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The cities built by spices


“Only a fool loans a book. Only a greater fool returns it.” So goes a popular saying, which one is often reminded of. This poses a bit of a dilemma. One strongly believes that information is power, and information (like power) needs to be shared equitably to get the best results. At the same time, if one is too careless, there’s every chance that you won’t ever get back the books you lent out in the first place.

This might seem a bit racist. But my own experience is that foreign visitors (especially serious students and other researchers in academia) tend to be more responsible when it comes to returning rare and difficult-to-replace books. Our local readers tend to be more lackadaisical. You might experience something like what happens in the world of Goan business, where someone who owes you something waits till you forget they borrowed your book. Or you just tire after asking them for it back, repeatedly.

Recently, a friend borrowed a book which one had bought for a princely sum of `200 from the Strand Book Stall. For those in the know, Strand was an iconic Mumbai bookshop, with its special deals. Its founder T N Shanbhag was widely popular, and treated every customer as if s/he was special. Till it closed shop sometime in 2018 nine years after the death of Shanbhag, it was known for its tempting deals and bargain prices on select books.

On reading of ‘The Taste of Conquest’, I quickly picked up three copies of the same. But, over the years, one gave away the extra copies.

When it came down to the last, one was naturally possessive and over-cautious. So I told the friend that I would not give him the other books he wanted unless he returned the one earlier taken. The friend was good enough to pick up a copy of ‘The Taste of Conquest’ via and make sure I got it. This only served as an excuse to take another closer look at the work of Michael Krondl.

Krondl is a chef, food writer, and author. In this book, he makes the case that three prominent European cities – Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam – grew into “great cities of spice”. It may be something we have forgotten, but spices from Asia shaped these powerhouses of today. Beyond that, he argues, these cities’ “single-minded pursuit of spice helped to make (and remake) the Western diet and set in motion the first great wave of globalisation”.

The spice trade “irrevocably brought together… the world’s people…in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries”, he argues. First, Venice controlled the spice trade. This was before the “voyages of discovery”.

Portugal had a desire to dominate this trade. Its mariners “pioneered sea routes” to the “New World” and past the “Cape of Good Hope”, to reach India, and thus unseat Venice as “Europe’s chief pepper dealer”. In the 1600s, businessmen in Amsterdam “invented” the modern corporate, and with the Dutch East India Company took over as the spice merchants of the world.

For obvious reasons, Lisbon’s story (pp 109-188) is of most interest to us. A small, poor country on Europe’s western tip, with sharp cliffs and narrow valleys that made life tough, broke out of its limitations in unimaginable ways.

The Portuguese took on the Islamic port of Ceuta in 1415, across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar, used concepts like “a just war” to rationalise fighting (and enslaving) Muslims. Later, they turned their attention to India, and pepper.

Krondl explains: “For many years, historians asserted that the motivation for Portugal’s expansion could be explained by a rise in pepper prices at the end of the fifteenth century. But the numbers do not bear this out; prices actually slid. Moreover, it does not naturally follow that a small maritime nation at the westernmost edge of Europe would decide to expand its trading sphere from the middle Atlantic to India, a spot more than five thousand miles in the opposite direction (and that’s as the bird flies, not as the caravel sails).”

But, for more on this, read the book!

This book is full of examples how religious beliefs, myths, and pretexts were used to fight political battles and earn economic rewards. Instead of just seeing this as a way of blaming a distant foreign power, perhaps there are lessons for the 21st century reader in Goa and the rest of India too to learn from today.

Krondl tells us about Lisbon becoming one of “Europe’s greatest cities” in the 1500s, “a magnet for shipwrights, bankers, and merchants as well as seamen and working girls”. But the resplendent city built of pepper and gold was “almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake” in 1755, he writes.

Writing a form of history filled with anecdotes and travelogue, Krondl tells the interesting tale of the spice race between Lisbon and Castile. Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and other much-heard-of names pop up.

Because the history we learn was largely shaped through the perspectives of a post-colonial world, at times claiming only victim status for ourselves, some realities escape our attention.

Vasco da Gama was 28 when he commanded his first mission to India. Returning to Portugal after their 1498 trip to what today is Kerala, there were only 55 out of 170 men left on board. But they had “at least several thousands pounds’ worth of pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg on board”. A 100-pound bag of pepper which sold for 16 ducats in Venice could be bought for two ducats in

There were “trade” conflicts in that century too in Calicut. In Cochin they got a better reception. They could buy local pepper, cinnamon from Ceylon, cloves, and nutmeg from the Spice Islands (today in Indonesia). Lisbon later allotted itself a monopoly in the pepper trade in the whole Indian Ocean, and would seize or sink any ship which challenged that.

A decade after da Gama’s first trip, Venice had just one-third of its earlier imports. Lisbon was bringing in five times the amount of spice as Venice. In 1515, Venice had to sail up the Tejo River to buy spices for its customers, according to Krondl.

Portugal was earning a “tidy profit” from spice. Its half-dozen ships on the Carreira da India arriving annually unloaded two-three million pounds of spices each year, and maybe twice that later. Eighty percent was pepper, and cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and mace accounted for the rest.

This book makes the case that for Portugal, “spices became even more valuable than African gold”. Captains, officers, cabin boys, and kings were paid off in pepper! Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, a Dutch man who has a link with Goa and its archbishop, also shows up in this story. So does Panaji.

Stories such as these only remind us that there are many ways in which history can be interpreted and understood. Portuguese colonialism cannot be understood through the spectacles of its British counterpart. As fewer Goans in our times seem interested in studying the lessons of recent past centuries, is this a reality we are all bound to forget soon?

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