2001: A Spice Odyssey

Article excerpt

Explorers of the past braved the high seas in search of valuable and exotic spices. Andrew Dalby tracks the emergence of spice exploration and trade through the now well-ploughed routes of Asia and the New World

SATISFYING OUR TASTEBUDS has been one of the chief motives for exploration. Trade by land and sea -- as difficult, slow, costly and dangerous as it used to be -- has brought the flavours and aromas from around the world to our table.

Spices such as ginger, frankincense, musk, cinnamon and cloves are among the earliest products that have crossed the globe in trade networks. Spices are classed as aromatics, added to food, used in festivals, religion and medicine, and traditionally prepared for long storage and distant travel.

The early travel of spices, uncovered by intrepid explorers, stretches as far and wide as China, Central Asia, Russia, Iran, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Egypt and West Africa. The explosion of new spice routes after explorers discovered the New World brings more countries into the spice story, such as Mexico, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru.

But there is also a darker side to this exploration, with human greed for spices and aromatics leading to wars and massacres. The Assyrians fought and killed for the spices of Arabia. Genoese and Venetians engaged in a long struggle for the spice trade of medieval Europe. After these spice discoveries, European states rivalled one another in greed and barbarity. The first English possession in the East, the tiny Indonesian island of Run, was wiped out by the Dutch, who reduced whole islands to poverty and exterminated inhabitants in order to monopolise the trade in cloves and nutmeg. As enthralling as the gold of El Dorado, the legendary cinnamon of Le Canela led Gonzalo Pizarro and his 2,000-strong expedition to exhaustion and death in the forests of Ecuador, in a two-year long expedition from which only 80 people returned, naked and starving.

The wealthy citizens of the West, however, have had their tastebuds satiated for centuries, thanks to the world's great explorers. Christopher Columbus set out on his great adventure in 1492 with the aim of bringing back Asiatic gold and spices for Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. A few years later, in 1498, Vasco de Gama opened the sea route to India in another -- this time successful -- attempt to find a direct route to the spices and the luxuries of the East. As he opened the sea route around Africa, de Gama led the way to sources of Ashanti pepper, Cameroon cardamom and the beautifully named grains of paradise. Thanks to both these two ventures, Spain and Portugal for a short time cornered European markets in the products of the Far East and the New World.

But the great 15th-century discoveries far from mark the beginning of the worldwide trade in exotic spices -- they open the third and last chapter in the story. The Indian Ocean route is at least 2,600 years old, and the Silk Road, opened around 2,100 years ago, has served ever since to deliver the spices and drugs of inner Asia both to China and to Europe. Spices from Indonesia reached China at least 1,800 years ago. Chocolate, chilli and other spices were circulating widely in Central America by that time.

SMOOTH AS SILK

We know exactly why and how the Silk Road opened: it was the work of the bold and stubborn Chinese general Zhang Qian. At Imperial command, Zhang Qian in about 139BC set out from the Chinese capital towards the wild northwest in an attempt to reach the distant realm of the Indo-Scythians (roughly modern Tajikistan). His mission had its prime aim the forging of an alliance against a dangerous mutual enemy, the Huns. In his 480-km crossing of the so-called `River of Sand' or Gobi Desert, Zhang Qian had many terrors to face.

A later Chinese traveller, the Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang, described this arid land, writing that "one saw neither birds nor quadrupeds, nor water, nor pasture; the night was illuminated by strange lights kindled by evil spirits; and daylight revealed only barren and featureless plains stretching to the horizon". …