Saudi Aramco World: March/April 2014 - page 6

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Saudi Aramco World
Silk Road
trading routes
throughout
China and
the Middle
East were
its primary
delivery
system.
The decline
of the Mongol
Empire, which
had protected
the Silk Roads,
and the
subsequent fall
of Byzantium
in 1453, began
to fracture the
great trading
partnerships;
warring
factions began
implementing
embargoes
along the land
routes. The
Mamluks and
the Ottomans
controlled choke points along the land and sea routes and levied
punishing taxes on goods moving through their domains. This
made the land routes unaffordably expensive, so if Europe was
to have pepper, a new sea route had to be found to get it.
Both possible routes were perilous. Sailing around the
African continent into the Indian Ocean had been proved
possible in 1488
by Bartolomeu
Dias of Portugal,
thanks in
part to Arab
navigators,
cartographers
and sailors.
Spain was left
with the other
option: to sail
west across
the uncharted
Atlantic
into
mare
incognitum
and hope to
reach India
from the other
side.
Columbus
took advan-
tage of a
Portuguese
discovery, the
volta do mar
,
a great circular
current, or
gyre, caused
by the earth’s
rotation, one
of two in the
Atlantic Ocean.
It shortened
his travel time
considerably,
allowing him
to reach what
he thought
was India
(but that was
actually a
Caribbean island—Samana Cay, Grand Turk, the Plana Cays,
Mayaguana and Conception Island are all possibilities) when his
crew was on the verge of mutiny. Columbus began searching for
the spices and other treasures of India.
In the journal of his voyage, the entry for November 4,
1492 reads (in Samuel Eliot Morison’s translation): “The
Admiral
showed to
some of the
Indians there
cinnamon
and pepper
(supposedly
of what he
had brought
from Castile
to show) and
they recognized
it, it is said,
Enslaved Africans were fed “slabber sauce”—a mash
of capsicum peppers, flour and oil—poured over
beans to keep them alive during the horrible sea
journeys they were forced to endure. Portuguese
sailors ate capsicums the way English sailors would
eat limes, to ward off the diseases of long sea
voyages, and they doubtless shared this secret
with seaman of other nationalities.
In 1988, Chinese scholar E.N. Anderson wrote, “Among the
Solanaceae
is the New World’s gift to mankind, the
chili pepper (
Capsicum frutescen
s and
C. annuum
). Brought to the Orient by the Portuguese in the 1500s, these
plants did not remain a minor and local part of the diatom as did tomatoes and eggplants, but swept through the
Far East with epochal effect. Perhaps no culinary advance since the invention of distilling had had more effect
than the propagation of chili peppers in the Old World. The main one is
C. annuum
. Not only did it incalculably ben-
efit the cuisine of all those peoples civilized enough to accept it, it also is high in vitamins A and C, iron, calcium,
and other minerals; is eminently storable and usable in pickles; can be grown anywhere under any conditions.…”
The world BC (“Before Chiles”) was for more than 1300 years defined by the map drawn by
Claudius Ptolemy of Greece, shown
above
in a 15th-century copy. The Indian Ocean is shown as a
closed sea, little of Africa shows below the equator, and the Americas are absent altogether.
BIBLIOTECA ESTENSE / BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY; OPPOSITE: IMAGE ASSET MANAGEMENT / ALAMY
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