The Spice Seekers
The Taste That Launched a Thousand Ships
According to an old Catalan tradition, the news of the New World was formally announced in the Saló del Tinell, the cavernous, barrel-vaulted banquet hall in Barcelona's Barri Gòtic, the city's medieval quarter. And it is largely on tradition we must rely, for aside from a few sparse details the witnesses to the scene had frustratingly little to say, leaving the field free for painters, poets, and Hollywood producers to imagine the moment that marked the watershed, symbolically at least, between medievalism and modernity. They have tended to portray a setting of suitable grandeur, with king and queen presiding over an assembly of everyone who was anyone in the kingdom: counts and dukes weighed down by jewels, ermines, and velvets; mitered bishops; courtiers stiff in their robes of state; serried ranks of pages sweating in livery. Ambassadors and dignitaries from foreign powers look on in astonishment and with mixed emotions-awe, confusion, and envy. Before them stands Christopher Columbus in triumph, vindicated at last, courier of the ecosystem's single biggest piece of news since the ending of the Ice Age. The universe has just been reconfigured.
Or so we now know. But the details are largely the work of historical imagination, the perspective one of the advantages of having half a millennium to digest the news. The view from 1493 was less panoramic; indeed, altogether more foggy. It is late April, the exact day unknown. Columbus is indeed back from America, but he is oblivious to the fact. His version of events is that he has just been to the Indies, and though the tale he has to tell might have been lifted straight from a medieval romance, he has the proof to silence any who would doubt him: gold, green, and yellow parrots, Indians, and cinnamon.
At least that is what Columbus believed. His gold was indeed gold, if in no great quantity, and his parrots were indeed parrots, albeit not of any Asian variety. Likewise his Indians: the six bewildered individuals who shuffled forward to be inspected by the assembled company were not Indians but Caribs, a race soon to be exterminated by the Spanish colonizers and by the deadlier still germs they carried. The misnomer Columbus conferred has long outlived the misconception.
In the case of the cinnamon Columbus's capricious labeling would not stick for nearly so long. A witness reported that the twigs did indeed look a little like cinnamon but tasted more pungent than pepper and smelled like cloves-or was it ginger? Equally perplexing, and most uncharacteristically for a spice, his sample had gone off during the voyage back--the unhappy consequence, as Columbus explained, of his poor harvesting technique. But in due course time would reveal a simpler solution to the mystery, and one that the skeptics perhaps guessed even then: that his "cinnamon" was in fact nothing any spicier than the bark of an unidentified Caribbean tree. Like the Indies he imagined he had visited, his cinnamon was the fruit of faulty assumptions and an overcharged imagination. For all his pains Columbus had ended up half a planet from the real thing.
In April 1493, his wayward botany amounted to a failure either too bizarre or, for those whose money was at stake, too deflating to contemplate. As every schoolchild knows (or should know), when Columbus bumped into America he was looking not for a new world but for an old one. What exactly he was looking for is clearly delineated in the agreement he concluded with the Spanish monarchs before the voyage, promising the successful discoverer one tenth of all gold, silver, pearls, gems, and spices. His posthumous fame notwithstanding, in this respect Columbus was only a qualified success. For in what in due course turned out to be the new world of the Americas, the conquistadors found none of the spices they sought, although in the temples and citadels of the Aztecs and Incas they stumbled across riches that outglittered even the gilded fantasies they had brought with them from Castile. Ever since, it has been with the glitter of gold and silver, not the aroma of spices, that the conquistadors have been associated. But when Columbus raised anchor, and when he delivered his report in Barcelona, seated in the place of honor alongside the Catholic monarchs, ennobled and enriched for his pains, the perspective was different. The unimagined and unimaginable consequences of his voyage have clouded later views of causes, privileging half of the equation. Columbus sought not only an El Dorado but also, in some respects more beguiling still, El Picante.
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.
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