Why this was so may be answered with varying degrees of complexity. The simplest answer, but also the shallowest, is that spices were immensely valuable, and they were valuable because they were immensely elusive and difficult to obtain. From their harvest in distant tropical lands, spices arrived in the markets of Venice, Bruges, and London by an obscure tangle of routes winding halfway around the planet, serviced by distant peoples and places that seemed more myth than reality. That this was so was as much a function of the geography as the geopolitics of the day. Where the spices grew--from the jungles and backwaters of Malabar to the volcanic Spice Islands of the Indonesian archipelago--Christians feared to tread. Astride the spice routes lay the great belt of Islam, stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. As spice was a Christian fixation, so it was a Muslim milch cow. At every stage along the long journey from East to West, a different middleman ratcheted up the price, with the result that by the time the spices arrived in Europe their value was astronomical, inflated in some cases on the order of 1,000 percent-sometimes more. With cost came an aura of glamour, danger, distance, and profit. Seen through European eyes, the horizon clouded by ignorance and vivified by imagination, the far-off places where the spices grew were lands where money grew on trees.
Yet if the image was beguiling, the obstacles that stood in the way seemed insuperable--prior, that is, to Columbus. His solution was as elegant as it was radical. It was not inevitable, said Columbus, that Eastern goods should arrive from the East; nor that Westerners should pay such a premium, thereby lining the pockets of the Infidel. The world being round, was it not simple logic that spices might also come around the other way: around the back of the globe, from the west? (Contrary to one hoary myth, hardly any well-informed medieval Europeans were flat-earthers. That the earth was spherical had been accepted by all informed opinion since ancient times.) It followed, then, that all one had to do to reach the Indies and their riches was head west from Spain: the ancients had said so, but thus far no one had put the idea to the test. With a little endeavor spices would be as common as cabbages and herrings. Columbus, in not so many words, proposed to sail west to the East, to Cathay and the Indies of legend; or, in the words of one of his intellectual mentors, the Florentine humanist Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, "ad loca aromatum," to the places where the spices are.
It was an idea of hallucinatory promise--not for the promise of discovery for discovery's sake nor even because the idea was particularly original, but because of the fiscal rewards. In the event of success Columbus's scheme would deliver his Spanish patrons a limitless source of wealth. For the small outlay required to fit out the expedition--a sum roughly equivalent to the annual income of a middling Castilian nobleman--Columbus proposed to drag the Indies out of the realms of fable and into the mainstream of Spanish trade and conquest. Though the story of his voyage has been endlessly mythologized, buried under a mountain of romantic speculation and scholarly scrutiny, in effect his success depended on convincing a coalition of investors and then the Crown that his relatively inexpensive plan merited the gamble. There were experts who disagreed, but in fifteenth-century Spain no more than in a modern democracy did expert opinion or the weight of evidence always carry the day. With a powerful syndicate and capital on his side, those who labeled him crackbrained no longer mattered. His voyage was possible because he got the backing and the cash, and he got the cash because of the promise of more--vastly more--to come back in return. Today he would be labeled a venture capitalist of a particularly bold and inventive hue.
Hence, very briefly summarized, the scene in the Saló. And if the returning discoverer's choice of exhibits made a good deal more sense then than now, so too, in his defense, did his mistakes. Very few Europeans had been to the real Indies, and fewer still had looked on the spice plants in their natural state. Reports of spices and Indies alike arrived rarely, often heavily fictionalized, a situation that left the fertile medieval imagination free to run riot, and few had imaginations more fertile than did Columbus. A month after first sighting land he had seen enough for his own satisfaction, writing in his log that "without doubt there is in these lands a very great quantity of gold . . . and also there are stones, and there are precious pearls and infinite spicery"--none of which he had thus far laid eyes on. Two days later, as his small flotilla picked its way through the coves and reefs of the Caribbean, he discerned hidden treasures beyond the palms and sandy beaches, convinced that "these islands are those innumerable ones that in the maps of the world are put at the eastern end. And he [Columbus] said that he believed that there were great riches and precious stones and spices in them." The evidence was lacking, but his mind was made up. He had set out to find spices, and find spices he would. Desire was father to discovery.
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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