Excerpt of Spice by Jack Turner
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Yet for all Columbus's confidence there was, undeniably, something odd about his "spices"--not least the fact that they did not taste, smell, or look like the spices he and his patrons knew from their daily table. But Columbus would not be disillusioned. Indeed, on the subject of spice the logs and letters of his voyages read like a study in quixotic delusion. His imagination was more than equal to the challenge of an intruding reality, far outstripping the evidence. Within a week of his arrival in the Caribbean he had the excuse to dispel any doubts: a European, unfamiliar with the plants in their natural habitat, he was bound to make the odd mistake: "But I do not recognize them, and this causes me much sorrow." It was an escape clause that would stay obstinately open for the rest of his life.
And so Columbus kept looking, and he kept finding. He was far from alone in his wishful thinking. His men claimed to have found aloes and rhubarb--the latter at the time imported from China and the Himalayas--although, having forgotten their shovels, they were unable to produce a sample. Rumors flitted among the excited explorers; sightings abounded. Someone found some mastic trees. The boatswain of the Niña came forward for the promised reward, notwithstanding the fact that he had unfortunately dropped the sample (a genuine mistake or a cynical manipulation of his commander's optimism?). Search teams were dispatched, returning with yet more samples and the caveat, by now customary, that spices must be harvested in the appropriate season. Everywhere they were bedeviled--and shielded--by their innocence. On December 6, 1492, lying off of Cuba, Columbus wrote of the island's beautiful harbors and groves, "all laden with fruit which the Admiral [Columbus] believed to be spices and nutmegs, but they were not ripe and he did not recognize them."
What Columbus could see for certain, on the other hand, was the potential of great things to come. If the first samples of Indian spices left much to be desired, his evidence and testimony were at least enough to convince the Crown that he was onto something. Preparations for a second and much larger expedition were immediately put into place, a fleet of at least seventeen ships and several hundred men sailing from Cádiz on September 25, 1493, carrying with them the same freight of unfounded optimism. In the Caribbean forests Diego Álvarez Chanca, the expedition's physician, found evidence of fabulous wealth tantalizingly out of reach: "There are trees which, I think, bear nutmegs, but they were so far without fruit, and I say that I think this because the taste and the smell of the bark is like nutmegs. I saw a root of ginger which an Indian carried hanging around his neck. There are also aloes, although not of the kind which has hitherto been seen in our parts, but there is no doubt that they are of the species of aloes which doctors use." As he shared his commander's illusions, so Álvarez also shared his excuses: "There is also found a kind of cinnamon; it is true that it is not so fine as that which is known at home. We do not know whether by chance this is due to lack of knowledge of the time to gather it when it should be gathered, or whether by chance the land does not produce better."
However, not all these spice seekers were quite so naive or gullible as their cavalier tree spotting might suggest. In order to assist in the search, each of Columbus's expeditions took along samples of all the major spices to show the Indians, who would then, so it was hoped, direct them to the real thing. Yet such was the strength of the Europeans' conviction that even the real thing failed to clear up their misunderstanding--rather, the reverse was the case. During the first voyage, two crew members were sent on an expedition into the Cuban hinterland with samples of spices, reporting back on November 2, 1493: "The Spaniards showed them the cinnamon and pepper and other spices that the Admiral had given them; and the Indians told them by signs that there was a lot of it near there to the southeast, but that right there they did not know if there was any." It was the same story everywhere they went. "The Admiral showed to some of the Indians of that place cinnamon and pepper . . . and they recognized it . . . and indicated by signs that near there there was much of it, towards the south-east."
Excerpted from Spice by Jack Turner Copyright© 2004 by Jack Turner. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.