Angela Schottenhammer on the Westward Movement of Balsam and Cacao

PANTROPICA Virtual Seminar Series #1: The past, present & future ‘Pantropocene’: Pacific perspectives

Prof. Angela Schottenhammer (KU Leuven) on Balsam & cacao: Westward movement of medicinal knowledge & food culture across the early modern Pacific

Abstract: ‘Peruvian’ balsam and cacao were two allegedly marginal and almost ‘invisible’ products that were shipped from America (Acapulco) across the Pacific to the Philippines. This balsam, the resin or oil of (Myroxylon balsamum (L.) Harms var. pereirae (Royle) Harms), originated mainly from an area in Mesoamerica called the ‘Balsam coast’. It was highly valued by Chinese court elites, who appreciated its medical properties. Knowledge about this balsam, interestingly, even found its way into historical Chinese maps. But it obviously remained a relatively rare and exotic product in Asia. Cacao trees (Theobroma cacao), on the other hand, were eventually transplanted in the Philippines. The cacao was supposed to serve as nutritious food & drink and as cash crop, to pay for all the imports from China, thus limiting the drain of silver from the Spanish world to China and making the Philippines economically more independent. My presentation will provide insights into specific features of the transpacific transhipment, of related knowledge transfers, and the uses of these two originally American botanica in the Philippines and China.

Angela Schottenhammer (蕭婷): is full professor of Chinese Middle Period & Early Modern World History at KU Leuven, Belgium, and Selected Senior Researcher the School of Economics at Shanghai University (经济学院, 上海大学). From 2009 to 2020 she was research director and adjunct professor at the Indian Ocean World Centre (IOWC), Faculty of History and Classical Studies, McGill University, Canada. She obtained her Ph.D. in 1993 from Würzburg University with a thesis on “Song Period Tomb inscriptions.” She is director of the Crossroads Research Centre (, chief editor of an interdisciplinary journal and two book series, and has widely published on Chinese history, archaeology & culture, as well as China’s historical relations with the Silk Roads (both continental and maritime).

You can listen to Prof. Schottenhammer’s talk here: