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Pepper: The magic spice from Kerala that triggered global trade, drained the Romans and spawned new empires

The history of the world is inextricably linked to the history of trade, in particular, the widespread trade of goods obtained on the back of atrocities and those capable of shaping our entire monetary system. In Tracking the Trade Winds, we look at the seismic importance of gold, sugar, silk, oil and more in connecting civilisations, enriching empires and facilitating the migration of people and resources.

Spawning dynasties, triggering conquests and fuelling discoveries, pepper has played an important role in shaping the world as we see it. Once accounting for over 80 per cent of the global spice trade volume, the king of spices was likely the primary reason behind the colonisation of the East.

Pepper gave rise to age of colonialism in the 15th century Pepper gave rise to age of colonialism in the 15th century

Although pepper has been widely consumed for most of recorded history, it was seen as a luxury good. Produced almost exclusively along the Malabar Coast in the southwest of India, the spice was shrouded in secrecy and legend till recent times. According to the historian Paul Friedman, European Christians believed that pepper came from the land of ‘Prester John’, a mythical monarch whose subjects existed in an earthly paradise surrounded by forests of pepper. Arabs, who dominated the trade of pepper for several centuries, believed it grew behind waterfalls guarded by fire-breathing dragons. Some Islamic scholars even wrote that the spice was formed by the tears of Adam when he discovered that he had been banished to Earth.

Early trade of pepper

There is archaeological evidence to show people were using pepper as early as 2000 BCE in ancient India. The spice is believed to have been exported to other parts of Asia and North Africa. The earliest evidence of pepper being consumed outside of the Indian subcontinent comes from Egypt  — the mummified remains of Ramesses the Great from 1213 BCE had peppercorns in the nostrils.

Pepper originated in India Pepper originated in India

In 70 AD, the Periplus Maris Erythraei, an anonymous merchant’s guide to the Mediterranean, recorded information on trade between Rome and the ancient Indian port of Muziris, somewhere near the present Kerala town of Kodungallur. A few decades later, the Greek navigator Hippalus discovered what is now known as ‘monsoon winds’, using which the Romans sailed from Rome to the west coast of India via Alexandria. Pepper was immensely popular among the Romans, with Marcus Gavius Apicius the historian estimating that 80 per cent of Roman recipes contained the spice. This fascination for the spice even took an economic toll as Pliny the Elder wrote in Natural History: “There is no year that India does not drain the Roman Empire.”

Once the Roman Empire collapsed, other groups started taking advantage of the spice routes they vacated, with Arabs, in particular, becoming a dominating force. They acted as middlemen and key facilitators in the trade, connecting the spice-producing regions, particularly India, with consumers in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. The Arab traders held a virtual monopoly on this trade for many centuries, closely guarding the sources and routes, thus controlling supply and prices.

Early evidence of pepper in Egypt indicates ancient trade routes

Early evidence of pepper in Egypt indicates ancient trade routesBy the 10th century, pepper had cemented its place as one of the world’s most desired commodities. By the Middle Ages, due to its exorbitant demand and equally exorbitant price, every maritime power was attempting to seize some part of the spice trade. Italian city-states were particularly invested thanks to their favourable location between Europe and the Middle East. Genoa, for example, became a popular trading centre by the 14th century, with pepper accounting for 40 per cent of the value of all goods entering its ports.

By then pepper was already being used as currency in many parts of the world. As early as 408 BCE, Alaric, the King of Visigoths in modern-day France and Germany, demanded 3,000 kilograms of pepper upon besieging the city of Rome. In the 11th century, King Æthelred of England collected taxes in the form of pepper from foreign ships entering his harbours. In France, a pound of pepper could free a slave, in England, the spice was an accepted form of rent, and in Germany, the rich were nicknamed ‘pepper sacks’. As recently as 1973, among the tributes Prince Charles received upon inheriting the Duchy of Cornwall was a pound of pepper.

However, pepper’s seminal role in shaping global demographics got a fillip when European powers dedicated significant time and resources towards establishing an efficient sea route to India, the birthplace of the spice.

The Age of Discovery

Black pepper is indigenous to the Malabar Coast which largely corresponds to the present-day state of Kerala. Around 1322, Odoric of Pordenone travelled to southwest India and wrote that the Malabar region’s “pepper is as abundant as grain in our land”. Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan traveller, reiterated this analogy some two decades later when he referred to Malabar as “the land of pepper” and noted how there “pepper grains are poured out for measuring by the bushel, like millet in our country.”

Rome and India were connected by the trade of pepper and gold Rome and India were connected by the trade of pepper and gold

In 1453, the Portuguese attempted to capture this trade through force. That year, Constantinople changed hands from the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Empire, plugging the flow of pepper from India to Europe. Needing a shorter sea route into India, the Portuguese set sail hundreds of ships in search of, as the explorer Vasco da Gama chronicled, “Christians and spices.”

Historian Sebastian R Prange wrote in Measuring by the bushel: reweighing the Indian Ocean pepper trade,“the desire to control the trade in pepper in particular not only propelled the Portuguese voyages of discovery but was a key driving force behind the subsequent competition over sources, ports and trade routes. Europe’s craving for pepper and other spices drove its colonial enterprises and thereby became a force that remade the demography, politics, culture, economy, and ecology of the entire globe.”

It was in search of India, and by extension pepper, that Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, and five years later, Vasco da Gama discovered the route to India around the Cape of Good Hope. By 1511, the Portuguese controlled most of the spice trade from the Malabar region, importing two million kilograms of spices from India annually between 1500 and 1600. However, this dominance came at a steep price. The journey between Portugal and India was a dangerous one, with nearly 30 per cent of vessels never making it back.

Portugal dominated the spice trade for a century after it established a sea route to India Portugal dominated the spice trade for a century after it established a sea route to India

The Portuguese, however, were also unable to meaningfully dominate pepper-producing areas along the Malabar Coast. They essentially served as middlemen between growers, traders, and consumers. Recognising these limitations, da Gama was reportedly said to have asked the Zamorin of Calicut whether he could take a pepper vine back with him for replanting. The Zamorin is said to have replied, “You may take our pepper but I don’t think you will be able to take our rains.” Simply put, despite its immense global value, pepper production was limited to tropical, humid regions like Kerala, as its growth is dependent on considerable rainfall.

 The Portuguese, lacking anything worthy of trade with India, resorted to naval supremacy to maintain a grip on parts of western India. However, this dominance lasted only a few decades, till the Dutch emerged on the scene in 1596. The Dutch East India Company established its first trading post on Indian soil in 1605, following which, using a combination of military force and revolutionary trade practices, they monopolised the sale of pepper.

The Dutch were quick to capitalise on Portugal's success in India The Dutch were quick to capitalise on Portugal’s success in India

Not to be left behind in this spicy conquest, Queen Elizabeth I granted 200 English merchants the right to trade in the East Indies in 1600. During its first expeditions, one of these groups, led by James Lancaster, returned to London with a cargo of pepper weighing over 500 tons. Lancaster was knighted and the group he led laid the foundation of the East India Company, which later went on to colonise most of India.

Cultural exchanges

The Zamorins had used pepper for centuries to trade with people all across the known world while also consolidating their power. When they branched off from the Chera dynasty in the 1100s, they made Calicut, known as “the city of spices,” the centre of local, regional, and international trade. The Zamorins welcomed Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traders, along with other local kings and chieftains, usually by pledging to safeguard people and property. The Persians had always sailed to the coast to Malabar, bringing back with them ships full of pepper to the Mediterranean. Additionally, synagogues are thought to have been founded by Jews in the region as early as the sixth century BC.

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The long-lasting relationship between the Chinese empire and India was established around the same time when Chinese ships arrived in south India. This was apparent to medieval visitors, who described Malabari communities as being “sons of the Chinese”. On the Malabar Coast, traders from other regions of India, particularly Gujarat to the west and Coromandel on the east coast, also created long-lasting trading groups, often specialising in certain items.

Through the pepper trade, three colonial empires entered India Through the pepper trade, three colonial empires entered India

This trade of pepper along the Asia coasts also helped spread Islam further east, soon extending from East Africa to the southern coast of China. It brought with it not just Islamic ideas but also the Arabic language, Sharia courts, and unique business customs. Due to this cultural unification that a developing Islam initially brought about, the Muslim trade network, connecting scores of settlements around the world, became very effective for many centuries. So it is not surprising that Malabar was the first part of India to see a significant Islamic footprint going back almost a thousand years.

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Pepper, once so prized across the world, became a household staple, as production techniques improved and other tropical regions started cultivation. Today, pepper is vital albeit commonplace, but at one point in time, its significance was such that it spearheaded the birth of three different colonial empires.

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