Sugar: the spice that changed history–part two

Portuguese sailors explored the African coast in the fifteenth century, wanting to purchase gold without dealing with the sub-Saharan empires, which placed a surcharge on the precious metal. Coastal Africans were willing to exchange any commodity they had for European products, including horses and guns. They offered ivory, and they offered slaves. Once the Portuguese explorers found uninhabited islands nearby, they were happy to purchase slaves so they could establish sugar fields. The Africans were happy to sell slaves, not from their own tribes, but from neighboring tribes—captured prisoners of war. As the Atlantic slave trade grew, some African nations deliberately went to war with their neighbors to provide themselves with more slaves to sell to the Europeans.

The Portuguese sought a route around Africa so they could buy spices and other Asian products without paying a surcharge to west Asian merchants and governments of Arabia and the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, an Italian sailor proposed to the government of Spain that he could take ships directly to China and India by crossing the ocean to the west. Christopher Columbus did not have to prove to anyone that the world is round—educated people in Europe, Asia, and Africa had known the shape of the world for more than a thousand years. Greek scholars had even determined the size of the world with reasonable accuracy by measuring shadows in different cities. Most sailors did not want to try the western route because of the size of the world—European ships could not carry enough food and fresh water to supply their crews for such a long voyage. Columbus overestimated the size of Asia. He also suggested that the curve of the Earth is different measuring north to south than measuring east to west. (Had he been correct, the world would be shaped more like an egg than like an orange.) Columbus wanted gold from Asia, but he also wanted spices, including sugar. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand gave Columbus the money he needed for three ships, and in the following years he made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean and back again.

When Columbus first landed in the Caribbean Islands, he thought he was in Indonesia, and he called the people living there Indians. He found no gold and no sugar, but he found islands where sugar could be grown. Although Columbus never publicly admitted his mistake, others quickly realized that he had found land previously unknown to Europeans. They referred to the islands of the Caribbean as the West Indies, calling the islands of Indonesia the East Indies. Spain and Portugal, and later Great Britain and the Netherlands, copied the farming system first made by the Portuguese on islands near Africa, and soon a vast sugar industry was operating.

The Portuguese system involved many African slaves supervised by a few European landowners and managers. Slavery was not invented by the Portuguese; it has existed since ancient times. People became slaves due to debt, or to crimes, or to being prisoners of war; often slaves had rights protected by law. Some had respected duties such as managing the property of the rich or teaching their children; in some cases, certain slaves owned slaves of their own. The new system, prompted by an appetite for sugar, created the plantations and haciendas of the New World. In addition to sugar, American plantations also began raising tobacco, cotton, coffee, and rubber. When the local population was found insufficient for working the plantations (largely because of their lack of immunity to smallpox and measles), Europeans began transporting more Africans into the western hemisphere. In fact, between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to live in the Americas.

Until recently, history books said that we will never know the number of Africans removed by the slave trade. Researchers finally realized, though, that the slave trade was a business, and that there must be business records stored somewhere. Once they knew what documents they needed, they knew where to find them, and now it is known that roughly thirteen million Africans were forced into slavery during those three centuries. Even more appalling is the fact that the loss of one quarter of those thirteen million lives in transit across the ocean was considered a legitimate cost of doing business.J.

The spice that changed history–part one

Since early times people have been gathering and using spices and herbs. They make food taste better (and sometimes they hide the taste of spoiling food), but spices can also preserve food, or be used as medicines, or as perfumes, or in potions and salves and ointments. Merchants liked to deal in spices because they are incredibly efficient as merchandise. They are easy to transport and possess a large density of value, whether measured by weight or by volume.

The spice trade—and one spice in particular—helped to shape the history of the world. The Persian Empire built and maintained roads for government messengers and for their army, but these roads were also used by merchants traveling across the Empire from India to Egypt or Greece and back again. India, China, and Rome all imitated the Persian system of roads; the result was an intricate system of travel ways (some involving rivers or coastlines) called the Silk Road. Italian glass was sold in China two thousand years ago, and Chinese silk was sold in Rome. Anything that could be bought and sold traveled along the Silk Road—precious metals, gems, artwork, fabric, fruits, vegetables, animals, and slaves. Spices were an important part of this vast economy which linked three continents and would eventually shape two more.

The most prized spice that traveled the Silk Road was made from a plant indigenous to the islands of Indonesia. Indian travelers brought this spice west, selling it in India and also in Arabia. Europeans first encountered this spice when they traveled to Asia for the Crusades, and it rapidly became popular in Europe. Italian investors tried to raise this spice on islands in the Mediterranean Sea, but the climate was too temperate for this plant. By the 1400s, as Portuguese explorers traveled along the coast of Africa, they found uninhabited islands of the coast that were ideal for this Indonesian spice. Soon the Portuguese had a booming business raising and selling this popular spice, enriching the nation and making further travel possible.

If you search through your spice rack, looking for this particular spice, you will not find it there. This popular spice is not pepper, or cinnamon, or nutmeg, or cloves. Nor is it ginger or mustard. The name of this spice, so desperately wanted in Europe centuries ago, is sugar.

Of course now sugar is treated as a staple, sold in five pound bags like flour rather than in tiny jars or cans. Yet sugar is indeed a spice and was treated as a spice by merchants and by governments that taxed products when they were bought and sold. Europeans were familiar with other sweeteners, such as honey, but cane sugar appealed to the European sweet tooth. This addiction to sugar changed the history of the planet, as I will describe in coming posts. J.