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Adventures in the spice trade: Kipling famously said that East and West would never meet, but in fact they'd already been doing just so for centuries via the spice trade. Jack Turner overturns some of the widely held misconceptions about the story of spice.

The history of trade with the Far East begins with a house fire in Syria in around 1720 BC. The house, belonging to a fellow named Puzurum, was razed and forgotten. And so matters would have remained but for the visit of a team of archaeologists some 3,700 years later. Brushing and scraping through the ruins, they found a small, charred ceramic vessel that contained a handful of cloves.

Their discovery must rank as one of the most startling finds of recent times. For the clove was, and to some extent still is, a recluse--a fussy and delicate plant that requires an exact balance of tropical sea air, heat and moisture if it's to survive. Prior to modern times, the plant grew only on a handful of tiny volcanic islands clustered in the far east of what is today Indonesia: the province of Maluku, long known to Europe as the Moluccas. These were the Spice Islands of legend and, beyond any doubt, the source of Puzurum's cloves.

So it is that the first piece of evidence for Far Eastern trade is also the most baffling. For there can be no knowing how the spice made the long journey from tropical Southeast Asia to the parched Syrian desert.

These ancient Syrian cloves constitute part of an ancient and enduring traffic. The appetite for spice drove trade and discovery for centuries, culminating in the busy decades at the turn of the 16th century. Many forces sent the discoverers out into the world, so refashioning it, but it's no exaggeration to claim that the Age of Discovery was fuelled by a demand for spice.

Thus, when Vasco da Gama sailed to India in 1497, his envoy disembarked on Indian soil announcing he had come in search of "Christians and spices". Two decades after da Gama, Magellan completed the first circumnavigation of the globe, his objective the same Moluccas that had once supplied Puzurum with his cloves.

Even these voyages, for all their fame, were only intimations of more enduring developments. Da Gama was followed by Albuquerque and Portugal's Estado da India, Europe's longest-lived Asian empire. The British and Dutch East India companies, the first intimations of each nation's imperialist careers, began with spice foremost in their hearts and ledgers. It would be hard to overstate the importance of the spice trade, for it is of central importance to two developments of fundamental world historical significance: the origin and growth of trade between Europe and Asia and the shift of power from the latter to the former.

In a remark as famous as it is historically inaccurate, Kipling said that East and West would never meet; but they have been doing so for millennia. And one of the prime reasons was spice.

The traditional explanation for the spice trade is almost completely incorrect. Everyone knows the outlines: lacking refrigeration, our forebears were condemned to eat rotting, salty meat, which they smothered with overpowering spices in order to cover the taste of salt and decomposition.

In fact the impulses for the trade were far more diverse and, for that matter, far older than the problems faced by mediaeval meat-eaters. (These problems were, in any case, largely confined to the imaginations of 18th-century historians--spices were expensive, and anyone who could afford them could afford decent meat.) In addition to their use in cooking, spices were put to a variety of purposes, including medicine, magic, religion and sex.

There's no knowing how or why cloves came to be in Bronze Age Syria, but there is a good chance that they were there for sacred purposes. By that time, incense and perfumes had long been sweetening the sacraments all over the Near East. Substances such as frankincense and myrrh from Arabia and the Horn of Africa had been in use from at least the third millennium BC. In all likelihood, the eastern spices followed these relatively local gums and resins into the incense-maker's box of tricks. To this day, incense sticks are aromatised with pepper, ginger, cinnamon and sandalwood.

Certainly, this is how spices appear in some of the first written records. The Augustan poet Ovid imagined Paris tempting Helen into absconding with him to Troy with a promise of cinnamon burnt in her honour--that is, that she would be treated as a goddess. The same poet believed that cinnamon had been introduced from the East with the cult of Bacchus, god of wine and ecstasy. "You [Bacchus] were the first to offer cinnamon and incense from the conquered lands [India]," he wrote.

Behind these myths were real practices. Ovid's countryman Pliny wrote of cinnamon offered in burnt sacrifice to the sun. He had seen a huge piece of cinnamon kept on permanent display in a gold dish in a temple on the Palatine, much as Christian churches would, in due course, exhibit their own prodigious, miracle-working relics.

Spices were also put to secular purposes around the Mediterranean world, not the least of which was sexual. The harlot of the Book of Proverbs used cinnamon as a tool of seduction, luring the unwary young man into her bed "to make love all night long". In somewhat more mechanical fashion, the Greco-Roman author Aelian advised the use of pepper to stimulate an ailing sheep's reproductive urges.

Many other consumers of spice were already dead. After Puzurum's cloves, the next confirmed sighting of an eastern spice is in the mummy of the pharaoh Ramses II, ruler of Egypt between 1279 BC and 1212 BC, up whose large, bent nose archaeologists found fragments of pepper. As with Puzurum's enigmatic cloves, this find raises all sorts of questions about the extent of ancient trade, for the plant is native to southwestern India's Malabar coast. How Egyptian embalmers got their hands on it is anyone's guess.

Their reasons for using it in this manner are clearer. By killing or slowing the bacteria that decompose dead flesh, spices were ideal for mummification, both preserving and perfuming the corpse--in the scorching Egyptian climate, no minor consideration. In microbial terms, Ramses' corpse was treated much like a piece of pastrami.

The Romans, too, aromatised the dead--or at least the wealthy dead. In the days of the Roman Empire, the rich and powerful were commonly cremated with cinnamon. During the Christian centuries, burial customs shifted from cremation to interment, but the spices stayed. A piece of cinnamon was found on the mummy of Maria, wife of the emperor Honorius, ruler from 393 AD to 423 AD, when her remains were exhumed during the construction of St Peter's Basilica. The Byzantine emperor Justinian went to his grave with "100 spices and wondrous unguents ... preserving the holy body for all eternity".

It was also the Romans who first made regular use of spices much as we do--as seasonings. In pre-Christian times, it seems likely that spices were too rare and costly to allow their consumption by any but the wealthy few, but that changed as Roman trade with India surged ahead. Around the time of Christ, about 120 vessels set off each year from Red Sea ports for the voyage to India and its pepper. An ancient Tamil described the bustling commercial scene in the port of Muziris, modern Cranganore, where he saw "the beautiful vessels, the masterpieces of the Westerners, stir white foam on the Periyar river ... arriving with gold and departing with pepper".

As Rome crumbled and fell, Roman merchants stopped visiting India, but the trade endured, albeit on a reduced scale. Where Roman freighters once sailed, Arab vessels took over; due primarily to its spices, Malabar was home to India's first community of Muslims, within a generation of the Prophet's death. Proof of their enterprise crops up, astonishingly, through the early Middle Ages, even in some of the outer limits of the former Roman world.

There are regular sightings of spice as far west as England throughout Europe's Dark Ages. The Venerable Bede knew of pepper: on his deathbed he dedicated a little of the spice to his fellow monks. In all likelihood, they viewed his gift in medicinal terms--pepper's supposed 'heating' and 'drying' effects were believed to counter illnesses of a cold and wet nature, such as the dreaded plague or the cool melancholy of winter. In a similar vein, Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury from 669 AD to 690 AD, claimed that pepper mixed with the gall bladder of a hare would cure dysentery.

Spice's ancient reputation for sensualism likewise endured. During the tenth century, the bilious Italian priest Ratherius of Verona accused his fellow clerics of recharging their unholy lust with "libido-nourishing spices". A little earlier, a monk of the Swiss monastery of St Gall wrote of a worldly bishop who stuffed himself on rich meats seasoned with luxurious spices.

It was long assumed that the rise of Islam had effectively closed the Mediterranean, shutting Eastern and Western commerce into entirely separate, self-contained spheres. However, the continued presence of spices shows that the traffic endured; pepper in Bede's Northumbria presupposes a network of trade and traders that reached all the way to India.

Who, then, were those traders shuttling spices to the West? The evidence is scant, but in all likelihood Jewish merchants were best placed to negotiate their way between Christendom and the Islamic world. By the eighth century, Venetian and other Italo-Byzantine traders were apparently ferrying spices westward from Byzantium. There were Venetian traders in Alexandria from at least the ninth century when, according to legend, they filched the body of St Mark from under the noses of its guardians and returned it to St Mark's Basilica, where it remains to this day. It was a traffic that would enrich the city on the lagoon for centuries.

The Venetians weren't the only ones to benefit. The obscure and perilous traffic that brought pepper to Bede and spices to Charlemagne was arguably no less important than the more celebrated spice odysseys of later, mediaeval times. After the demands of piety and war, exotic and expensive luxuries were the chief expenses of the early mediaeval nobility, and the effects of satisfying that demand were no less enduring than the churches, castes and kingdoms they built. At home, the demand for luxuries brought into being what the historian Richard Southern has called a "whole complex of activities," the first basic apparatus of banking and trade agreements, the technical and legal framework the trade needed to flourish.

In this sense, meeting the demand for spice implied, and required, a great deal. Where goods and money flowed, there too went people and ideas. Sown within the long-distance luxury trade were the seeds of the birth of Europe--its expansion around the turn of the millennium from an isolated, introspective culture to a land studded by towns and criss-crossed by merchants. No longer isolated and introspective, Europe was taking an expansionist and dynamic turn. Luxury, that most trivial of human pursuits, had revolutionary implications. Mediaeval Europe's first renaissance materialised out of the aromas for a nobleman's corpse or the seasonings for his dinner, the tonics for his humours or fuel for his libido.

Given the historical importance of spice, it's no small irony that the most famous spice-seeker and, by any measure, the most significant, failed to find what he was looking for.

When Christopher Columbus sailed west he wasn't looking for a new world, but for a new route to the old world of the Indies and thence for gold and spices. He found little of either.

The story of Columbus's voyage has been romanticised, but essentially the discovery of the New World came about for hard, commercial reasons. He was able to obtain backing for his speculative venture by promising substantial returns. In the phrase of one of his intellectual mentors, the Florentine humanist Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, a westward voyage to the Indies promised Spain access ad loca aromatum--to the places where the spices grew.

This misunderstanding translated into confusion upon Columbus's arrival in the Americas. Making landfall around the Caribbean, he was so convinced that he was in Asia that he shaped the facts to fit his case. These were the Indies, ergo there were spices. On his return to Spain, he offered his royal patrons samples as proof of his visit, in the form of gold, 'Indians', parrots and 'spices'.

But, of course, they were nothing of the kind: mere scraps of bark and roots vivified by his overheated imagination. With time, however, it became clear even to Columbus that there was something odd about his spices. He consoled himself with the thought that the error was one of experience, since he had never seen them in their natural state and so had no idea how they should be harvested. "I do not recognise them and this causes me much sorrow," he wrote.

And yet Columbus's quest wasn't quite the failure it might appear. His samples, quietly forgotten, did contain one approximation to a genuine Asian spice, albeit not what he or anyone could have expected.

Like many an unwary newcomer since, Columbus reported that he found Caribbean food "extremely hot". In his log for 15 January 1492, he writes of Hispaniola, "There is also plenty of aji, which is their pepper, which is more valuable than [black] pepper, and all the people eat nothing else, it being very wholesome. Fifty caravels might be annually loaded with it [from Hispaniola]." The natives seemed to put it in everything. Peter Martyr, the Italian humanist at the Spanish court who witnessed the explorer's return, noted that five grains of this new plant were hotter and more flavourful than 20 grains of Malabar pepper.

Their aji wasn't pepper, but in time it would become almost as popular. Within years it was adopted by the real Indies, spreading so rapidly that there was confusion as I to its origins. It was, of course, the chilli.

* Spice: The History of an Obsession by Jack Turner is out now (HarperCollins, 25 [pounds sterling])
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Author:Turner, Jack
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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