RGSSA Library Catalogue

Monday 16 February 2015

Discovering Asia: East Indies - The Quest for Spices

Secret maps, perilous sea voyages, fabulous wealth... It’s all there!

An exhibition “Discovering Asia” will feature at the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia http://www.rgssa.org.au/ in May 2015. It will have a wide scope, featuring works of exploration and travel about many of the countries of southeast and eastern Asia, including Indonesia, Japan, and China.

In the blog I’ll be looking at some of the books which recount the early voyages of discovery from Europe to the East. Because the RGSSA’s collection was founded on the purchase of S. William Silver’s York Gate Library from London, compiled during the 19th century, it’s very Anglocentric. But as well as early English translations and the great 16th-century English compilations of travel narratives it does include some interesting and significant works in Latin and the European languages.

The Spice Rush
The European push into Asia from the time of Columbus was all about spices. When he got to the West Indies Columbus was positive he'd reached Asia—which explains why the hot chillis his men found there got called “peppers”, even though they are capsicums (Capsicum frutescens spp.), native to Central and South America, and are not botanically related to the genus Piper, which includes the black pepper we still use today.

In its time, Columbus’s voyage was a bit of flop, because he hadn't found the quick way to the lands of spices:

“In respect of spices, which is to say in respect of one of the primary reasons why it was discovered, the New World was something of a disappointment.”
            (Jack Turner. Spice: the history of a temptation. Vintage Books, 2005)

In the blog I’ll look at how the frantic scramble for spices opened up Asia to the West. It’s fair to say that the Portuguese and the Dutch in particular ran mad over them—but the Spanish, English and French weren’t very far behind. My friends at the Art Gallery of SA library suggested, when I was telling them about the Dutchman who gave his countrymen the secret Portuguese maps, that maybe the mad Dutch frenzy for spices was due to something in the Dutch psyche, like the later tulip bubble. Fair enough—but most of the world ran mad over gold in the 19th century. I’d say it's something in the human psyche, common to all of us. Mad fads on the one hand (like, your cell phone or tablet, indispensable to life, can you breathe without one?) and the lust for wealth on the other. With, in the case of the men who actually sailed to Asia under tremendously dangerous conditions, a true spirit of adventure. The sea captains went East not just for the riches that cargoes of spices would bring them, but because it was there.

The Quest For Spices

Imagine a world in which pepper was so valuable it had to be bought with gold. This is what Europeans had to pay—and gladly paid—when they finally managed to sail to the “East Indies,” that is, to India at the end of the 15th century, and then points further east during the 16th century.

Spices have been used since time immemorial, and traded all over the world at least from the time of the Egyptian pharaohs—it is a documented fact that one pharaoh’s mummy had peppercorns, used as a preservative, in his nose and body cavity. Cloves dating back to 1721 BC have been found in Syria, and they were known as breath fresheners to the Chinese Han Dynasty in the third century BC. In Europe during the Middle Ages spices were important for flavouring food, in medicines, as preservatives, and for perfuming, but they were hugely expensive. The spice trade monopoly was held by the Arabs during the Middle Ages, and Ibn Batuta (1304-1377) mentions the clove trade in his Tuhfat al-nuzzar (“Travels”). Their spice trade with Europe was largely through Venice.

Ibn Batuta, 1304-1377.
    The travels of Ibn Battuta, A.D. 1325-1354, translated with revisions and notes from the Arabic text edited by C. Defrémery and B. R. Sanguinetti by H.A.R. Gibb. Cambridge [England], Published for the Hakluyt Society at the University Press, 1958-2000. 5 vols. (Works issued by the Hakluyt Society ; 2nd ser., no. 110, 117, 141, 178, 190)

If we read about the cookery books of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance we tend to get the wrong idea: spices abound in these recipes.

“A stew of chicken summered with cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, saffron, and a little vinegar and thickened with ground almonds was standard Portuguese fare during the sixteenth century.”
            (Lizzie Collingham. Curry: a tale of cooks and conquerors.
            Oxford, University Press, 2006, p. 59)

This was a dish from Portugal itself, not from Portuguese India. And here is a combination of meat with ginger, cloves, and mace that we wouldn’t be surprised to find today in Indian cuisine, but that was common in English cuisine until well after Shakespeare’s time.

With modern spelling, the recipe reads:
Coney in Gravy
Take blanched almonds, grind them with wine  And good broth of beef and mutton, and draw it through a strainer, and cast it into a pot, and let boil; and cast thereto powder of ginger, cloves, mace, and sugar. And then take a coney, and seethe him enough in good fresh broth, and chop him. And take off the skin cleanly, and pick him clean. And cast it [in]to the syrup, And let boil once. And serve forth.
 (From Harleian MS 4016)

(See http://www.godecookery.com/nboke/nboke51.htm This website also provides a modern version, using either rabbit or chicken.)

Wonders of the East: “Spetierie, Droghe, Gioie, & Perle”
But the very early cookery books (and most of those who write about them) give us the wrong idea. By the early Renaissance printing had only just been invented and books themselves were luxury items. Ordinary people didn’t read and they certainly did not have access to cookery books! The cookery books were written for the very rich, who could afford spices: the great households often kept a “spicer,” a person whose sole rôle was to mix and prepare spices for foods and medicines. Spices were a luxury item. Contemporary accounts such as Ramusio’s, quoted above, list spices along with fabulous gems, pearls, gold and silks as wondrous treasures of the East, the stuff that dreams were made of.

During the Middle Ages pepper was enormously expensive in Europe. By the end of the Middle Ages, when supplies had become more regular, it was still very dear, but not as outrageously so as it had been earlier, when only the rich could afford it. It was extremely important in cuisine but, as supplies increased, it had become less fashionable. The other spices, in particular the aromatics such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmegs and mace, were still only affordable to the comfortably off. The expanding middle classes could afford reasonable amounts of pepper but only small amounts of the other spices, perhaps for special dishes and special occasions. Spices were still, as they had been throughout the previous centuries, a status symbol.

Pepper is native to South Asia and Southeast Asia, and the main early trading centres were on the Malabar Coast on India’s western coast. The spice is the dried fruit of the pepper vine (Piper negrum). Cinnamon is the inner bark of the cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum verum, and other species), dried and rolled into small quills. It is native to Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the Malabar Coast of India, Bangladesh, and Burma. Its source was unknown to Europeans for centuries. The exact source of cloves, nutmegs and mace, which occur naturally only in the small islands of the Moluccas (modern Malaku, in Indonesia), remained unknown even longer.
    Cloves are the dried buds of the clove tree (Syzygium aromaticum), found naturally only on a few islands within the Moluccas. Nutmegs and mace both come from the nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans). Nutmeg is the inner nut and mace is the dried membrane which surrounds it, within the outer shell. Nutmeg trees grew only in the tiny Banda Islands within the Moluccas, in particular on little Run Island or Pulau Run (“Poolaroone” in early English texts). From these small scattered groups of islands, cloves, nutmeg and mace were traded all over the world centuries before Europeans reached the East Indies.

Opening Up The East: The First Portuguese Ventures
In 1498 Vasco da Gama (1469-1524) became the first European to reach India by sailing around Africa. His goal was the thriving sea port and trading centre of Calicut, on the western coast of southern India, in the area known as the Malabar Coast. It is now in the modern state of Kerala. “Calicut” is still the name generally used today, though its official name is Kozhikode. The major trading point for eastern spices, it was known during the Middle Ages and even earlier as the “City of Spices”. Arab merchants were trading there as early as the 7th century. Asked by Spanish- and Italian-speaking Arabs there why Da Gama’s ships had come, the Portuguese replied that they “came in search of Christians and spices” (Ravenstein (ed.). A Journal of the first voyage... p.48).

Discovering the spice route brought the Portuguese immense wealth. Their ships brought back pepper and cinnamon, both native to the Malabar Coast and grown there to this day. Pepper alone was worth a great fortune. For several decades after Da Gama the Portuguese had a monopoly on the pepper trade.

Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India paved the way for the Portuguese to establish a long-lasting colonial empire in Asia. His success had been preceded by many disastrous shipwrecks, but Da Gama’s route meant that the Portuguese could make the whole voyage by sea, avoiding the highly disputed Mediterranean waters and the dangerous land trek over the Arabian Peninsula. Counting the outward and return trips, this was “the longest ocean voyage ever made until then, far longer than a full voyage around the world by way of the Equator.” (“Vasco da Gama”, Wikipedia) Da Gama was given the newly created County of Vidigueira in 1519 and the title that went with it, and made Governor of India in 1524, with the title of Viceroy.

Da Gama: Early Texts
The RGSSA holds many rare volumes of collected early voyages and travels from the York Gate Library of S. William Silver. The following collections by Ramusio and Purchas are identified in the Catalogue of the York Gate Library (2nd ed., 1886) as including sections on Vasco da Gama:

“Navigatione dal Capo Buona Speranza, fino in Calicut, 1497. Discorso,” page 119 (Narrative of Thome Lopes, 1502): In:

RAMUSIO, Giovanni Battista, 1485-1557
Delle navigationi et viaggi : raccolte da M. Gio. Battista Ramvsio, in tree volvmi divise : Nelle quali con relatione fedelissima si descriuono tutti quei paesi, che da già 300. anni sin’hora sono stati scoperti, cosi di verso Leuante, & Ponente, come di verso Mezzo di, & Tramontana; Et si hà notitia del Regno del Prete Gianni, & dell’Africa fino a Calicut, & ll’Isole Molucche. Et si tratta dell’Isola Giappan, delle due Sarmatie, della Tartariam Scitia, Circasia, & circonstante Prouincie : della Tana, & dell’Indie tanto Occidentali, quanto Orientali, & della Nauigatione d’intorno il Mondo. ... Et nel fine con aggiunta nella presente quinta impressione del viaggio di M. Cesare de’ Federici, nell’India Orientale, nel quale si descriue le Spetierie, Droghe, Gioie, & Perle, che in dette Paesi si trouano. ... Volume Primo. In Venetia, appresso I Givnti, 1613.

Ramusio’s three-volume “Navigationi et viaggi” has been adjudged the most highly valued collection of voyages of the sixteenth century. The set comprises accounts of voyages which had already been published, translated from the French, Spanish and Latin, together with manuscript accounts appearing in print for the first time. The choice of published narratives has been praised by later writers, as has his scholarship. Ramusio’s collection was very successful in the 16th and early 17th centuries, each volume appearing in several editions, some containing more narratives than others, and with small differences in the maps. Experts consider that the collection began a new area in the literary history of voyages and navigation. The work contains early maps of great significance, including those of Brazil, Canada, New England, Africa, Asia and Japan. The RGSSA holds the three-volume set of Ramusio (YG 2027, 2028, 2029). As with most sets known to collectors, the three are from different editions published at different times (1613, 1583, 1606). The illustration shows the engraved title page to the first volume.

“Gama’s Acts at Calicut and his Return, 1499”, page 28 (YG 2072, Vol. I Part II): In:

PURCHAS, Samuel, 1577?-1626.
Haklvytvs posthumus, or, Pvrchas his Pilgrimes: contayning a history of the world, in sea voyages, & lande-trauells by Englishmen and others, wherein Gods wonders in nature & prouidence, the actes, arts, varieties & vanities of men, w[i]th a world of the worlds rarities are by a world of eyewitnesse-authors related to the world, some left written by Mr. Hakluyt at his death, more since added, his also perused, & perfected, all examined, abreuiated, illustrated w[i]th notes, enlarged w[i]th discourses, adorned w[i]th pictures, and expressed in mapps, in fower parts, each containing fiue bookes; by Samvel Pvrchas, B.D. Imprinted at London for Henry Fetherston at ye signe of the rose in Pauls Churchyard, 1625. 4 vols.
The title is from the engraved title page. Each of the 4 parts also has a special title page with title: Pvrchas his Pilgrimes; and with imprint: London, Printed by William Stansby for Henrie Fetherstone ... 1625.

“a world of travellers to their domestic entertainment”

1625 Edition. Title page of the first volume
Samuel Purchas (1577?-1626), one of the great early compilers of travel narratives, published his Hakluytus posthumus, or Purchas his pilgrimes, in 1625. His earlier works had concentrated rather on the history of religion than on voyages and travel: he took a divinity degree at Cambridge. His compilation is called Hakluytus posthumus because Purchas saw it as the successor to the already famous works of Richard Hakluyt (1552?-1616). He wrote that he had assisted Hakluyt: “I was therein a labourer also,” and that he helped him to arrange papers which were unpublished when he died.

1625 edition: Engraved title page

In an age where few people could travel beyond their native shores, Purchas’s compilation offered: “a world of travellers to their domestic entertainment, easy to be spared from their smoke, cup, or butterfly vanities and superfluities, and fit mutually to entertaine them in a better school to better purposes.” It is generally agreed that although Purchas was not the equal of Hakluyt in either scholarship or accuracy, his work is an extremely important source, often the only one, of information on important questions relating to geographical history and early exploration.

Da Gama: Translations, Reprints & Facsimiles of Early Texts
Velho, Alvaro
Ravenstein, E. G. (Ernest George), 1834-1913 (editor)
    [Roteiro da viagem de Vasco da Gama. English]
    A journal of the first voyage of Vasco da Gama, 1497-1499, translated and edited, with notes, an introduction and appendices by E.G. Ravenstein. London, Printed by the Hakluyt Society, 1898. (Works issued by the Hakluyt Society; no. 99)
This account of the navigator’s historic first voyage round the Cape of Good Hope to India’s Malabar Coast is now generally attributed by scholars and bibliographers to Alvaro Velho (cf. Library of Congress, LCCN 2009016532). Ravenstein, the editor of this first English translation, concludes that there is insufficient evidence to make an attribution, but favours João de Sa. The journal, or “Roteiro,” is an anonymous account written by a member of Da Gama’s fleet. It has become an important documentary source for accounts of the voyage. For several hundred years it existed only in manuscript form, several copies being in existence but incomplete. The first Portuguese edition was only published in 1838.

The volume includes letters of King Manuel and Girolamo Sernigi, 1499, and early seventeenth-century Portuguese accounts of Da Gama’s first voyage.

The journal itself is detailed and very colourful: here is the description (p.49-50) of the people of Calicut on the Malabar Coast:

    “They are of a tawny complexion. Some of them have big beards and long hair, whilst others clip their hair short or shave the head, merely allowing a tuft to remain on the crown as a sign that they are Christians [sic: a common mistake of the time]. They also wear moustaches. They pierce the ears and wear much gold in them. They go naked down to the waist, covering their lower extremities with very fine cotton stuffs. But it is only the most respectable who do this, for the others manage as best they are able.
    “The women of this country, as a rule, are ugly and of small stature. They wear many jewels of gold round the neck, numerous bracelets on their arms, and rings set with precious stones on their toes. All these people are well-disposed and apparently of mild temper. At first sight they seem covetous and ignorant.”

Berjeau, J. Ph. (Jean Philibert), 1809-1891 (translator)
    Calcoen: a Dutch narrative of the second voyage of Vasco da Gama to Calicut, printed at Antwerp circa 1504, with introduction and translation by J. Ph. Berjeau. London, Pickering, 1874.

“Calcoen” means Calicut. The volume reprints the Flemish original in facsimile and adds a map of Africa “taken from ‘Ptolemæi C. Tabula noua totius orbis’, Lugduni 1541.” (Introd. p.[9]).

Berjeau supplies a most readable introduction to this text, deciphering the place names used and simultaneously tracing the route. He writes that “the name of Vasco da Gama is not even mentioned in the ... narrative, but there is no doubt it applies to the second voyage of the great navigator to India.” The unknown narrator, he explains, must have been a “Dutch officer or sailor” on the voyage, for it is clearly not a translation of any other known work and it adds details not available elsewhere. Berjeau highlights the understandable errors of interpretation made by the author, such as thinking that the local Hindus and Buddhists who showed reverence for statues of the Virgin Mary were Christians. In fact these worshippers mistook the figures for representations of an Indian goddess. Points which struck the narrator, as they did other early European travellers to the East, were the chewing of betel and the use of musk: Berjeau writes: “The civet cat is so clearly described that it was impossible not to translate by musc the word iubot, although it is not to be found in any modern Flemish or Dutch dictionary.”

R: Page of the facsimile of the Flemish original.

As Berjeau points out, Vasco da Gama’s known cruelty and barbarism is well supported by the text. Here is the translation of the arrival in Calicut:

“On the 27th day of October we ... arrived in a kingdom called Calcoen, ... and we mustered our forces before the town, and we fought with them during three days, and we took a great number of people, and we hanged them to the yards of the ships, and taking them down, we cut off their hands, feet and heads; and we took one of their ships and threw into it the hands, feet and heads, and we wrote a letter, which we put on a stick, and we left that ship to go a-drift towards the land. We took there a ship which we put on fire and burnt there many of the subjects of the king.”

Circa 1531-1583
Corrêa, Gaspar, 16th cent.
    The three voyages of Vasco da Gama and his viceroyalty: from the Lendas da India of Gaspar Correa. ... Translated from the Portuguese, with notes and an introduction by Henry E.J. Stanley. London, Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1869. (Works issued by the Hakluyt Society ; 42)

Gaspar Corrêa’s account of Vasco da Gama’s voyages to India in his Lendas da India existed only in manuscript form until about 1860. In his introduction to the first English edition of the part dealing with Vasco da Gama, Henry E.J. Stanley writes: “Correa’s work ... enters into much more detail than the other chroniclers, frequently differs from them, and has not been made use of by the great majority of the historians who wrote subsequently to him.” Corrêa himself went to India when he was very young, “sixteen years after India was discovered—that would be in 1514.” It is not known exactly when he wrote his history but it was certainly from 1561 to some time before 1583, when he died. While serving as secretary to Alfonso d'Albuquerque, then Viceroy of Portuguese India, he came across a diary written by Joam Figueira, a priest who accompanied Vasco da Gama, which inspired him to write his history. His full narrative covers fifty-three years of the Portuguese exploits in India, up to the government of Jorge Cabral. The account of Vasco da Gama’s exploits translated for this Hakluyt Society volume is extensive and detailed.

Just imagine the excitement when Da Gama arrived back in Portugal. Not only had he found the sea route to the wealth of the East Indies, he had brought home a big cargo of pepper. He had bought it for 3 ducats per hundredweight in Calicut. In Portugal it was selling for 22 ducats:* more than seven times what he’d had to pay!

“Within three years, the Portuguese were back in India. In 1505, Lopo Soares’s fleet of nine vessels departed from the Malabar Coast with a cargoi that included 1,074,003 kilograms of pepper, 28,476 kilograms of ginger, 8,789 kilograms of cinnamon, and 206 kilograms of cardamom.” *
* (Collingham, Op.cit., p. 51)

Portugal’s fortune was made for the next hundred years.

That very dear commodity, pepper, was used in Europe in Da Gama’s time, and for several hundred years afterwards, not only with meat and savoury dishes, but with fruit as well. Let’s end this blog entry with a 15th-century English recipe that you might like to try. (I speak as one who likes freshly ground pepper on sliced raw apple and adores it on fresh pear, like an Indian chaat, but don’t let that influence you!)

Fifteenth-Century Apple Fritters:
“Fretoure owt of Lente”
            6 large eating apples; sugar; 1 liqueur glass brandy
            Batter: 125 g flour; 2 eggs; 1 tablespoon oil or clarified butter;
            up to 300 ml. milk; pinch saffron; freshly ground black pepper
            oil for frying
Peel, core & slice apples about 1 cm (1/4 to 1/2 in.) thick. Put into a bowl, sprinkle with sugar, & pour on the brandy. Leave for several hours or overnight, turning occasionally. Drain well.
Batter: Pour 2 tblsps of almost boiling water over the saffron & leave to steep until “a good crocus yellow.” Mix flour, 1 whole egg, the 2nd egg yolk, & the oil. Beat in about 150 ml. of milk. Stir in the saffron water. Add more milk if batter is too thick. Add 2 or 3 grinds of pepper & stir in. Whisk the 2nd egg white until stiff & fold into the batter.
Dip the drained apple slices into the batter & fry in oil until golden brown. Serve sprinkled with sugar. Enjoy!
    (Based on: Jane Grigson. English Food. Penguin, 1977, p. 207)


This post was researched and created by Kathy Boyes