Sunday, December 13, 2009

Mission to the Spice Islands

Da Gama Reaches India
It was not mainly about gold, it was about pepper. Europeans used a lot of it, and went to enormous efforts to get their hands on it. Shake or grind it with due respect: If the asteroid belt were known to have anything we want as badly as some of our ancestors wanted pepper, we might already be there.

Gold did figure in at the start, no surprise, and so did Prester John. Persisting rumor or legend placed a Christian kingdom somewhere in India, then a thoroughly vague term meaning 'way off east somewhere.' A Portuguese royal younger son became interested in Prester John, in the rather grubbier African gold trade, and - alas, but you knew it was coming - in the grubbiest African trade of them all.

The age of exploration was on, and one of the first things discovered was original sin.

Henry the Navigator's establishment at Sagres was not a 15th century NASA, and the Portuguese caravel was not a nautical revolution (though it was developed amid an ongoing revolution in nautical technology). In fact the lateen-rigged caravel turned out to be a bit of a technological dead end that faded away in the 16th century.

But what Henry and his shipwrights did was still remarkable; they took a handy, seaworthy type used mainly for deep sea fishing and modified it specifically for exploration. And Henry's captains pushed systematically along the coast of Africa, into waters then unknown to Europeans. They (re-) discovered Madiera in 1420, and the Azores in 1427.

They kept going after Prince Henry died. At last in 1488 Bartolomeu Dias rounded Cape Horn, and the way to the East was open. Ten years later da Gama reached India. The fabled wealth of the East, and especially pepper, was at last in direct reach.

And the world was changed. No need to beat the point to death, but good old Christopher Columbus was just trying to go one better on the Portuguese, armed with a gross underestimate for the size of the Earth and sublime ignorance that there was a continent in the way. Lucky for him there was. But it was the Portuguese who got the ball rolling.

No one, so far as I know, had ever explored before in the systematic way they did. There had been explorers: Pytheas, Hanno the Navigator, and the unnamed, semilegendary Phoenician whose circumnavigation of Africa was reported by Herodotus even though he did not believe it. But those were all one-offs.

The Chinese were doing it just as systematically, and at the same time. Zheng He's last expedition ended in 1433; the Portuguese had already reached the Azores and in 1434 they rounded Cape Bojador, pushing into waters unknown to Europeans since Hanno. It was a remarkable historical coincidence.

Unlike the great treasure junks the caravels were small, perhaps 20 meters long and 50 tons capacity - about a third the length and a thirtieth the displacement of their Chinese contemporaries. Handy and well suited to inshore work, to our eye they seem far better suited to exploration. Columbus thought the Santa Maria was too big and clumsy.

But the comparison is misleading. The Chinese treasure fleets had small handy ships, and more to the point the Chinese fleets were not sailing into entirely unknown waters. They were not so much survey missions as 'commercial exploration' and flag showing. When it comes to cargo capacity and sheer coolness factor, the great treasure junks could give value for money.

And most of all to the point, China had perhaps 50 times the resources of Portugal. A timely and interesting link from Winch of Atomic Rockets gives estimated GDPs in 1600. Portugal is not listed, but Spain and China are: Ming China, $96 billion; Philip II's Spain, $7.4 billion. Portugal a century earlier would have been at most perhaps $2 billion. Sending out a few hundred men aboard a squadron of caravels was as heavy a burden on Portugal as sending 30,000 men aboard a treasure fleet was for China.

So why did Portugal's program of exploration succeed, while China's was cancelled and forgotten? The reason can't be things like decentralization versus centralization or government versus private initiative. Both were more or less the same on those counts, pushed by government factions and supported by the merchants, shipbuilders, and such who benefited.

There are no doubt a host of other factors. The Chinese court eunuchs had domestic rivals who wanted to cut them down to size, while Henry the Navigator was a royal younger son who seemed out to make none of the trouble that royal younger sons can make.

But I believe the more important reason is that the Chinese treasure fleets had absolutely nothing to do with broader Chinese concerns of the time. The Indian Ocean produced nothing that the Chinese wanted the way Europeans wanted pepper, and it was irrelevant to the empire's security concerns. (Whereas central Asia was all too relevant.) Seafaring itself was incidental to most of China's population.

It was much different with Portugal, a small country with a substantial fishing population that would readily go to sea for anything more profitable. More important, Portugal shared the reconquista heritage and crusading enthusiasm of neighboring Castile, and shared with much of Western Europe a late medieval fascination with knighthood and quests that gave us Sir Thomas Malory's Le Mort d'Arthur.

Gold, spice, landed estates, adventures in exotic lands, and fighting Muslims (in a pinch, any 'paynims' would do) all got swirled together in the late medieval European imagination, and it was a powerful high. In literature it would produce Amadis of Gaul and his endless successors, the fantasy quest adventures of the 16th century. In retrospect it was embarrassing and often worse, but it had big consequences. It explored the world and conquered a fair part of it.

Pepper would help. But ultimately we will be propelled into space by the power of cool.

Related posts: Zheng He, Leif Ericson, and - from the early days of this blog - the roots of fantasy fiction.


Anonymous said...

There were military aspects involved as well. The Europeans were gearing up for another Crusade (Persecuting Jews, torturing heretics, claiming that Christian tourists [Sorry, pilgrims] were being overcharged in Disneyland [Sorry, the Holy Land], all the usual lead-ins to a Crusade). The investment in the early expeditions was relatively small, and the payoff was potentially huge. A circle-route around the world would have allowed European traders to bypass the middlemen of the Silk Roads and given European Crusaders a route from which to take the Saracens from the rear.

Sadly for those plans, there was a continent in the way. Fortunately the continent had some small reserves of valuable commodities, so the discovery wasn't a complete loss.


Jean Remy said...

I have been thinking for some time now that the real attraction in space is, if it exists, non terrestrial life. Even a microbe on Mars or an amoeba in the oceans of Callisto or... something in the methane pools of Titan. Maybe even something using radically different amino-acids, different DNA-equivalent. More than just the proof that life can exist pretty much anywhere you give it a chance (see thermal vents and rime pools at stupendous depths in our own oceans) but we know that biological materials are the hardest to synthesize. We're still looking for a good equivalent to spider silk, just to name one.

Can a Martian virus or a Callistan amoeba be our pepper of the future? A form of life so far unknown, using a biology we haven't thought of, complex molecular sequences we hadn't imagined before, would be far far more attractive than mere metals or He3. When Pasteur finally proved the existence of micro-organisms, our medical technology made leaped forward in the way no one had even dreamed, not even Pasteur. What could we learn from alien life?

And it might even taste good in soup!

Marcelo Glenadel said...

The important lesson is that the Portuguese went after something they KNEW was there, as a means to remove the middleman.

By the way, one of the first things they did after they got pepper from india was to try and plant it someplace else (Mostly Brazil, due to the similar climate to India and the Southeast Asia—Some of the largest black pepper farms in the world still are in the Amazon basin). Same thing for all the good fruit they found in Asia (Mangoes, for example).

We still need good reason to go to space, because, as space is (so far) dead, everything we can potentially get from space we can replicate here, at a lower cost (so far).

We need a new pepper, which grows only in Mars.

Citizen Joe said...

Interesting tangent. Roasting coffee beans was done in order to prevent people from simply planting their own. Organic copy protection.

Citizen Joe said...

Jean: The way you explain the ET's makes it seem like the model to use is the slave trade.

AdShea said...

The current closest thing I can see to "pepper" would be helium in a few years. We use it for everything, and we're running out.

Thucydides said...

I think Jean is on to something here. The Portuguese and Spanish were pretty blinkered really, they knew pepper was out "there" and needed a way to bypass those pesky Ottoman and Venetian middlemen. For the most part they did well when they got what they came for, but were a lot less successful with the strange new environment, pretty much ignoring it.

The other Europeans came to the Americas looking for gold, but the ones who became rich discovered new products and created new markets. In the case of Canada, furs became the commodity of choice for "The Company of Adventurers" (AKA the Hudson Bay Company), since they weren't finding any gold. All kinds of other resources were also discovered and exploited, as well as support industries, leaving a much richer and more diverse economic foundation for the colonies and eventually new nations to grow from.

As far as space resources are concerned, we have tales of "El Dorado" (mostly concerning energy, such as constant sunlight for solar power stations or 3He for aneutronic fusion [if and when that challenge is met]).

There will be "Spaniards" and "Portuguese" who strike it rich in these markets, of course, but the real question is who will discover and exploit the "furs" , "cod" and "tobacco" (to name two products) of the new environment?

Jean Remy said...

CJ: I'm really speaking of single-cell life, and maybe not even that, just proto-life amino-acid chains that are not found on Earth. I'm thinking mostly about advances in bio-sciences, or a leg up in synthesizing new organisms. What if we find a life on Titan that eats up methane and other hydrocarbons? Can it show us how to create a bacteria that eats oil spills? What can completely alien life forms, even at the amoeba level, tell us about how life evolved, and allows us to further our genetic research? "Slavery" would imply intelligent life, which I highly doubt is present in our solar system. (It is hard enough to find intelligent life on *this* planet)

Thucydides: whoever financed the probe that finally finds life. There are projects to dig through Callisto's ice layer and examine and explore the underlying oceans, and missions to Titan and Triton are likely. We're not going to go get our "pepper" blindly, we'll know what it is and where it is. We know there isn't a continent in the middle with unknown resources. Before we colonize the solar system we'll have a pretty good idea of what we'd be looking at.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we should be looking for a "pepper" that isn't quit so concrete...perhaps our "pepper" will be a new insight or new enviorment that forces us to look at things in a different light...or even the destination itself may be our new "pepper"


Thucydides said...

What I was getting at was yes, we will indeed set out looking for "pepper" (or sunshine or dewars of 3He), but once we are living and working in the environment, some people will see resources, products and services that were not apparent before.

I can actually imagine a sort of "Helium rush" on the moon in the mid to late 21rst century, then the moon becoming a ghost town with abandoned mass catchers in an orbital brownfield around L2 in the 22nd century when something much cheaper or more cost effective than boiling 3He out of lunar regolith is discovered; something you and I might only guess at today (the way the Company of Adventurers more or less stumbled upon the idea of the fur trade after being unable to find gold).

After all, Spain was actually beggared by the influx of Inca silver (price inflation in the 1500's forced the use of slaves and criminals as oarsmen on Spanish galleys, and eventually priced Spain right out of the Empire business, while the mecentile Dutch and then English just kept going from strength to strength)

So pepper might get us started, but you never know what will power the economies of the future.

Rick said...

As usual, comments have covered so much ground that it is hard to know what to add.

Definitely Jean could be onto something with biologicals, not to mention the impact of those LIFE ON MARS !!! (or wherever) breaking news headlines.

But if we don't find life, does it all fizzle?

Bernita said...

Thank you, Rick, and the commentors, for this explanation of the Samarcand of the Sea.

Rick said...

That was the other way east, the inland Silk Road. (Which I like as a name for a mercantile spaceship.)

Sue Burke said...

If you want to read the adventures of Amadis of Gaul and see what it inspires you to explore and conquer, I'm translating it here:

Rick said...

Sue - Thanks for dropping by, and your link! This is quite a remarkable service you are performing.

Like practically everyone I know exceedingly little about Amadis de Gaule and the literature he spawned. Only that it had obvious kinship to modern fantasy, and that it was enormously popular during the Age of Exploration.

In the first version of my novel I had a scene with my protagonist and her ladies in waiting reading aloud from an Amadis style romance. Alas it ended up on the cutting room floor.

CitySide said...

"one of the first things they did after they got pepper from india was to try and plant it someplace else"

A surprising number of new world cash crops came from somewhere else: sugarcane, coffee, cotton. Tobacco's the only one that was an entirely new discovery.

Rick said...

Corn (maize)? Or is that not a 'cash crop' in the sense that ag people use the term?

But it does tend to be forgotten how many Old World crops became prominent in New World agriculture.

CitySide said...


Good point. Certainly a cash crop if grown in sufficient quantity. But, its role as a dietary staple sets it apart, particularly with regards to the bulk that must be moved for it to function as a cash crop compared to sugar/pepper/java/tea/tobaccky (Cotton, on the other hand...although it came late to the cash crop game, requiring an industrial revolution to ramp up demand)

That said, the new world did give the old not just one, but two new staples: corn and potatoes (although, outside idaho, taters aren't really a cash crop, more a means to eke out an existence on otherwise marginal land)

VonMalcolm said...

Catching up on some older posts now...
Laughed at 'And it might even taste could in soup'. A base has been established inside a pocket deep within Europa's ice crust, but there is an explosion inside the aeroponics lab. Food will be in short supply and another shuttle won't/can't arrive for at least a year. Solution: those magical, half foot, bioluminescent, even seemingly curious creatures that propagate the surprisingly oxygenated ocean (via cosmic rays turning the ice into oxidizers -Wiki). The only thing is these creatures are rare... so it is either them or the explorers.

-And what if the Na'vi tasted like chicken, devilishly delicious naturally barbecued chicken. There are lots of stories where aliens want to eat us: What if we wanted to eat them!

Jean Remy said...

You, sir, have a sick, sick mind...

I like it!

Rick said...

I missed this whole latest exchange!

How deliciously evil, so to speak.