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Spice trade existed before Vasco Da Gama

india Updated: Dec 18, 2006 08:49 IST
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Globally, the trade in spices did not begin with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in India in 1498 as is widely believed, according to a research just out.

"The Egyptians used spices and the Romans had organised trade routes for commerce of spices," says Portuguese newspaper Publico  in an article published and authored by Lucinda Canelas. To back its claim it quotes Jack Turner, an Australian researcher and author of Spice: The History of a Temptation, which is an attempt to reconstruct the history of spice trade from Egypt to the arrival of the Portuguese, the English and the Dutch in the East.

The only major difference that the Portuguese, the first European colonial power of that era that reached South Asia in the early 16th century, introduced was the change in the route.

Turner contributed one of the 20 essays for a catalogue of the exhibition entitled Encompassing the Globe, inaugurated in Washington at the Smithsonian Institute, seeking to present views of a new generation of global historians.

Turner seeks to respond to a central issue and question: Why were the spices so important for the Portuguese? They were used since the second millennium (before the current era) for cooking, as medicines and as aphrodisiacs.

Spices, he suggests, were much sought by the elite.

"The results were not always the most satisfying, and some were even recipes for torture: imagine a mix of honey, pepper and wine for better sight, or applying pepper to genitals as sexual stimulant!" comments the Publico  article.

It notes that pepper was most in demand before and after the Portuguese discovery of the Cape of Good Hope route. In the first years of this route some 90 per cent of the Portuguese cargo consisted of pepper.

When there were shipwrecks with this cargo aboard, they would result in black tidal waves.

Despite the Portuguese crown investments, it never made the expected profits with this trade. Bad administration and excessive expenses with transport and defence did not permit the Portuguese to neutralise its rivals. The Portuguese crown tried in vain to fix the prices in Europe by trying to keep a monopoly over this trade.

But it never succeeded in doing this. There was corruption and parallel black market, which benefited the country but not the crown.

"Despite the limited benefits, spices were greatly responsible for promoting a new vision of the world. It would not have been possible without Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who cannot be seen as a discoverer, but as a merchant and investor," said the Portuguese newspaper.

Turner has also concluded that the Portuguese "discoveries" in Asia had a major cultural impact and were vital for the evolution of the modern world and for the beginning of globalisation.

"Very differently from the traditional economic and political readings of the impact of the pepper, cinnamon and ginger trade, the Australian historian is more interested in analysing the impact upon the lives and imagination of people across centuries. The high point of the trade in spices was also the end point of their fascination," comments the newspaper.

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