pepper, nutmeg and cloves are the reason why Cape Town was established as a settlement in the 17th Century.
For thousands of years, spices were a highly sought-after substance. It was used not only to flavour food, but also for medicinal purposes, perfume and even embalming. Wars were fought over cinnamon. Countries were discovered while searching for pepper. Ransoms were paid in cloves!
As long as 4 000 years ago, spices were so in demand that Arab merchants made up fantastic tales about daemons and dragons guarding the source of the spices to deter competition and inflate prices, rather than revealing the commodity’s Asian origins.
The 16th Century ushered in the Age of Discovery, and Europe by now knew that the Orient was the source of spices. There was much competition to gain control of the overland route, or Silk Roads, to the East. The city-states of Venice and Genoa monopolised the passage, leaving other European nations to seek alternative routes to the East by ship. Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands and England all sent expeditions of brave men to seek out courses that would lead to the lands of spice.
One such brave seaman was Christopher Columbus. In 1492, under the Spanish flag, he left Europe and sailed west, believing he would reach the Indies from the western side.
As we know today, the land he discovered was in fact the Americas
and he found no spices there. He did, however,
find a myriad of other new foods foreign to Europe at the time, including potatoes, corn, tomato, cocoa and vanilla to name a few. He also found a fiery pod which he dubbed the ‘chile pepper’ (perhaps as a consolation for not finding any of the spices he was looking for).
Portugal took a different – and more successful – route to find the East. Cwas the first to sail south around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, followed by Vasco Da Gama in 1497. But it wasn’t until 1652 that the Cape was actually made a settlement by Jan van Riebeeck, representing the Dutch East India Company (the VOC).
The voyage from Europe to the Orient was long and arduous, and fresh supplies dwindled soon after leaving the harbour, causing scurvy among many of the sailors. To curb this, the Cape was set up as a restocking station, providing ships with fresh food from its fertile soil, so that barques could continue their journey to the Orient. The settlement became renowned as the ‘Tavern of the Seas’.
With the advent of modern refrigeration in the mid-19th Century, as well as techniques to farm spices locally, the spice trade came to an end. But these spices, small as they are, left a legacy that covers the entire globe.