Saturday 3rd February 2024.
The small publishing house “Haupt”, based in Bern, Switzerland, has published an interesting and important book. Telling the story of the spice trade over 5,000 years, it was written by Norwegian journalist Thomas Reinertsen Berg and translated from Norwegian into German. Why isn’t this book also available in Portuguese and English translations? And why does a Norwegian have to write a book about the history of spices when Portugal played such an important role in their trade, alongside the Netherlands, England, China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Sri Lanka? Wouldn’t this also have been a suitable topic for a Portuguese author?
Wasn’t this all about important culinary treasures? This book explains why the Portuguese embarked on their war with Spain, competing on the seas to increase their national wealth. They pursued this source of wealth for hundreds of years, setting off on long voyages and perishing in great sea battles, with ships laden with nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, cardamom and cloves. They sailed through tremendous storms on the high seas, with many sailors losing their lives. This is also the history of colonial wars, oppression, slavery and fraud – and the history of our cuisine…
… what would sweet rice or a pastel de nata be today without cinnamon? The book boasts eleven very readable chapters across 330 exciting pages, illustrated with old nautical charts and botanical pictures. Perhaps there are no readers in Portugal interested in such a beautiful book? A publisher also has to make a profit and find a good number of buyers. Don’t Portuguese people read good history books? The reader also learns some truly unpleasant facts about the Portuguese, Dutch and English and their greed for spices. Perhaps this explains why the book was written by a Norwegian and has so far only been published in German in neutral Switzerland. For the trade in spices was also the beginning of slavery. And Portugal played a key role in this. In order to increase profits and reduce costs, the Portuguese needed cheap labour to work on the plantations. The easiest solution was to load their empty ships with slaves from Africa on the outward journey via Goa to “Maluka” (the Moluccas), and then return to Lisbon, Lagos, Seville, Antwerp, Amsterdam and London with their ships filled to the brim with spices. If you read the book slowly, you will better understand the origin of today’s capitalism and all its miserable consequences. Everyone vying against everyone else, a little more each time: we don’t begrudge the others any success, but we’d rather sink their ships, preferably robbing them first and seizing their cargoes. The changing powers of Europe – starting with the Romans and Greeks, and later the Arab world and the Egyptians – were not exactly squeamish in their treatment of the peoples of Indonesia and the tribes of India, Sri Lanka and Africa. Human rights? Fair trade? Win-win? Nothing like that. All that came much later, if at all.
When I stand in front of the spice shelf in a supermarket today, looking for nutmeg, cinnamon or pepper, I realise more and more that I prefer the original product to its ground version or the spice mix. Why? Just how many people haven’t sought to stretch the spices further by mixing them with other ingredients for the sake of making money: cinnamon with sawdust, chilli powder with donkey dung, etc.? What oil was yesterday, and lithium is today, spices were the day before yesterday – while gold, silver and cobalt still remain just as valuable as they have always been. Can humankind and its greed still be reined in? The history of spices, gourmet pleasure, greed and globalisation, by Thomas Reinertsen Berg is a very profoundly written and highly entertaining book.
Book: The History of Spices
Pleasure, Greed and Globalisation, 358 pages, 38 euros
by Thomas Reinertsen Berg
published by Haupt-Verlag, Bern, Switzerland