How it Made the World Sneeze 


“The passion for pepper seemed to burn like a flame of love in the breast of Dutch and English adventurers about the time of James the First. Where wouldn't they go for pepper! For a bag of pepper they would cut each other's throats without hesitation, and would forswear their souls, of which they were so careful otherwise; the bizarre obstinacy of that desire made them defy death in a thousand shapes – the unknown seas, the loathsome and strange diseases, wounds, captivity, hunger, pestilence and despair. . . . They left their bones to lie bleaching on distant shores.” So muses Conrad's narrator, Marlow, in Chapter 22 of his noval Lord Jim. Lord Jim himself was to add his bones to the rest, in his dark, doomed corner of the East where some earlier adventurer had decided the soil was right for a pepper plantation.

And all that grief and blood for a few handfuls of what, in Conrad's time as in our own, was nothing more than a powdered condiment to be found on every table, to be flicked carelessly on every humdrum meal. What in the world, Conrad or you or I might wonder, could be so extraordinary about pepper that men willingly died for it?

If you enlarge your historical horizon a bit, and look back just a few centuries, there is nothing at all bizarre about the obstinacy of those pepper seekers. They were dealing with one of the great motive forces of human events. Closely examine any of the great events that have shaped the world as we know it – the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the discovery of America – and often as not you will find a pungent smell of pepper at its core.

When Alaric the Visigoth held the city of Rome to ransom in A.D. 408, he demanded and got five thousand pounds of gold, thirty thousand pounds of silver; 4,000 silk tunics and three thousand pounds of pepper.

There are people in the spice trade who will tell you that Alaric wanted the pepper to put in his sausages -- a recent invention of the Visigothic horsemen that enabled them to travel great distances with a relatively well-preserved supply of meat and thus be able to attack and plunder unsuspecting provinces at their leisure.. But the early history of the sausage is murky; and it is more likely that Alaric wanted pepper simply because his keen gangster eye could see that it was so profitable: it was small in bulk, light in weight and enormously expensive. The Romans, like the Greeks before them, were wild about pepper, which they imported at great expense from the East. Pliny the Elder chided them for exchanging precious metal for a product that grew like a weed in its homeland. But they went on without a murmur paying steadily out the gold and silver they collected in plunder and tribute and taxes and tariffs and bribes.

First they paid it to Arabian middlemen. When they learned that pepper grew in India, they discovered how to use the monsoon winds to sail regularly back and forth between the Red Sea ports and the Malabar coast ports like Muziris, and it became one of their principal trade routes. An old Sanskrit text records how the Roman traders “came with gold and returned with pepper and Muziris resounded with the noise.”

The duty levied on that pepper in the customhouses of Alexandria was one of the mainstays of the Imperial budget. And all that gold flowing to Muziris and the other ports of India deepened the deficit in the balance of payments which, according to one school of modern historians, led to the financial crisis that helped destroy the Roman Empire, like the one that helped destroy the Soviet Empire a millennium and a half later..

It wasn't pepper alone, of course. Other luxury goods in the East were attracting Roman gold: pearls and ivory and apes and peacocks and such. And there were dozens of other spices, like nutmeg and cinnamon and cloves and cardamom. For that matter there were at least 20 other plants of the genus Piper growing wild in India. But black pepper, Piper nigrum, was always everybody's favorite and has always provided the bulk of the spice trade.

After Rome fell, pepper became much rarer and more expensive in the Western world. Wars and invasions made trading hazardous. Then the rise of Islam turned the Mediterranean into a Muslim lake closed to European shipping, and the regular trade routes to the Orient almost dried up, plunging western Europe into centuries of depression and stagnation and decay..

Every so often pepper turns up in a ancient document of those dreary days:: an emperor gives a pouch of it to a favorite monastery; King Ethelred the Unready demands a tribute of so many pounds of pepper every Christmas from the German merchants in London; the Venerable Bede leaves what he holds most precious, his pepper and his love, to the Benedictine monks among whom he lived. But in general the Dark Ages of Europe were the Pepperless Ages as well, in which most people found little better to flavor their food than onion, garlic and a few home-grown herbs.

This was a grievous burden on the people of northern Europe, and particularly for the upper classes, who were heavy meat eaters. At the time meat, if preserved at all, was preserved by drying and salting, so that without pepper to liven up or otherwise disguise the taste or the rancidity, it was dreary or unpleasant on the tongue.

The flow of pepper to Europe increased again as a result of the economic and commercial boom that began at the end of the 11th century at the time of the Crusades and has continued with remarkably few interruptions ever since..

When the beefy greedy barons of the North, sailing to the Holy Land on the Crusades, found that pepper was a common consumer product in the Near East, they went crazy over it, the ships which brought them east sailed back west laden with luxury goods, of which pepper was the most luxurious, and the commercial patterns and the eating habits of Europe were both changed almost overnight. Garlic and onions were reduced to the relatively plebeian status they still hold. Pepper was the thing for any man who valued his social position: “he hath no pepper” came to be the most curt and decisive phrase to identify a medieval nobody.

A pound of pepper in those days was worth, roughly, one sheep. Pepper was used for dowries, for taxes, to pay off soldiers – as when every member of the Genoese army which captured Caesarea in Palestine in 1101 got two pounds of pepper as a reward. Judges were bribed with it, rents were paid with it, city accounts in the ledger books were calculated in peppercorns. An aristocrat named Guillaume de Limoges complained about the insolent display of wealth by a rich commoner who piled peppercorns in his storerooms “as if they were so many acorns for his pigs.” Benefactors used to demand a symbolic yearly payment in pepper when they endowed a church: Queen Elizabeth II, visiting her revolted colonies in 1976, was presented with 279 peppercorns at Trinity Church on Broadway, representing back rent due the Crown of England since the days of William III in the seventeenth century.

The pepper which came to Europe in the Middle Ages mostly came in the fleet that served Venice, the Queen of the Adriatic, which picked it up in middle eastern ports like Alexandria after it had made a long voyage by ship across the Indian Ocean and then by camel caravan across the Arabian desert. When in 1499, Vasco da Gama, having proved that it was possible to sail directly to India around the southern tip of Africa, sailed back to Lisbon with pepper in his hold that he could sell for a fraction of the price the Venetians had to charge, the Queen's throne tottered. “All the city remained stupefied,” wrote a Venetian in his diary; “the wisest held it for the worst news that could reach them.” They knew that the mastery of world trade was leaving the Queen of the Adriatic forever and moving west, out of the Mediterranean to the North Atlantic. Vasco da Gama was a Portuguese.

Why was it that Portugal, and later Spain, England, Holland and France, seized the scepter from Venice? This, the eminent French historian Fernand Braudel maintains, is one of the central questions of modern history. How did it happen that the relatively obscure and underdeveloped little nations of northwestern Europe, which had long been on the outer fringes of civilization, in the space of a handful of centuries century or so reached out to conquer and colonize older and more settled nations all over the globe, and impose on them their languages and their technologies and their radical ideologies of experimental science, free enterprise, democratic elections and all the rest?

 How did it happen that little fog- bound England, with a population no bigger than Connecticut's today, with no natural resources but a little coal and a little wool, could send fleets of ships 10,000 miles to take over India, while not a single ship of the immensely powerful and immensely rich Mogul emperor at Delhi ever sailed into English waters?

The obvious answer would seem to be that the Europeans had better ships. Not necessarily. The Arabs, the Indians and the Chinese had long seafaring traditions; Sinbad the Sailor was not an Englishman. In the 16th century the Chinese had huge seagoing junks, as big or bigger than any European sailing ship that had been built at that time But none of them every sailed out into the Pacific till the crew of a Portuguese ship which had been wrecked in a storm acquired one of them and set off for Peru.

The difference between East and West was that only the Westerners had any serious reasons for facing the perils of deep-sea navigation. The Asians had all the luxury goods they wanted in reach of coastal sailing; they rarely had to get out of sight of land. For the Europeans, on the other hand, the things they desperately wanted, the pearls and the pepper, were thousands of miles away, available only through grasping middlemen. The rewards were so great it was worth making any effort to get directly at the source, even if it meant going off in flimsy ships for voyages that might last months or years, over uncharted, storm-tossed, pirate-infested seas, even if it meant sailing to the edge of the world.

What made so many men run such unimaginable risks? They had many motives available – national pride, missionary zeal, the sheer lust for adventure – but weighing in with all the rest was always the profit motive. And, at least in the early days of discovery and exploration, the most alluring profits were in pepper. Isn’t it fair to say that it was pepper which made a somnolent world sneeze its way into the ever-quickening hurly-burly of modern life?

Every one of the great explorers of the great age of discovery – Columbus, Magellan, Amerigo Vespucci, John Cabot – was looking for the 7,448 Spice Islands that Marco Polo had reported lying off the coast of Cathay. (We now know them as the Moluccas, just west of New Guinea.) Columbus was sniffing for pepper wherever he went. He had an amateur botanist with him on his second voyage, and one of the first things the botanist did was notice that the natives used a spice called agi to season their meals. The plant was undoubtedly one of the many West Indian hot peppers. Columbus hastily arranged to dispatch some back to Cadiz to proved that he had really found the fabled Indies.. The tasters there, more realistic, reported that the taste was indeed strong “but not with the flavor of that of the Levant.” Eventually explorers in the New World would also discover dozens of varieties of peppery plants belonging to the genus Capsicum: sweet bell peppers, paprika, jalapenos, cayenne peppers, the Bahamian peppers which set the mouth on fire – all of which have in common that they have no relation whatever to the piper nigrum which Columbus was being paid to find.

. While Columbus was doing his best to delude his patrons, other explorers beating their way around Africa in the early 16th century at last found their way to the true source of pepper: the Malabar coast of India and the island of Sumatra. The prizes were enormous. Later, when the Dutch wrested Sumatra from the Portuguese, tiny Holland, virtually a collection of mudflats, became for a while one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world. The East India Company, which was eventually to acquire India for the British Crown, came into being to defend English interests the day the Dutch greedily jacked up the price of pepper from three shillings a pound to eight.

The pepper trade has always been marked by a strong tendency to keep producer and consumer as far apart as possible. The Arabians, who con- trolled the trade in antiquity, told the Romans that pepper grew only under waterfalls guarded by dragons. Venetian traders called peppercorns “seeds of paradise,” as a selling point to make their customers believe that they had dropped from the sky. The Dutch did their best to keep the location of the Sumatran pepper-growing regions a secret, until in 1795 the secret was pierced by a Yankee skipper from Salem, Massachusetts, who brought a cargo back that made a 700 percent profit on the voyage. He couldn't keep the secret either, and soon whole fleets were braving the reefs and pirates of Sumatra to bring tons of pepper back to Massachusetts. It was one of the vital steps in establishing the preeminence of the merchant marine of the young Republic.

Bones do not bleach for pepper as they once did. The perils and romance of the spice trade are largely a thing of the past. It has been a long time since stevedores unloading pepper ships were forbidden to have pockets in their clothes. Yet there are still parts of the world where pepper is regarded as a more reliable currency than the local bank notes. In Sarawak, Chinese merchants sleep with five-pound bags of pepper under their pillows the way French peasants once sewed gold napoleons into their mattresses.

Only a few years ago the arrival of a ship with a cargo of pepper was an exotic delight at any Occidental port. Agents of the importers would insert steel probes through the mesh of the burlap bags to pull out samples, and the redolence of the Orient would suffuse the dock. Tom Burns, who runs the American Spice Trade Association, used to sample spices on the docks as a young man, and he remembers how the aroma suffused his clothes, and the subway back to Brooklyn; when his children opened the door for him at home, he brought all the mysterious East in with him. Nowadays, pepper comes in anonymous sealed containers, and even the factories where they grind the spices have been forced by government agencies to suppress the odors.

There is no longer any mystery about where pepper comes from, though the head of a large American spice-importing company was heard to ask not long ago: "Where the hell is Sarawak?"

A part of northwest Borneo, Sarawak was once ruled by an English rajah. It became an important pepper producer when huge plantations were created by Chinese merchants in the years following World War II. About the same time, Japanese immigrants who had smuggled cuttings out of the Orient were starting plantations up the Amazon in Brazil. In the traditional growing areas of the Malabar coast and Sumatra, production is generally in small family plots. Each of the four main producing nations—Malaysia, Brazil, India, Indonesia—exports from 30 to 50 thousand tons of pepper a year. Together with Sri Lanka, they have formed an International Pepper Community, which is responsible for virtually all of the world's commercial output, and which has periodic visions of making fortunes for itself the way OPEC did. The visions are idle: all these nations are in desperate need of foreign currency and unable to hold any artificial price line. At a recent IPC meeting at Belem in Brazil they agreed to fix a higher price, and within 48 hours there was an announcement of a price cut – from Brazil. No one has ever succeeded in establishing a pepper monopoly; the last one who made the attempt was an English speculator who tried to corner the market in the late 1930s. He reckoned without the fact that huge quantities of pepper are always being hoarded, for a variety of reasons. It is easy to hoard because peppercorns, unlike other foodstuffs, will last indefinitely: put them in a warehouse for a hundred years and they will lose only an infinitesimal part of their weight, and none of their pungency.

Hoarded supplies coming on the market not only ruined the English- man, they drove the world price down to a ruinous four cents a pound in 1939. During World War II, the Japanese tore up all the pepper vines on Sumatra to plant rubber and food crops, but there were enough stocks on hand to keep the price from rising astronomically. It went up to $2.65 a pound in 1950. Today it is about a dollar. It is hard to think of cost, though, when so little of it goes so far. An ounce of pepper will, according to the most up-to-date calculations, season 1,440 eggs.

Consumption of pepper in the United States has been rising steadily from 14 thousand tons a year in 1950 to 30 thousand today. This is partly a matter of changing lifestyles. People eat in restaurants more, and there is always a peppershaker, or the currently more fashionable pepper mill, there. More meals are served in institutionalized settings, where diners are usually handed little packages of pepper which count statistically as “consumption” even if they are thrown away.

It is a matter of demography. In 1950 the population mix was heavily skewed toward babies, and babies don't like pepper. Neither do animals. You will find no pepper in infant formulas or in pet food. A taste for pepper is part of the maturing process; it comes at about the time the average youngster takes his or her first meal at Burger King.

Pepper tastes the same at Burger King or the Ritz. It is always the same old pepper. Vines growing in different soils produce berries with different degrees of pungency, but by the time it is mixed with food there is no way to tell the difference. Anyone who says you should have used Tellicherry instead of Lampong in your stew is not only an odious snob, but doesn't know what he is talking about. Of course it is best when freshly ground; depending on the fineness of the grind, powdered pepper loses its taste in a few months.

All true pepper is the dried fruit of the Piper nigrum, a woody vine trained to grow around trees or stakes to a height of about ten feet. It grows only in tropical regions with about 100 inches of rainfall a year alternating with long periods of dry heat. The vine sends out spikelike stems about four to five inches long which bear tiny yellow-green flowers and then 50 to 60 peppercorns. Picked when they are green and left to dry and turn dark in the sun, these make black pepper. Allowed to ripen some extra weeks and with the husks washed off. they make white pepper.

Husking removes some of the volatile oils and resins that provide the sharp taste and smell of pepper. English cooks, the least adventurous in the world, tend to use white pepper. In the 19th century they got used to adulterated varieties. When a shipment of genuine pepper got sent out by mistake, it was generally sent back because it was too strong. But those days are happily past.

Dogs bark, the caravan passes. True pepper. Piper nigrum, goes on its way, the universal condiment. Unlike other spices which go with certain varieties of foodstuffs, pepper goes with everything. Tom Burns, an indefatigable traveler, has sprinkled it on everything from tiger chops to vanilla ice cream, and it has enhanced the flavor of everything. The Russians even sprinkle it on vodka.

One reason for its versatility is its unobtrusiveness. Except in a few dishes like steak au poivre, supposedly invented one afternoon in the 1830s by Leopold I, King of the Belgians, pepper does not force itself on you. It never takes over a dish, but blends quietly in, reinforcing other tastes. It stimulates the saliva and the gastric juices, whips up jaded appetites, contributes to a general feeling of contentment, gives you a little pep – a word whose etymology need pose no problems. The same might be said of wine --has indeed been said by 10,000 bards plucking their lyres. But no one has ever written an ode, or even a sonnet, to pepper. The most you will find in the anthologies is this fragment by John Heywood in sprightly sixteenth-century style:

Pepper is blacke

And hath a good smacke

And every man doth it bye.

An early Sanskrit medical text recommends pepper for fever, piles and dyspepsia. Medieval Muslim physicians described it as a deobstruent, resolvent, alexipharmic, diuretic, emmenagogic and a stimulant in the case of snakebite. An old English doctor wrote it “causeth to snese and to clense the brayne of flewmatyke humours as snyvell and rewme.” Think how much snivel and rheum you will be cleaning out with the 60 teaspoons you will be consuming this year (assuming you are an Average American Consumer). Probably more next year, for the doctors nowadays are trying to scare everyone away from salt. And if there's no salt to flavor their dishes, where can people turn but to pepper, an ancient condiment not to be sneezed at? ©1984 Robert Wernick Smithsonian Magazine, February 1984