Europeans in India in the Sixteenth
and Seventeenth Centuries

The European connection with India, as has already been noted, goes back to the days of the Greeks. In the matter of trade and especially of spices, interchange never ceased. But direct contact lapsed sometime after 400 A.D. with the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century and the rise of Islam in the seventh. From then on only occasional travelers reached India, such as Marco Polo in the south in 1300, and the Russian Nikitin in the fifteenth century. We learn more of India during these centuries from Muslims like the philosopher Albiruni and the Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta than from Europeans.

During all this time the lucrative spice trade continued to be handled by go-betweens. The spices came mainly from the East Indies, and as far afield as the Moluccas (the home of cloves). They came by sea to south India, where they changed hands and pepper and some minor spices were added. Then they found their way by various routes and many jurisdictions to the West, to which they were distributed from Constantinople and Alexandria. Why was the European demand so urgent that the supply was attempted against such obstacles? The answer is to be found in the primitive conditions of life prevailing in medieval Europe. Not only were there no refrigerators and preserving plants, but there was a lack of agricultural knowledge to provide winter fodder for cattle. All fat stock had to be killed at Christmas when outdoor pasture failed; the cattle retained for breeding were often so weak that they had to be carried to the grass in the spring. Man subsisted on bacon smoked in chimneys, ham soaked in salt, and meat preserved with pepper. Here was the first need for spices. The second was to flavor the far-from-fresh meat when it came to be eaten. A third was to flavor sour wine, the art of mellowing having been lost with the fall of Rome. This was called "mulling," and the treatment


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India: A Modern History
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