Unknown seas the portugu.., p.4

Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India, page 4


Unknown Seas: The Portuguese Captains and the Passage to India

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  Such was the Portuguese situation. The Black Death during the fourteenth century had ravaged the nation in successive waves, reducing its population at one point to less than 1 million, bringing with it greater religious extremism. The recurring wars with Castile were also a constant drain on manpower, and lack of workers was a chronic and serious problem throughout the nation.

  In addition, the generally illiterate population was uneasy. The mass of labourers in Lisbon were described as ‘fanatical, filthy and ferocious’.14 Although Lisbon was a great metropolis by European standards at this time, its population was only between 50,000 and 65,000.15 Feeding the restless populace was such a persistent and crucial demand that grain was routinely imported, a constant drain on the economy.

  Pepper meant that meat could be preserved into the winter, and meat meant a healthier and larger population. Pepper was a godsend but its scarcity and cost prevented its widespread use. It could be obtained only through the hands of the hated infidels, and never in sufficient quantity or at an acceptable cost. Though its precise source remained a mystery, if a way to India could be found that bypassed the Muslims, many serious problems would be solved. Adding to the allure was this unassailable fact: the nation that controlled an all-sea route to India would be the richest and most powerful in Europe.

  Throughout recorded history there had been continuous land trade between the West and East. Along caravan routes stretching in a patchwork across thousands of miles, interrupted by war, revolution and disease but always restored, commerce had continued because it was mutually beneficial. The goods of this trade were generally scented, filled with enticing, wondrous flavours, claimed to possess magical curative powers: in short, spices.

  There was an active, though often interrupted, trade between India and Ancient Egypt, where tombs have been found containing spices. Pharaohs of the First Dynasty, around 2900 bc, routinely traded with the region they called the land of Punt, initially believed to be the east coast of Africa but later extended to include India. Legend reports the conquest of the Arabian Sea by a fleet of 400 Egyptian ships sent by Pharaoh Sesostris, who ruled from 2115 to 2099 bc. The clearest signs of a lucrative trade with India were the attempts to construct a canal across the Suez, finally accomplished, or restored by some accounts, by Darius I, king of Persia from 521 to 485 bc.

  The Minaean kingdom on the western part of the Arabian peninsula exported incense it obtained by caravan from the East and traded by sea along the coastline with India for spices. The Phoenicians established a post for sea trade at Aqaba as early as the reign of King Solomon, from 973 to 933 bc. By the sixth century BC there was a regular trade between the west coast of India and the Middle East. Jews, deported to India by the Assyrian kings at the time of the fall of the kingdom of Israel in 555 bc, played a key role in the spice trade.

  Alexander the Great quickly grasped the value of pepper when he reached India and directed the creation of trade routes to encourage and develop commerce throughout the empire. One hundred and twenty ships a year set out to India along the sea portions of these routes to collect cargoes of spices, primarily pepper, taking two years to return home and relying on the predictable monsoon to help them in both directions. Sea trade routes extended to southeast Asia, reaching the Han empire of China. Alexandria in Egypt become the gateway for spices into western Europe; one of its portals was called ‘the Pepper Gate’.

  Despite periodic interruptions, the spice trade flourished during the Roman empire. The Romans established direct contact with India after they occupied Egypt, in essence taking control of the trade that had existed between Pharaoh and India for nearly 3,000 years. After the Greek merchant Hippalus ‘discovered’ the monsoon winds of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean in the first century AD trading voyages between the Roman empire and India became commonplace. Roman merchants established permanent trading stations on the Bay of Bengal, and Roman products, even Roman subjects, could be found as far away as China and southeast Asia. Roman contact, however, was almost exclusively with the west coast of India, in particular the Malabar coast, which abounded ‘in ships sent there with cargoes from Arabia and by the Greeks’. Some time during the first century AD an unknown mariner wrote Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. It records:

  They [the Romans] send large ships to the market towns on account of the great quantity and bulk of pepper and malabathrum [cinnamon]. There are imported here, in the first place, a great quantity of coin; topaz, thin clothing, not much; figured linens, antimony, coral, crude glass, copper, tine, lead, wine, not much, but as much as at Barygaza [Broach]; realgar and orpiment; and wheat enough for the sailors, for this is not dealt in by the merchants there. There is exported pepper, which is produced in quantity in only one region near these markets, a district called Cottonora. Besides this there are exported great quantities of fine pearls, ivory, silk cloth, spikenard from the Ganges, malabathrum from the places in the interior, transparent stones of all kinds, diamonds and sapphires, and tortoise shell; that from Chryse Island, and that taken among the islands along the coast of Damirica [Tamil Nadu]. They make the voyage to this place in favourable season who set out from Egypt about the month of July, that is Epiphi.16

  Imperial Rome imported so many spices from the East that there was a constant drain of tens of millions in both gold and silver. The emperor was forced to issue a decree forbidding the use of gold in such transactions because it was carried out of the empire and never seen again.

  Jews played a key role in the spice trade nearly everywhere. The Book of Conquests and of Countries, by the Iman of Baghdad, gives as the reason the fact that Jews ‘speak Persian, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Spanish and Slav’. They travelled freely from Saipan to Tangier, across north Africa to Cairo then to Damascus, Baghdad and from there to India and China. They exported silks, furs, swords, female slaves and eunuchs. From Asia they returned with aloes, camphor, cinnamon, musk and other valuables.17

  Spices were thought by many in Rome to corrupt public virtue and to be the ultimate cause of the destruction of the empire itself. Nevertheless, the empire’s appetite for spices only grew more voracious. Special warehouses were constructed in Rome to prevent the spoiling of spices and they were the source of great wealth. The poet Persius wrote:

  The greedy merchants led by lucre, run

  To the parch’d Indies, and the rising sun;

  From thence hot Pepper, and rich Drugs they bear,

  Bart’ring for Spices, their Italian ware.18

  At Poppea’s funeral, the grieving Nero ordered all the cinnamon imported from Ceylon over one year to be burnt.

  As the Roman empire spread, so to did the knowledge and use of spices, especially cinnamon, frankincense and pepper. The Germans developed such a fondness for pepper that in 408 they demanded 3,000 pounds of it as a ransom from Rome. The collapse of the Roman empire and the subsequent disorder in western Europe resulted in a 400-year disruption in the steady flow of spices from the East, though a trickle continued.

  As normal trade resumed, the route took a different route and moved further north, ultimately reaching Constantinople, where the spice trade constituted the primary source of its wealth and power.19 There were at one point in Constantinople 103 interpreters of as many languages and dialects, all related to the trade in spices. Europeans returning from Samarkand reported they saw there Persians, Indians and Turks, as well as others with their own shops.

  Modest though it was by modern standards, the scale of interconnection in the ancient world was greater than it might have been primarily because of trade, especially in spices. As early as the fifth century Christians were observed living in India along the Malabar coast and by the sixth century they were observed on the island of Ceylon. In 543 the Byzantine emperor Justinian dispatched missionaries to Nubia, were they established a Christian church that lasted until the fourteenth century, and Christianity survived further south in Ethiopia. Individual travellers and merchants made the journey east on a regular basis. In 552 the
eggs of the silkworm were smuggled from China to Constantinople by two monks. Indeed, the Far East was so well known that in 628 the Egyptian writer Theophylact Simocatta wrote an accurate portrayal of China. Between 643 and 719 envoys were sent east from Byzantium to seek assistance from the conquering Arabs.

  The spread of Islam again disrupted the flow of spices to the West, but in India the conquerors soon became traders, as they did elsewhere. In Egypt in 969 the Fatimite Caliph founded a new city, Cairo, and from then on spices were key to its prosperity. A special quarter of the city was assigned to the spice trade and in 1175 a Western envoy reported seeing for himself a vast quantity of pepper and other spices stored there.

  The East was as eager as the West to participate in the trade and the incessant demand for spices influenced events there. In 1072 the Chinese occupied the Moluccas, primarily to gain control over the spices that grew there. The inhabitants of the Moluccas – or the Spice Islands, as the Portuguese called them –soon realized the value of the nutmeg and clove trees and drove the Chinese out, only to be conquered later by the Malaccas, the traditional regional power. Both Persian and Arab traders were visiting the Spice Islands as early as the eighth century and soon afterwards cloves, camphor, sandalwood, pepper and nutmeg made their way west. By 1180, in St Jean d’Acre, taxes were paid in nutmeg. Chinese merchants also traded in spices and, not surprisingly, developed a particular fondness for pepper.

  It was in the interest of all those in the East who profited from the commerce to keep the origin of spices secret. The Chinese concocted exotic stories and fables when asked the source. These not only confused the origin of the spices but also added to the mythology surrounding them and enhanced their value.

  In the West in the ninth and tenth centuries there was a steady stream of pilgrims back from the Holy Land to Europe who brought with them the spices they had encountered during their trip. But it was the Crusades that were the primary means for assuring and expanding the steady flow of spices into western Europe. Spices that had not previously been known there made their way to the homes of the crusaders, where an immediate demand was created for them.

  Between 1099 and 1291 merchants, pilgrims and crusaders by the thousand visited the Middle East. They came from every corner of Europe, from Norway, Wales, Scotland, England, Germany and Flanders to name but a few, and the numbers were substantial. The bishop of Bamberg, for example, led a party of some 7,000. Those who managed to return home were usually enriched by the spices they brought back with them.

  Despite the animosity between Christians and Muslims, an increasingly cosy relationship existed between the Arab spice traders and their Western counterparts. Each dealt in a highly profitable commodity and it was in their mutual interest to assure a steady supply and maximum return on the trade. Drawing on the legacy of Rome and exploiting their fortuitous location, the cities of Italy were best positioned to prosper from the spice trade. The Genoese established a Middle East trading colony by rebuilding the ancient city of Theodosia on the Crimea, which they renamed Caffa.

  The trade in spices meant great wealth, luxury and power for those in control of the choke points. Constantinople and Alexandria were the two primary gateways for the flow of spices into the West, and their importance at any given moment depended on politics and religion as times and events favoured first one, then the other.

  Once the spices made their way into Europe they created profit at every routing point, though all roads led to the merchants of the Hanseatic League in the Netherlands. In Bruges the merchants from Germany, France, England and Spain exchanged wool for spices. Antwerp, Ghent, Bordeaux, Toulouse and Louvain were all important trading centres because of spices. The Guild of the Pepperers was founded in London as early as 1179, by which time the Corporation of the Spicers was already playing an important role in France. The spice trade in Europe was carefully, and profitably, regulated, the cost of transport calculated to the smallest coin.

  By the middle of the thirteenth century the cities of Italy were the centres of the land-based commerce with the Orient and were located at the hub of a network of trade routes leading to the East. They were also the focal point for a system of credit and currency that permitted the trade to prosper. The creation by Genoa, Florence and Venice between 1252 and 1284 of gold coins, which allowed even greater expansion of trade east, was the first in Europe since Charlemagne. The control of trade with the East was the primary source of the immense wealth of these city-states. From the Italian commerce developed regular spice trade routes in Europe. The spice trade was the single most powerful economic engine for producing wealth in medieval Europe.

  The price of spices began to rise dramatically in 1300, when the Sultan in Cairo ordered that all such traffic in his region be routed through the city, where he imposed a heavy tax. The Portuguese, who made a careful study of such matters, concluded in the fifteenth century that the ruler in Cairo received revenue from the trade in spices valued at 7.5 million cruzados in gold,20 a fortune almost beyond imagining.

  Commerce was not the only means of benefiting from the spice trade. Great profits could be made on the high seas since there was little distinction between commerce and piracy. In 1290, nine hundred Genoese seamen were brought to the Tigris by the Il-Khan Arghun to construct and man galleys for the purpose of raiding the spice sea routes. After a sailor desecrated a mosque, causing a local riot, the men were moved to Basra, where they promptly divided into two rival camps and made war on one another. Nothing came of the enterprise.

  In 1324 Jordon of Severac wrote to the Pope from India that just two galleys could severely interrupt trade in the Arabian Sea. A Dominican named William Adam, later the second Archbishop of Sultaniyeh, proposed that three or four galleys manned by 1,200 Genoese should be stationed in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to profit from blockading Egyptian commerce. Adam spent twenty months in the Arabian Sea region, nine of them on the Christian island of Socrotra.

  In 1315 the Genoese merchants Benedetto Vivaldi and Percivalle Stancone travelled to India, where the former died in 1322. Six Venetians journeyed from Urgenj to Delhi in India on a trade mission in 1338; two of them died en route but the four survivors, despite paying substantial bribes to local authorities, returned home with a substantial profit.

  The spread of the Mongols throughout Asia during the thirteenth century caused an increase in trade and contact with the East since the Mongols were occupiers and did not trust the Chinese and other subjected people. The Great Khan commonly used European merchants as emissaries. Andalo da Saignone was sent by him to Europe in 1336 to establish closer ties with the ‘Franks’ and to request marvels, especially the much prized Western horses, which were larger and stronger than the local breed.

  Trade with the East became so routine that in 1340 a Florentine merchant and banker, Francesco Balducci di Pegolotti, wrote that the route from Tana on the Sea of Azov to Peking, via Turkestan and Mongolia, was safe both night and day. He gave detailed instructions on how to reach China, along with accurate information concerning local currencies and custom duties.4

  Yet the actual volume of trade was surprisingly small. The three state-run convoys of Venice, for example, are estimated to have brought back just 1,000–2,000 tons of goods of all kinds annually.21 What percentage of this was solely spices is not known. The items were, however, in high demand and produced a substantial profit. It is no wonder that the hold of a single Portuguese ship, which alone could transport many tons of spices and other desired goods, was such a threat to the Italian merchant cities and the extensive trading centres throughout Europe.

  But by 1340 the conditions that allowed improved contact and trade with the East were already deteriorating. In the key Persian city of Tabriz, Venetian merchants clashed among themselves and with the increasingly antagonistic Mongol authorities. In 1335 Mongol rule in Persia collapsed and the local Muslims were aggressively hostile towards Westerners and ethnic Christians. Between 1336 and 1344 the Genoese were compell
ed to abandon Tabriz and they boycotted trade in the region thereafter.

  Most significantly, the Black Death was introduced into Europe from the Black Sea in 1348. The resulting decrease in European population, the ensuing decline in its economy and the religious fervour it produced all disrupted trade significantly. Just as Europe was beginning its slow recovery, the Great Khans in China were succeeded in 1368 by the Mings, who promptly expelled the Mongols and all other foreigners.

  Constantinople’s key role in the spice trade ended in 1453, when the Muslim Turks seized the city and prohibited all commercial trade with Christians. The rise of the Mamelukes in Egypt and of the Ottoman Turks in Mesopotamia and Persia both changed the established trading patterns. The flow of spices was severely disrupted and the cost escalated sharply, at a time when the Portuguese were fully engaged in finding the passage to India.

  Despite these obstacles a reduced volume of trade persisted. The Genoese retained control of the Black Sea city of Matrega, located on the coast of Kuban, until 1482 and through it spices continued to enter Europe.

  By this time Europe’s supply of precious metal was exhausted, leading to an inevitable devaluation of all currencies. Portugal was among the worst to suffer. During the first part of the fifteenth century a single mark of gold (230 grams) rose from 250 libras to 251,000 libras.22 The chronic lack of gold and of silver was economically devastating. One consequence was a serious erosion of the income received by the king and other lords, at a time when expenses were rising. The nations involved in the spice trade saw in it a means for acquiring both gold and silver, which were essential in adequate amounts to create a stable currency for financial transactions and the expansion of commerce. Spice did not in itself represent wealth but was a means to wealth and the crucial device for solving the nagging economic problems sovereigns faced. The spice trade was the greatest wealth-producing enterprise in Europe.

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