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Chapter 1 .
The Spice Seekers
The Taste That Launched a Thousand Ships
According to an old Catalan tradition, the news of the New World was formally announced in the Saló del Tinell, the cavernous, barrel-vaulted banquet hall in Barcelona's Barri Gòtic, the city's medieval quarter. And it is largely on tradition we must rely, for aside from a few sparse details the witnesses to the scene had frustratingly little to say, leaving the field free for painters, poets, and Hollywood producers to imagine the moment that marked the watershed, symbolically at least, between medievalism and modernity. They have tended to portray a setting of suitable grandeur, with king and queen presiding over an assembly of everyone who was anyone in the kingdom: counts and dukes weighed down by jewels, ermines, and velvets; mitered bishops; courtiers stiff in their robes of state; serried ranks of pages sweating in livery. Ambassadors and dignitaries from foreign powers look on in astonishment and with mixed emotions-awe, confusion, and envy. Before them stands Christopher Columbus in triumph, vindicated at last, courier of the ecosystem's single biggest piece of news since the ending of the Ice Age. The universe has just been reconfigured.
Or so we now know. But the details are largely the work of historical imagination, the perspective one of the advantages of having half a millennium to digest the news. The view from 1493 was less panoramic; indeed, altogether more foggy. It is late April, the exact day unknown. Columbus is indeed back from America, but he is oblivious to the fact. His version of events is that he has just been to the Indies, and though the tale he has to tell might have been lifted straight from a medieval romance, he has the proof to silence any who would doubt him: gold, green, and yellow parrots, Indians, and cinnamon.
At least that is what Columbus believed. His gold was indeed gold, if in no great quantity, and his parrots were indeed parrots, albeit not of any Asian variety. Likewise his Indians: the six bewildered individuals who shuffled forward to be inspected by the assembled company were not Indians but Caribs, a race soon to be exterminated by the Spanish colonizers and by the deadlier still germs they carried. The misnomer Columbus conferred has long outlived the misconception.
In the case of the cinnamon Columbus's capricious labeling would not stick for nearly so long. A witness reported that the twigs did indeed look a little like cinnamon but tasted more pungent than pepper and smelled like cloves-or was it ginger? Equally perplexing, and most uncharacteristically for a spice, his sample had gone off during the voyage back-the unhappy consequence, as Columbus explained, of his poor harvesting technique. But in due course time would reveal a simpler solution to the mystery, and one that the skeptics perhaps guessed even then: that his "cinnamon" was in fact nothing any spicier than the bark of an unidentified Caribbean tree. Like the Indies he imagined he had visited, his cinnamon was the fruit of faulty assumptions and an overcharged imagination. For all his pains Columbus had ended up half a planet from the real thing.
In April 1493, his wayward botany amounted to a failure either too bizarre or, for those whose money was at stake, too deflating to contemplate. As every schoolchild knows (or should know), when Columbus bumped into America he was looking not for a new world but for an old one. What exactly he was looking for is clearly delineated in the agreement he concluded with the Spanish monarchs before the voyage, promising the successful discoverer one tenth of all gold, silver, pearls, gems, and spices. His posthumous fame notwithstanding, in this respect Columbus was only a qualified success. For in what in due course turned out to be the new world of the Americas, the conquistadors found none of the spices they sought, although in the temples and citadels of the Aztecs and Incas they stumbled across riches that outglittered even the gilded fantasies they had brought with them from Castile. Ever since, it has been with the glitter of gold and silver, not the aroma of spices, that the conquistadors have been associated. But when Columbus raised anchor, and when he delivered his report in Barcelona, seated in the place of honor alongside the Catholic monarchs, ennobled and enriched for his pains, the perspective was different. The unimagined and unimaginable consequences of his voyage have clouded later views of causes, privileging half of the equation. Columbus sought not only an El Dorado but also, in some respects more beguiling still, El Picante.
Why this was so may be answered with varying degrees of complexity. The simplest answer, but also the shallowest, is that spices were immensely valuable, and they were valuable because they were immensely elusive and difficult to obtain. From their harvest in distant tropical lands, spices arrived in the markets of Venice, Bruges, and London by an obscure tangle of routes winding halfway around the planet, serviced by distant peoples and places that seemed more myth than reality. That this was so was as much a function of the geography as the geopolitics of the day. Where the spices grew-from the jungles and backwaters of Malabar to the volcanic Spice Islands of the Indonesian archipelago-Christians feared to tread. Astride the spice routes lay the great belt of Islam, stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. As spice was a Christian fixation, so it was a Muslim milch cow. At every stage along the long journey from East to West, a different middleman ratcheted up the price, with the result that by the time the spices arrived in Europe their value was astronomical, inflated in some cases on the order of 1,000 percent-sometimes more. With cost came an aura of glamour, danger, distance, and profit. Seen through European eyes, the horizon clouded by ignorance and vivified by imagination, the far-off places where the spices grew were lands where money grew on trees.
Yet if the image was beguiling, the obstacles that stood in the way seemed insuperable-prior, that is, to Columbus. His solution was as elegant as it was radical. It was not inevitable, said Columbus, that Eastern goods should arrive from the East; nor that Westerners should pay such a premium, thereby lining the pockets of the Infidel. The world being round, was it not simple logic that spices might also come around the other way: around the back of the globe, from the west? (Contrary to one hoary myth, hardly any well-informed medieval Europeans were flat-earthers. That the earth was spherical had been accepted by all informed opinion since ancient times.) It followed, then, that all one had to do to reach the Indies and their riches was head west from Spain: the ancients had said so, but thus far no one had put the idea to the test. With a little endeavor spices would be as common as cabbages and herrings. Columbus, in not so many words, proposed to sail west to the East, to Cathay and the Indies of legend; or, in the words of one of his intellectual mentors, the Florentine humanist Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, "ad loca aromatum," to the places where the spices are.
It was an idea of hallucinatory promise-not for the promise of discovery for discovery's sake nor even because the idea was particularly original, but because of the fiscal rewards. In the event of success Columbus's scheme would deliver his Spanish patrons a limitless source of wealth. For the small outlay required to fit out the expedition-a sum roughly equivalent to the annual income of a middling Castilian nobleman-Columbus proposed to drag the Indies out of the realms of fable and into the mainstream of Spanish trade and conquest. Though the story of his voyage has been endlessly mythologized, buried under a mountain of romantic speculation and scholarly scrutiny, in effect his success depended on convincing a coalition of investors and then the Crown that his relatively inexpensive plan merited the gamble. There were experts who disagreed, but in fifteenth-century Spain no more than in a modern democracy did expert opinion or the weight of evidence always carry the day. With a powerful syndicate and capital on his side, those who labeled him crackbrained no longer mattered. His voyage was possible because he got the backing and the cash, and he got the cash because of the promise of more-vastly more-to come back in return. Today he would be labeled a venture capitalist of a particularly bold and inventive hue.
Hence, very briefly summarized, the scene in the Saló. And if the returning discoverer's choice of exhibits made a good deal more sense then than now, so too, in his defense, did his mistakes. Very few Europeans had been to the real Indies, and fewer still had looked on the spice plants in their natural state. Reports of spices and Indies alike arrived rarely, often heavily fictionalized, a situation that left the fertile medieval imagination free to run riot, and few had imaginations more fertile than did Columbus. A month after first sighting land he had seen enough for his own satisfaction, writing in his log that "without doubt there is in these lands a very great quantity of gold . . . and also there are stones, and there are precious pearls and infinite spicery"-none of which he had thus far laid eyes on. Two days later, as his small flotilla picked its way through the coves and reefs of the Caribbean, he discerned hidden treasures beyond the palms and sandy beaches, convinced that "these islands are those innumerable ones that in the maps of the world are put at the eastern end. And he [Columbus] said that he believed that there were great riches and precious stones and spices in them." The evidence was lacking, but his mind was made up. He had set out to find spices, and find spices he would. Desire was father to discovery.
Yet for all Columbus's confidence there was, undeniably, something odd about his "spices"-not least the fact that they did not taste, smell, or look like the spices he and his patrons knew from their daily table. But Columbus would not be disillusioned. Indeed, on the subject of spice the logs and letters of his voyages read like a study in quixotic delusion. His imagination was more than equal to the challenge of an intruding reality, far outstripping the evidence. Within a week of his arrival in the Caribbean he had the excuse to dispel any doubts: a European, unfamiliar with the plants in their natural habitat, he was bound to make the odd mistake: "But I do not recognize them, and this causes me much sorrow." It was an escape clause that would stay obstinately open for the rest of his life.
And so Columbus kept looking, and he kept finding. He was far from alone in his wishful thinking. His men claimed to have found aloes and rhubarb-the latter at the time imported from China and the Himalayas-although, having forgotten their shovels, they were unable to produce a sample. Rumors flitted among the excited explorers; sightings abounded. Someone found some mastic trees.* The boatswain of the Niña came forward for the promised reward, notwithstanding the fact that he had unfortunately dropped the sample (a genuine mistake or a cynical manipulation of his commander's optimism?). Search teams were dispatched, returning with yet more samples and the caveat, by now customary, that spices must be harvested in the appropriate season. Everywhere they were bedeviled-and shielded-by their innocence. On December 6, 1492, lying off of Cuba, Columbus wrote of the island's beautiful harbors and groves, "all laden with fruit which the Admiral [Columbus] believed to be spices and nutmegs, but they were not ripe and he did not recognize them."
What Columbus could see for certain, on the other hand, was the potential of great things to come. If the first samples of Indian spices left much to be desired, his evidence and testimony were at least enough to convince the Crown that he was onto something.* Preparations for a second and much larger expedition were immediately put into place, a fleet of at least seventeen ships and several hundred men sailing from Cádiz on September 25, 1493, carrying with them the same freight of unfounded optimism. In the Caribbean forests Diego Álvarez Chanca, the expedition's physician, found evidence of fabulous wealth tantalizingly out of reach: "There are trees which, I think, bear nutmegs, but they were so far without fruit, and I say that I think this because the taste and the smell of the bark is like nutmegs. I saw a root of ginger which an Indian carried hanging around his neck. There are also aloes, although not of the kind which has hitherto been seen in our parts, but there is no doubt that they are of the species of aloes which doctors use." As he shared his commander's illusions, so Álvarez also shared his excuses: "There is also found a kind of cinnamon; it is true that it is not so fine as that which is known at home. We do not know whether by chance this is due to lack of knowledge of the time to gather it when it should be gathered, or whether by chance the land does not produce better."
However, not all these spice seekers were quite so naive or gullible as their cavalier tree spotting might suggest. In order to assist in the search, each of Columbus's expeditions took along samples of all the major spices to show the Indians, who would then, so it was hoped, direct them to the real thing. Yet such was the strength of the Europeans' conviction that even the real thing failed to clear up their misunderstanding-rather, the reverse was the case. During the first voyage, two crew members were sent on an expedition into the Cuban hinterland with samples of spices, reporting back on November 2, 1493: "The Spaniards showed them the cinnamon and pepper and other spices that the Admiral had given them; and the Indians told them by signs that there was a lot of it near there to the southeast, but that right there they did not know if there was any." It was the same story everywhere they went. "The Admiral showed to some of the Indians of that place cinnamon and pepper . . . and they recognized it . . . and indicated by signs that near there there was much of it, towards the south-east."