Ilex paraguariensis

Traditional Yerba Mate Tea Popular in South America

Traditional Yerba Mate Tea Popular in South America

When cooler weather returns to Southern California, in about twenty years or so, I will resume my habit of drinking yerba mate tea. In the meantime, I will enjoy Robert Southey’s poem “Introductory to South America Yerba Mate.” I was pleasantly surprised to see a 19th century British poet conversant with the Ilex paraguariensis, or yerba mate.

Introductory to South America
Yerba Mate
Robert Southey (1774–1843)

(From A Tale of Paraguay)

AMID those marshy woodlands far and wide
Which spread beyond the soaring vulture’s eye,
There grew on Empalado’s southern side
Groves of that tree whose leaves adust supply     [scorched
The Spaniards with their daily luxury;
A beverage whose salubrious use obtains
Through many a land of mines and slavery,
Even over all La Plata’s sea-like plains,
And Chili’s mountain realm, and proud Peru’s domains.

But better for the injured Indian race
Had woods of manchineel the land o’erspread:
Yea, in that tree so blest by Nature’s grace
A direr curse had they inherited,
Than if the Upas there had reared its head
And sent its baleful scions all around,
Blasting where’er its effluent force was shed,
In air and water, and the infected ground,
All things wherein the breath or sap of life is found.

The poor Guaranies dreamt of no such ill,    [Paraguayan natives
When for themselves in miserable hour,
The virtues of that leaf, with pure good-will,
They taught their unsuspected visitor,
New in the land as yet. They learnt his power
Too soon, which law nor conscience could restrain,
A fearless but inhuman conqueror,
Heart-hardened by the accursed lust of gain,
O fatal thirst of gold! O foul reproach for Spain!

For gold and silver had the Spaniards sought,
Exploring Paraguay with desperate pains,
Their way through forests axe in hand they wrought;
Drenched from above by unremitting rains
They waded over inundated plains,
Forward by hope of plunder still allured;
So they might one day count their golden gains,
They cared not at what cost of sin procured,
All dangers they defied, all sufferings they endured.

Barren alike of glory and of gold
That region proved to them; nor would the soil
Unto their unindustrious hands unfold
Harvests, the fruit of peace,—and wine and oil,
The treasures that repay contented toil
With health and weal; treasures that with them bring
No guilt for priest and penance to assoil,
Nor with their venom arm the awakened sting
Of conscience at that hour when life is vanishing.

But keen of eye in their pursuit of gain
The conquerors looked for lucre in this tree:
An annual harvest there might they attain,
Without the cost of annual industry.
’T was but to gather in what there grew free
And share Potosi’s wealth. Nor thence alone.
But gold in glad exchange they soon should see
From all that once the Incas called their own,
Or where the Zippa’s power or Zaque’s laws were known.

For this, in fact though not in name a slave,
The Indian from his family was torn;
And droves on droves were sent to find a grave
In woods and swamps, by toil severe outworn,
No friend at hand to succor or to mourn,
In death unpitied, as in life unblest.
O miserable race, to slavery born!
Yet when we look beyond this world’s unrest,
More miserable then the oppressors than the opprest.