Stephen Kinzer writes: As Europe began awakening into the modern age, people were eager for new sensations. The arrival of exotic spices dazzled them. Pepper is the reason modern imperialism was invented.
For generations after their founding in the early 17th century, two powerful mercantile forces dominated much of the world: the East India Company, based in London, and the Dutch East India Company, based in Amsterdam. They were richer and had greater reach than any government — complete with armies, navies, merchant fleets, fortified ports, plantations, court systems, prisons, currencies, and treaty-making rights. With this authority, granted by the British and Dutch governments, they captured far-flung territories and sowed seeds of conflict in vast areas east of Suez.
Both of these companies were founded to bring pepper to Europe. The first islands they subdued, the Moluccas, are now part of Indonesia but were long known in the West as the Spice Islands. It is a wonderful example of how food can become the lens through which we see foreign lands. Europeans went mad for pepper and other spices. That meant ships had to be sent halfway around the world to claim land and suppress unruly natives. [Continue reading…]