The history of spices is as old as the recorded history of human civilization itself. The religious texts of antiquity, the Vedas, the Bible, the Quran—are all replete with references on the use of spices. Spices were in use in ancient Egypt as far back as the age of the pyramids (2600-2100 B.C.). During 3000-2000 B.C., the Assyrians and Babylonians were in close contact with the Malabar Coast of India and were trading in pepper, cardamom and cinnamon. The ancient Babylonia had a flourishing sea trade with Malabar coast and China, touching possibly many ports on the way. This Babylonian-China connection via Malabar Coast could be the earliest possible route through which black pepper plants reached the far east and south east Asian countries. In Eber's Papyrus, dated around 1550 B.C., there were references about pepper and cardamom (In 1874 A.D. George Ebers, a German Egyptologist reported the discovery of a Papyrus roll, now called Eber's Papyrus). Around 1000 B.C. Hatshepsut, the Egyptian Queen, despatched a fleet of five ships to the Malabar Coast of India (?) to collect spices. According to the Bible, the Queen of Sheba made a royal visit to King Solomon (1015-66 B.C.) and she took with her a long convoy of camels laden with spices. The Greek physician, Dioscordis (40-90 A.D.) has described in detail in his Materia Medica the medicinal values of spices such as black pepper, cardamom, ginger and turmeric. In Sanskrit pepper had been described as "Yavanapriya" (beloved to the Greeks), a clear pointer to the fact that pepper was so dear to the Greeks (Ummer 1989). An ancient Tamil poet has written thus: "the thriving town of Muchiri (Muziri—today's Kodungallur near Cochin), where the beautiful great ships of the Yavanas (Greeks) bringing gold, come splashing the white foam on the waters of the Periyar and return laden with pepper" (Ummer 1989).
The post-epic period of ancient Indian history is often referred to as the rationalistic period. Famous physicians and surgeons of ancient India, like Charaka and Susrutha lived during this period. Charaka wrote his classical treatise Charaka Samhitha, wherein he mentioned various spices of Indian origin for use in medicine, such as pepper, Ocimum, asafoetida, cinnamon and myrrah and many formulations containing pepper and ginger were given by him as well as by Susrutha. Panini, the great Grammarian also lived in this period, recorded the use of pepper for spicing wine.
King Solomon of Israel and the Phoenician King, Hiram of Tyre, procured their supplies of spices from the Malabar Coast (Rosengarten 1973). By this time the Jews and the Arabs became the major traders in spices. In fact the Arabs held the monopoly of this lucrative trade, a position which continued till the rise of the Roman empire. The Arabs, as middle men, safely guarded the secret of the country of origin of pepper and other spices. The route to India was also kept as a closely guarded secret from the Egyptians and the Greeks. During the 1st century A.D. Rome captured Egypt, and the Romans became a threat to the Arabian traders of spices. Around 40 A.D., during the reign of Emperor Claudius of Rome, the Greek merchant Mariner Hippalus discovered the full power and velocity of wind systems of the Indian Ocean, a secret hitherto known only to the Arabs (Rosengarten 1973). Hippalus soon went into action and demonstrated that a round trip from Egypt—India—Egypt could be completed in less than a year. This event had two side effects: first it drastically reduced the dependence on the overland trade routes, second, several wealthy cities and nations suddenly went bankrupt (Ummer 1989). Hippalus and like him many others came to the Malabar Coast and returned with large booty of Indian spices. The Roman dominance that followed led to the total decline of Arab domination. The Romans were most interested in pepper, ginger and cinnamon. In his NaturalHisotry Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) writes:
It is surprising that the use of pepper has come so much into fashion.
Commodities as a rule attract us by their appearance or utility but the only quality of pepper is its pungency and yet it is for this very undesirable element that we import it in very huge quantities from the first emporium of India,
When in 408 A.D. Alaric the Gothic conquered Rome, he demanded a ransom of 3000 pounds of pepper. This conquest of Rome led to the fall of the Roman empire and the Arabs got yet another chance to become the monopoly traders of spices. This continued almost unhindered till the entry of Portugal and other West European countries in the scene.
The birth of Islam was a great morale booster for the Arabs and their trade in Indian spices grew beyond all proportions. Malabar was simultaneously doing trade with the Arabs and the Chinese, the former based their operations in Kodungallur and Calicut (Kozhikode), while the latter in Quilon. Scholars have identified three developments that were responsible for India's flourishing maritime trade in those days: (i) ship building made rapid strides in the importing countries, huge and sturdy merchant ships with large storage space began to be built; (ii) around 40 A.D. Hippalus came upon the valuable information on the monsoon winds, particularly their force and frequency and this knowledge led to faster and safer voyages, (iii) the mystery of Malabar mud banks was unraveled which made it possible to anchor ships safely (Ummer 1989).
The Chinese entered the arena at this time. History tells us that as early as the first century A.D., a royal messenger of the King of China appeared in Kodungallur asking for spices. The excellent trade relationships between China and the Malabar Coast was recorded by travellers such as Sulaiman who visited the Malabar Coast in 851 A.D. (Ummer 1989). The Chinese played, perhaps, a more significant role in spreading pepper plants to other countries, especially to the South east and far east countries. The trade between the Malabar Coast and China reached its zenith during the middle ages with the voyages of Zheng He between 1405-1433. In those years the average pepper purchased by Chinese has been estimated as fifty thousand catties (1 catty equals 1% lbs) i.e. almost equivalent to the total quantity imported into Europe during the first half of the 10th century (T'ien 1982). In China, pepper trade was an imperial monopoly even from early Ming times. The huge import of pepper into China led to a fall in its price, and during the fifteenth century the salary of soldiers were paid partly in pepper (and also sapanwood). It was mentioned that by 1425 all government officials and private soldiers in China received part of their salary as pepper (T'ien 1982). T'ien also recorded that by the end of the reign of the Yongle Emperor (14201424) the store of pepper in the imperial granaries had swollen to such proportions that it was no longer possible to dispose of it by substitution. When Renzoge became the Emperor in 1424 following the death of his father Chengzu, he distributed large quantities of pepper to all important people of the country depending on their status, the highest getting 5000 catties and the lowest a hundred catties. Records also indicated that Chinese imported pepper from the Malayan archipelago and Indonesia, indicating that pepper cultivation was already in progress in those countries. According to Marco Polo (1298) 10,000 pounds of pepper arrived in Hamgchon (a Chinese port) every day. He also described in graphic details the huge spice gardens in Java and in the
Malabar Coast of India. Among the praises Marco Polo showered on Chinese for their spectacular technological achievements, he also described the huge and handsome ships of Chinese capable of carrying 6000 baskets of pepper.
By the 12-13th century the production and trade of pepper in East Indies grew to considerable level. Java was the principal centre of the trade. Pepper cultivation was extensive in the islands of Sumatra and Java and from these islands Arab and Chinese traders were collecting pepper in large quantities. The East Indies gradually eclipsed the Malabar Coast of India as the most important source of various spices including pepper. This lure of spice attracted many sea farers and led to many global explorations and circumnavigations of earth.
The consumption of pepper was steadily increasing in Europe and England. In 1345 a guild of pepperers was organized in London. The pepperers were among the wealthiest of merchants, and one had to be a pepperer of Soper Lane or a spicer of Cheap in good standing to belong to the fraternity (Parry 1969). But the high prices put pepper and other spices beyond the reach of ordinary people. As for the Western people, the coming of the pungent and aromatic spices of the orient was the greatest boon to their cooking. New methods of preserving food quickly came into existence; "dishes took on a fullness of flavour previously unknown; beverages glowed with a redolent tang, and life experienced a new sense of warmth and satisfaction" (Parry 1969).
Today, it is difficult for us to imagine the profound effect pepper and other oriental spices had on world economy in the ancient and middle ages. The cities of Alexandria, Genoa and Venice owed their economic prosperity to the brisk trade in these expensive commodities (Rosengarten 1973). In fact it is recorded that the great demand for pepper in China was responsible for the spread of its cultivation in many of South East and Far East Asian Countries. This great demand for pepper waned off by the end of the Wanli reign (1572-1620), when pepper became a commodity for common use.
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