: Argentina is the main producer, followed by Brazil and Paraguay. Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile are importers.
The product has spread beyond its region of traditional consumers to Syria and Lebanon, with lesser imports by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and some European and African nations.
The entire South seems to drink mate. Families lounging on blankets pass it around in parks. Friends sitting on benches sip it while chatting. Travelers break out mate tote bags. Some devotees even juggle thermoses while biking.
There are many legends surrounding yerba mate, and it’s known to the native forest peoples who have survived periods of drought and famine by drinking mate as the Drink of the Gods and to the Argentine Gauchos (cowboys) as their liquid vegetable.
For the first people, like the Guarani, Yerba mate means also imperialism, colonialism, and general exploitation. “As consumption spread throughout South America, a mate gold-fever resulted in the virtual enslavement of thousands of Guaraní Indians, exploited by Spanish encomenderos (contractors) in the most brutal way. The Guaraní were forced to open paths through the rainforest with machete blows, these paths were watered by the sweat and blood of thousands of aborigines, and paved with their bones. In the annals of New World exploitation no single industry brutalized its labor force more than those first encomenderos of yerba mate.”
~ Myrtha Elba Ruiz de Pagés and Fernando Pagés
Many of these dates are approximate.
Early, up to 15th century
Possible consumption of Yerba mate in per-Columbian Peru. Archeological evidence is open to interpretation.
Mate is bought by the goods according to Guarani•Tupi legends.
The many different varietals of yerba were found in the wild in such abundance that the first people did not have to turn to agriculture to supply their needs. Mate was first consumed by the indigenous Guaraní and also spread in the Tupí people that lived in southern Brazil and Paraguay, and became widespread with the European colonization.
Governor Hernando Arias de Saavedra in the sixteenth century noted that Indians used Yerba mate to increase their energy and resistance to fatigue when on the move. From that moment, yerba has been associated with productive labor and, specifically, with the military.
Of his experience during that war, Brazilian general Francisco de Rocha Callado wrote,
“I was witness during a period of twenty-two days to the fact that our army was almost exclusively nourished by the mate which we collected in the hervaes [yerbales], the lack of provisions on that occasion not permitting long halts.”
Shortly after founding Asunción (Paraguay), the Spanish realized that yerba mate trade could provide revenue for the crown.
The criollo governor of Paraguay, Hernando Arias de Saavedra, searched the looted bags of indigenous Guaranı́ defeated in a military campaign. He came across a powder the Guaranı́ called ka’a.
[The name given to the plant in Guaraní, is ka’a, which has the same meaning as “herb“. Congonha, in Portuguese, is derived from the Tupi expression, meaning “what keeps us alive“. Mate is from the Quechua mati, a word that means pumpkin, container for a drink, infusion of an herb, as well as gourd.]
The Jesuits [The Society of Jesus is a scholarly religious congregation of the Catholic Church which originated in sixteenth-century Spain.] endeavored to create an institution tailored to local needs, both linguistic (e.g., using Guaranı́ as the official language of their outreach) and geographic. They organized (into reducciones) Guaranı́ missions under their tutelage and jurisdiction, and thereby exercised control over their labor. Many of these missions turned to yerba production, and later cultivation, in yerbales (yerba orchards) as a source of livelihood.
The consumption of mate as a beverage had become so common in Paraguay that a member of the cabildo of Asunción wrote to governor of Río de la Plata Hernando Arias de Saavedra:
“the vice and bad habit of drinking yerba has spread so much among the Spaniards, their women and children, that unlike the Indians that are content to drink it once a day they drink it continuously and those who do not drink it are very rare.”
The same author of the letter went on to claim that Spanish settlers sold their clothing, weapons and horses or fell into debt to obtain yerba mate.
It is not clear exactly when Spaniards began to drink mate but it is known by late 16th century to be widely consumed.
The Governor of Río de la Plata, Hernando Arias de Saavedra, turned against the mate industry due to beliefs that it was an unhealthy bad habit and that too much of the workforce was consumed in it. The punishment against disobeying this decree was the harshest, excommunication.
Despite the decree and the branding, people continued to sip the widespread green gold. The church was therefore in the verge of losing its newly recruited faithful, contrary to what the Jesuits had in mind. The Jesuits failed to discourage or control Yerba Mate consumption and the ban was lifted as they could not compromise the growing numbers in the church. They therefore began to accept it and sanitized its earthly, pagan origin by substituting Tupa (Guarani holy spirit) for Santo Tome, Spanish for Saint Thomas. Hence the herb is sometimes referred to as yerba missionera.
During the rise of the mate industry, the main production centre of yerba mate was the Indian town of Maracayú northeast of Asunción, where the plant was harvested from wild.
Conflicts between Spanish settlers from Villa Rica and Ciudad Real del Guayrá and the Jesuit missions of Guairá and the new Portuguese settlers from São Paulo. The Portuguese won the Maracayú area and made mate their main income source. The settlers of Maracaýu relocated to the south forming the modern city of Villarrica and transformed their new lands into the new center of the mate industry.
Consumption of mate starts beyond the colony of Paraguay, first to the trade hub of Río de la Plata and from there to Upper Peru (today Bolivia), Lower Peru, Ecuador and Chile.
The Jesuits had successfully requested the Spanish Crown to be allowed to produce and export yerba mate, they became the leading suppliers of colonial markets.
Taxes on mate became an important revenue source in Paraguay, Santa Fé and Buenos Aires.
1650 – 70 C.E.
The Jesuits succeeded in domesticating the plant, something that contemporaries had found extremely difficult, they kept the domestication a secret.
According to a common colonial myth, seeds are encased in a shell so hard that germination is impossible unless the seeds have passed through the intestines of birds, where the acidity wears down the lining to allow the seedling to burst through the case.
The Spanish Crown imposed a special tax on yerba mate aimed to finance Buenos Aires defense works and garrison.
Due to the shortage of coins yerba mate along with honey, maize, and tobacco were used as currencies in the Jesuit reductions in Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina.
The habit of drinking mate reaches as far as Cuenca, in present-day Ecuador.
Jesuit priest and Spanish naturalist José Sánchez Labrador explained in his memoirs that in the labor system governed by the colonial authorities the Indians found themselves pledged again,
“and all the more because the masters make them pay for the knife they lend them to cut the yerba, for the use of the pot in which they cook their food, and so on, such that the miserable workers return to their homes naked and in debt. . .. With these setbacks, their destitute wives and families live almost entirely without protection.”
“In Spain and in Portugal, many drink yerba . . . in Italy, with the arrival of the Jesuits, many persons of distinction have [also] drunk it.”
Father Sánchez Labrador’s apologetic writings on yerba mate address not only its botanical and the agronomic aspects, but also tackle the competitive discourse about mate. “They have said in Europe,”
“that the use of yerba causes a loss of color in the face and tinges them with pallor. Those who hoped to establish the use of Oriental Tea have invented this so that the use of yerba might fall, as it had begun to take flight. And so, the majority of Peru, Chile, Tucumán, all these provinces, as well as many people from Spain and Portugal are accustomed to this drink [i.e., yerba] and they all retain rosy faces and such beauty that the defect of which yerba is accused is purely false. Oriental Tea, Coffee from Turkey, and American Chocolate also have defects. Nevertheless these beverages triumphed over their critics, their praise resting on the continued experience of their good qualities.”
Jesuit Dobrizhoffer described a few years later:
“in order to grow yerba from the seed it was necessary to first wash freshly plucked berries in several baths of clean water. This process released a viscous lather that Sánchez Labrador compared to soap. After this, the seeds could be dried and later planted. Without the washings, he explained, the humidity could not penetrate the hard resinous shell and the seeds merelymrotted in the soil.”
The Jesuits were expulsed and their plantations fell into decay, as did their domestication secrets.
The cultivation was abandoned during the nineteenth century and wild herbs from Paraguay, Brazil, and the Argentine province of Misiones were used. The crop was worked by unpaid laborers (mensúes) under the debt-based compulsory labor system.
In the 19th century yerba mate attracted the attention of the French naturalists Aimé Bonpland who studied the plant.
The first coffee shop in Chile opens in Santiago.
Paraguayan forces have repeatedly defeated the Argentinian army, which considered Paraguay to be a break-away province.
Augustin Saint-Hilaire gave yerba mate its binomial nomenclature: Ilex Paraguariensis.
German botanist Eduard Friedrich Poeppig described in a wealthy family in Chile where the old people drank yerba mate with bombilla while the younger preferred Chinese tea.
Independence of Paraguay.
The Mate industry continued to be of prime importance for the Paraguayan economy after independence. But efforts to export to European markets, marked by a trip to Europe by future president Francisco Solano López fails.
Yerba mate industry expanded with the introduction of steam-driven mills, leaf classification practices, and control of the blend for consumption.
Thomas Ewbank, writing a mix of travel literature and early ethnography, went so far as to claim that in Europe the knowledge of “tea”-drinking came from South America fully half a century before the “Chinese infusion” appeared.
The War of the Triple Alliance devastated the country both economically and demographically. After the war against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, foreign entrepreneurs came to control the yerba mate production and industry in Paraguay. Some regions with mate plantations in Paraguay became Argentinean territory.
Yerba mate enthusiasts pointed out that troops on all sides of the War of the Triple Alliance depended on the drink to suppress hunger and to combat weariness.
Brazil had become the major producer of yerba mate, with plantations in southern Mato Grosso. The Compañía Mate Laranjeira firm, backed by Argentine, Brazilian, and British capital, obtained the concession to exploit the wild herbs on two million hectares.
At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago featured an exhibit called “Man and His Occupation,” which displayed “methods of collecting and preparing yerba maté [sic] or Paraguayan tea,”including “the different kinds of yerba cups, gourds, calabashes, and bombillas used for drinking the tea,” as well as “methods of preparing guarana, aguadiente [sic], chichi, and other beverages.”
Writing of the laborers in Paraguayan yerbales, Argentine Juan B. Ambrosetti said,
“These men, the majority of whom are not of the highest moral standing, are transformed in the yerbales. There they become entirely docile. The troublemaker, characteristic of the northerners, the injured, even the murderer himself, live there working beneath a burning sun, among plaguing clouds of insects, poorly fed, without offering a complaint and without a single thought of rebellion, robbery, etc. crossing their minds.”
Incidentally, the “plaguing clouds of insects” that crowd the morally-sanitizing space of the yerbal carried malaria, among other illnesses, and thus yerba producing terrain was deemed unsanitary for more educated North American visitors, especially after 1898 when the mosquito’s role in malaria transmission was finally proven.
Vice-Consul Flagg opined, “It is fearful to contemplate what the crime and violence would be in a country like Paraguay, where strong rum can be bought for six cents a quart, if the people were deprived of this valuable plant.”
Brazil turned to coffee production in the early twentieth century and Yerba Mate production declined drastically.
Argentina is the main producer, on family farms, while the preparation and marketing are more concentrated and represent the more capitalized sector of the industry.
Mate is used again to exploit the first people.
M. Flagg, the U.S. vice-consul in Argentina wrote:
“I have often thought it would be of inestimable value to our army and navy, for the entire outfit of a soldier or sailor would not take up so much room as a cup and spoon, and the beverage could be prepared at any moment of the day or night without a cook. It would cost about one-fifth the price of tea, and would not make the consumer bilious, as coffee is inclined to do.”
Argentina is the world’s top producer and consumer.
Creation of the Comisión Reguladora de Producción y Comercio de la Yerba Mate (Regulatory Commission for the Production and Trade of Yerba Mate) in Argentina marked a critical moment in mate as a commodity through
the founding of a para-state institution to govern the entire process of mate production and sale.
The creation of the MERCOSUR southern common market and the elimination of harvest and planting quotas in Argentina in 1991 boost exports to Brazil and Paraguay, countries to which Argentina had historically imported yerba mate.
Brazil is the world’s top producer.
- Yerba mate has become a raw material for the development of several products in the food industry, like jams, breads, cakes, puddings, desserts and juices.
- It is used as a natural dye and food preservative, due to the concentration of chlorophyll and essential oils of the plant.
- In the cosmetics segment, items such as shampoos, conditioners, soaps and moisturizers for the skin are produced.
- In the pharmaceutical area, mate is often used in obesity-related products, since it provides effects such as reduced appetite, increased thermogenesis, and cholesterol control.
Today 1.635.000 tons of mate are produced a year. Brazil is the largest producer of Yerba Mate, with 53%, followed by Argentina, 37% and Paraguay, 10%. Argentina is the largest user.
Cielito, cielo que sı́
guárdense su chocolate,
aquı́ somos puros indios
y solo tomamos mate.
Bartolomé Hidalgo, ca. 1810 51
“Little darling, you keep your chocolate, here we’re all Indians and only drink mate.”
The “cielito” is a pre-Independence folkloric musical style (both song and dance) from the Southern Cone region.
The highly caffeinic beverage is traditionally served in a pear-shaped gourd (also called a maté). Tea leaves are placed in the gourd and hot water is poured over them. The gourd is passed from person to person, and each sips the hot drink through a metal straw called a bombilla. More hot water and leaves are added as needed.
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Works Cited & Multimedia Sources
- Butler, William Mill. Yerba maté tea: the history of its early discovery in Paraguay. 1900. (Illustration)
- Folch Christine. Stimulating Consumption: Yerba Mate Myths, Markets, and Meanings from Conquest to Present. 2010.
- Historia de la yerba mate.
- López Adalberto. The Economics of Yerba Mate in Seventeenth-Century South America in Agricultural History. Agricultural History Society. 1974.
- The YERBA MATE. Food of the devil or gift of god?Second International Conference on Food History and Food Studies. 2016.
- Yerba Mate Industry.
- Map by © Mate y Misiones