A Story of Pepper, the World’s Most Important and Underappreciated Spice

How Arabs, Malabarians and Portuguese shaped the world in search of the 'black gold'

A Story of Pepper, the World’s Most Important and Underappreciated Spice
Pepper from Madagascar. (Veronique Durruty/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

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Since antiquity, empires have risen and fallen in the quest for a simple spice: pepper. People in different eras have created polities, cultivated trade networks and engaged in conflict in the pursuit of peppercorns they often prized as much as — or more than — gold and gemstones. Always “the king of spices,” pepper has been the most traded such product in human history. At times, it made up 80% of spice trade by volume, as scholars have assessed by studying shipwrecks, manifests, port documents and diaries. Prizing pepper around the world, monarchs, merchants and mariners raised armies, set out on quests and risked their lives and fortunes to gain the black spice — then used it to do more of the same.

Overlooked today, pepper has played a significant role in human affairs for millennia. Doctors in South Asia used it to treat an array of ailments while creating Ayurveda — a system of medicine that may be 3,000 years old. In Egypt, after the pharaoh Ramses II died in 1224 BCE, his mummifiers placed a peppercorn up each of his nostrils. People in ancient Greece, and everywhere from Iberia to India, used it as a currency while also prizing it as much as any luxury good in the premodern world. The Romans consumed it copiously, in every sphere of life, and created one of the earliest, most significant long-distance trades in history when they dealt directly with pepper producers in the East. Beyond that, the Romans used pepper as a symbol of power — collecting it as imperial tribute at their apex and paying it out to invading tribes to seek peace during their decline.

Black pepper, Piper nigrum. (Florilegius/Alamy)

For more than a millennium after Rome’s collapse, people at the western end of their known world depended on others — particularly Arabs and/or Muslims — for pepper. In turn, Arab and Muslim intermediaries came to control and shape how Europeans accessed the treasured, mythicized spice. In doing so, Arab and Muslim mariners and merchants cultivated relationships in South Asia and remade different domains — the Levant, Malabar and more — as gardens, markets and arenas. Taking the black spice from pepper producers in an exoticized east, Arabs brought it to the crowded, cacophonic Mediterranean — the sea where, as ever, middlemen met middlemen. There, Arabs handed over pepper to merchants who then moved it to the courts, monasteries, pseudo-pharmacies and kitchens of Europe. The Venetians, for instance, were among the merchants who depended on Arabs (and Greeks and Persians) for trade as much as other Europeans depended on them. Indeed, as doges, merchants and clerks wrote, the Venetians relied on pepper for the vast majority of their cargo, often the bulk of merchant profits and frequently the lion’s share of their republic’s revenues.

Just as Arabs and Venetians had once risen as intermediaries, others would later rise by outflanking them in their pursuit of pepper (and other eastern goods). Struggling for supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, each a civilizational sphere in its own way, Arabs, Byzantines, Venetians and Indians cooperated and competed for pepper without necessarily anticipating how folks from the fringes could shake things up from time to time. Some, in a sense, changed existing orders from within: As Ottomans pushed out Byzantines and Mamluks, they came to control old overland and intermediate seafaring routes — striking this or that deal, changing this or that quota, adopting or abandoning this or that tax on pepper. Others, though, changed the grand game entirely. Venturing out of their peninsula, for instance, Iberians would rediscover old lands and find ones they called new. Cutting out middlemen like the Arabs, these Iberians changed the fates and fortunes of people in Arabia, South Asia and beyond — by, if nothing else, triggering centuries of interhemispheric exchange with the Americas still unfolding today. And they did all of that for, and with, black pepper — the world’s most underappreciated and significant spice.

Marching for God and glory, Europeans found soaps and spices during the Crusades. Over two centuries of contact with Arabs in the Levant, Europeans brought pepper back home — doing so, as fate would have it, just as seafarers from southern Arabia were establishing their own presence in pepper-producing lands farther east. Going crazy for pepper, they created a booming long-distance spice trade. Trading with intermediaries in the Levant, who dealt with unknown pepper producers, Europeans brought back about 1,000 tons of pepper to the continent per year. (As historians and scholars have written, Europeans in that era imported as much pepper as all other spices combined and spent enough money on the black spice to pay for a fifth of their continent’s needed grain.) Pepper’s price soared. A sack of pepper came to be worth a whole sheep, a whole pig or a month’s wages. Its deeper value — both real and symbolic — remained high, too. For instance, when the Genoese seized part of Palestine during the First Crusade, the lords gave warriors pouches of pepper — not blessings, bullion or even other spices — to mark the achievement.

Although they consumed more, people didn’t necessarily know much about pepper. As scores of scholars have written, including Paul Freedman in the wonderful book “Out of the East,” European Christians believed that pepper came from the realm of a “Prester John,” a mythicized monarch and Christian champion whose subjects wandered an earthly Eden full of pepper forests while guzzling honey-peppered wines from gemstone goblets. Arabs and their predecessors had long told Europeans that pepper grew behind waterfalls guarded by fire-breathing dragons — doubtlessly why peppercorns were so piquant and, given the apparent risks, pricey. For their part, Arabs and Muslims didn’t always know everything. They, too, believed that pepper was a fruit of some paradise. Some Islamic scholars even wrote that pepper came from the tears of Adam — who, perhaps understandably, cried after God banished him to the mud known as Earth.

They were all wrong. Pepper was of the earth. Indeed, the black spice grew in a place that Arabs — or at least southern, seafaring Arabs — had long known. And yet the truth made it special. For most of human history, pepper — a spice sought in English monasteries and households, Italian and Arab kitchens and markets, Chinese and Japanese courts — came from only one place on the planet: India.

The Arabs called it Malabar: the “land of mountains.” In this southwestern strip of India, now in Kerala, humans harvested pepper in forests for thousands of years. Eventually, they began to cultivate, collect and trade it as a commodity. During the middle era, corresponding with the European Middle Ages, Malabar’s coastal cities and towns became centers of different pepper trades: local, regional, subcontinental, cross-continental and global. The region kept its special place in the pepper market for centuries. As others failed to grow pepper effectively, people in Malabar — where conditions are still most naturally favorable today — found or grew pepper everywhere: coastal strips, hills and mountains. By the 1500s, after overland traders as well as seafaring Arabs and Indians had taken the plant east, people were cultivating pepper in other parts of South Asia and the Indonesian archipelago. None, though, could then compete with Malabar’s quantity, quality or mystique.

Workers gathering pepper in India, 1579. (Science History Images/Alamy)

Arabs acquired a special position in the pepper trade in Malabar and cultivated close relationships with its rulers. In their earliest trips, people from Arabia recorded goods of interest, navigational insights and placenames in works of geography. Indeed, they probably gave the region its prime placename: “Malabar,” being a suitable, symbolic marriage between a Malayalam word for mountain (“mala”) and an Arabic word for land (“barr”). Though they sought other goods, Arabs and their predecessors had long held special interest in pepper as both consumers and traders. In Arabia, as in other places, it was the full-spectrum spice. Emperors, princes and chiefs prized pepper; so, too, did people in different segments of society. They used the peppercorn in Aden and Mokha, just as Arabs and others later used it in the cooking and medicine of Cairo or Damascus. Even so, though Greek philosophers, Arab merchants and English spicers wrote about pepper’s punch and virtue, people in Arabia didn’t always keep it in the best of company in their minds or writings. Indeed, the poet Imru al-Qais — who authored one of the epic “hanging odes,” the famed pre-Islamic poems — wrote a somewhat unflattering description of the black spice while comparing it to animal manure: “There all about its yards and away in the dry hollows, you may see the dung [of] antelopes scattered like peppercorns.”

Bringing the black spice through Arabian ports, waystations and towns, Arabs traded more with Malabarians as peoples coalesced, monarchs consolidated control and polities prospered. Arabs and South Asians transformed one another culturally, religiously and linguistically in the centuries after the coming of Islam. They did so during the Arab-Muslim century of conquests and in a longer period of expansion of Arabic language and Islamic culture. As people became Arabs and Muslims, or submitted to Arab and Muslim rulers, Arabs routinely ferried pepper from India to southern Arabia — increasing their activity during the 700s and for centuries after. Trading pepper and other goods, people from Oman, Hadramawt (mostly in today’s Yemen) and other southerly lands established themselves as leading seafarers and the most influential traders in the Indian Ocean. Riding the waves back to Arabia, they sold or pushed pepper up their peninsula by sea and land. In doing so, they established and elevated towns through the pepper-laden spice trade: Mecca, Medina, Mokha, Jeddah, Damascus and others. And they thus helped build the symbols, cradles and experiments of early Islam itself.

People in Arabia and South Asia shaped each other’s languages by mixing and melding words or trading turns of phrases. Not only did the Arabs bring pepper with them back from Malabar, but they also might have borrowed the word for the treasured black spice: The Arabic “filful” probably comes from “pipli” in Sanskrit. Even while writing and sharing the Quran, which their successors have beheld as the word of God and paragon of pure Arabic, they used words derived from India during the Arabic language’s early evolution. With these words, including for spices like camphor, ginger and musk, or later for weather systems like the monsoon, people marked movements, exchanged resources and adopted ideas in different directions and over time.

A page from “The Book of Medicinal Herbs,” or “Kitab al-Hashaish,” published in Isfahan, Persia, in 1658. (CPA Media Pte Ltd/Alamy)

At their peak, Arabs were intermediaries for consumers who demanded massive amounts of black pepper per year — all of it, then most of it, then the best of it, from Malabar. No matter their other trades, no matter the subtle imprints people made on each other’s languages, Arabs left little doubt regarding the prime product in this glorious garden and emporium — then, and now, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. Arabs so associated Malabar with the black spice that they gave it another name in their annals: the “land of pepper.”

Pepper was pivotal for the rulers of polities in different eras, times and places. And it became more important as it became more popular. With the black spice, monarchs paid for their soldiers, traders paid for caravans, and enterprising families acquired or seeded their fortunes. From the Levant, Europeans brought back a taste for pepper, knowledge of the world beyond their continent and habits acquired from others. Sailing to and from Malabar, Arabs and other Muslims bought and sold more of the black spice, inserted themselves as intermediaries in a cross-continental trade and created a commercial network ringing the Indian Ocean.

Having long since learned that pepper was a “black gold,” monarchs and merchants competed to carve out spheres of influence in Malabar while welcoming others from abroad. Using pepper, the Zamorins (some of the hereditary rulers in southwest India) consolidated control, built a prosperous polity and traded with peoples from around the known world for centuries. Establishing their autonomy in the 1100s, they turned Calicut — their seat of power, “the city of spices” — into a center of local, regional and world trade. Although the Zamorins were not Abrahamic monotheists, they and other rulers in Malabar welcomed Jewish, Christian and Muslim traders — usually by promising to protect people and property. (As Pius Malekandathil and others have written, the Zamorins long welcomed traders from different ethnic communities and distant polities, too.) Arriving in Malabar, Arabs increasingly settled or spent seasons there as Roman, Alexandrian and other merchants had done in centuries past. They built a long, productive partnership with the Zamorins and cultivated contacts with other rulers north and south of Calicut.

Together, the Zamorins and Arabs cultivated influence throughout Malabar and the Indian Ocean. As the Zamorins rose to power and lifted their city, the Arabs helped turn Calicut into a center of commerce from Iberia to Indonesia. Malabarian merchants joined a network of commercial nodes linking three continents, dealt with partners who spoke or wrote Arabic and inhabited a realm in which people could — because of language, learning and law — operate with predictability and familiarity. Helping to bring Malabar into the Islamic realm with their presence, Arabs were fundamentally peaceful even if the place was never free of conflict. Settling, they created an Arab diaspora that included people from southern Arabia around Ormuz and from cities like Cairo and Tunis. Intermarrying, they created new communities whose members combined local customs and Islamic practices. They also attracted converts from other communities in Malabar. According to the late scholar K. V. Krishna Ayyar, about 5,000 Muslim families were living in Calicut in about 1500. Others visited or sojourned there during longer voyages. Traveling far and wide, the famed chronicler Ibn Battuta spent time in the “land of Malabar, which [was] the pepper country.” Once there, he marveled at how people “poured [the black spice] out for measuring by the bushel” — almost like “grain” in other lands.

Although powerful and prosperous, rulers in the “land of pepper” weren’t presiding over some paradise or proverbial land of milk and honey. People never lived in a permanent peace, somehow free of the intrigues, quarrels and fights found in every place on the planet. Arabs and Zamorins warred, feuded and competed with others in their respective domains. Zamorins boosted Calicut as a capital, while rivals did the same in places like Cochin. Arabs set up their posts in Malabar while others cultivated complex ties and influences throughout South Asia.

While competing for pepper, for instance, the Chinese challenged the Arab-Zamorin partnership in Malabar. Having for millennia bought goods from “the barbarians” to their west, Chinese merchants had been procuring pepper since at least the first century. Visiting pepper ports around the Indian Ocean since at least the eighth century, the Chinese intermittently explored, traded and retreated over the years. Again venturing to the land of pepper from the 1100s, the Chinese arrived in Malabar by sea (just as Europeans went to the Levant and Arabs came to Malabar). They wanted pepper, too. Indeed, centuries after Europeans began their pepper boom and Arabs captured most of the trade terminating in the west, people in China were still the greatest consumers of pepper in the world. At times, the Chinese cultivated commercial networks around the Indian Ocean and became leading seafarers in its eastern waters (just as Arabs dominated its western waters). Putting thousands of baskets of pepper on every ship, they did brisk business while seeking quality and quantity. For every “shipload of pepper that [went west] to Alexandria or elsewhere, destined for Christendom,” wrote Marco Polo, a spice-savvy Venetian before becoming a wanderer, “there [came east] a hundred … to this haven of Zayton!”

As rulers in different dynasties came and went, the Chinese engaged counterparts in South Asia. Combining imperial interests with purported civilizing missions, the Chinese during the Ming dynasty tried to bring polities in Malabar into their sphere of influence — including, incidentally, those leaders who offered up peppercorns as tribute. The Zamorins and Chinese clashed. The Zamorins seethed as the Chinese worked with other rulers in the region, while Chinese leaders slammed the Zamorins for expelling some of their subjects and cozying up to Arabs. The Zamorins and/or Muslims in Malabar may have massacred Chinese people in the 1400s in an incident that overshadowed relations for generations, even as it was then (and has since been) cast in clouds of fact, myth and scapegoating. (Portuguese chroniclers of the 1600s mention the massacre. So, too, have Indian historians throughout the past century. More recently, Tansen Sen, Tsao Yung-ho and others have written accessible works with useful context on Chinese policies and relations in Malabar.) By the 1400s, the Chinese were working to cut down the Zamorins. Vassalizing other rulers in Malabar, the Chinese declared a special relationship with Cochin — putting it on par, perhaps, with only Japan and Brunei — as a counterweight to Calicut. Miffed, the Zamorins protested and doubled down on their alliance with the Arabs.

Rulers, merchants and seafarers maintained complex relations in Malabar for centuries. They got on well enough to trade pepper in a predictable and prosperous order, which rulers upheld while being brutal with rivals and practical — even ecumenical — with some subjects and partners. And yet, they wouldn’t live in that Malabar forever. They were soon about to meet other people who were audacious and brutal, visionary and ignorant, zealous and corrupted. They were about to meet those other people from the distant west: the Portuguese.

They sailed out of Iberia, as others had once set out from Arabia. Looking for the black spice, the Portuguese became the first people from the West to buy pepper directly at its source in a millennium. After seafarers like Diaz had skirted the coasts of Africa, Vasco da Gama ventured out in 1498 and made it to Malabar, the long-mythologized land of spice. Their Iberian cousins, the Spaniards, made do at the time with what they and everyone else in Europe thought was a consolation trophy: the Americas. Indeed, in 1492, when Christopher Columbus traveled west to find the East, he carried in his pockets a precious cargo to let folks know exactly what he was after: peppercorns — as sure a sign as any regarding his motives, and yet another symbol of the spice’s significance.

Instead of encountering Prester John, paradisiacal pepper-eating Christians or other fantastical people in the East, the Portuguese in Malabar ended up meeting people they knew all too well: Arabs. Indeed, in history and in myth, Arabic-speaking people played pivotal roles throughout the Portuguese voyage to — and sojourn in — India. Arab or Arabic-speaking pilots and navigators ultimately took the Portuguese to their destination — for instance, helping them skirt the shores of east Africa and then guiding them to Malabar. In a sense, the first purported encounter between Portuguese and Indians might have been an awkward jig between different Arabic-speaking people again playing middlemen to the world. In one of many cocktails of history and myth, some reified in epics like “The Lusiads,” the Portuguese relay an exchange between their crew and some merchants from North Africa whom they encountered in the East:

“Devil take you! What are you doing here?”
“We come in search of Christians and spices.”

No matter the facts and fables, the former had stumbled into the latter: At long last, after years of voyaging, decades of probing and centuries of mythmaking, Christians had found their important, exoticized spices. Making contact, though, they didn’t make the best first impression on the people who produced pepper. Going to India with salted fish and fabric, the Portuguese were astounded at how wealthy and opulent rulers were in Malabar. Embarrassed by their own poverty, they decided not to offer these rulers gifts. Not really rubes, even if they were brutish, the Portuguese preferred to appear ignorant or even insolent rather than to expose themselves as poor partners. Besides, they could always patch up — or blow up — things later. After testy exchanges and tragicomic misunderstandings, encounters that Arabic-speaking traders facilitated as if to be the intermediaries of their own decline, the Portuguese eventually left with a gift of pepper: an afterthought for Malabarian monarchs, yet an epoch-making haul for European seafarers. Promising to return with better wares, da Gama obtained a bunch of the black spice and headed home. Two years after leaving, the Portuguese crew landed in Lisbon. Only a third of them had survived. Almost none reaped the riches and rewards of that maiden voyage or the coming age. Even so, they’d changed the grand game — and the world — forever.

The Portuguese had arrived on the world stage. And they knew it. In vainglorious missives, King Manuel announced the achievement to rulers who were now rivals. He claimed continents as prizes for the Portuguese and, as if through them, Christendom, then declared himself “Lord of [Africa], and of the Conquest, the Navigation and Commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India.” Posturing in public, mocking their Portuguese counterpart as a “farmer” or “grocer” king, others on the continent were astounded and disappointed in private. Indeed, they dreaded what they knew was coming next.

Pepper begat power; power begat pepper.

Building an empire overnight, the Portuguese at once destroyed, remade and inserted themselves into the old order dominated by Arabs, Malabarians and others. Once embarrassed, the Portuguese seized an embarrassment of riches. Having cut out their rivals by sea, they now undercut them in the market. They sold their pepper at half-price and still made a fortune. Docking pepper-laden ships in Lisbon, London and elsewhere, the Portuguese were able to take bullion and fine goods back east, buy more pepper and repeat the whole process — while everyone from Arabia to Aragon sat on the sidelines and watched. In 1505, the Portuguese crown declared a monopoly on pepper and spice trades. (After finding India, the Portuguese monarch decreed different monopolies as the crown established eastern enterprises to deal in different goods. Making these moves, writing letters and scribbling in diaries, the Portuguese made clear that they valued the black spice above all.) A decade later, the Portuguese were funding most of their state’s requirements with pepper alone. And by 1520, the Portuguese might have been raising more revenue from pepper than from everything else combined in their metropolitan monarchy.

Investing in their capital city, embassies and navy, the Portuguese financed more fleets to the East and brought back more pepper in endeavors masterfully chronicled by historians like Anthony R. Disney and seen in Lisbon’s own palaces, museums and markets. Repeating and expanding expeditions abroad, they did the same with investments at home. The Portuguese found power and prosperity with pepper: a black gold making up as much as 80% of all their traded spices while yielding (gross) profits of hundreds of percent per shipment. During their golden age, the Portuguese brought in half of all pepper in Europe by sea from India to Iberia. For a half-century, the Portuguese king was the richest ruler in Europe and the most influential monarch in the Indian Ocean. When the Portuguese princess Isabella married Charles V, the Hapsburg who’d become the nominal sovereign of a vast empire, her family paid part of the dowry in pepper.

They wanted more.

If others had traded pepper for centuries regardless of changes in control, the Portuguese wanted to monopolize the trade. And they wanted to do so soon. But first they needed to control the lands of pepper producers, regulate ports and patrol the sea lanes of merchants, skippers and shippers, who were still mostly Arab. As the Portuguese tried to push pepper from India to Iberia, they tried to prevent others from moving it through its traditional waystations in the Islamic empires. “Nothing,” the Portuguese king wrote, from a booming Lisbon, “could be more important” than stopping others from taking “any spices to the territory of the Sultan” so that “everyone in [the East] would lose the illusion of being able to trade anymore except with us.”

To dominate what they had discovered, the Portuguese unleashed four admirals of empire in the East: da Gama, Cabral, Almeida and Albuquerque. Having alienated people on his first voyage, da Gama demonstrated that first impressions could be misleading: He was more brutal than he’d let on. Repeatedly using force to promote Portuguese interests, da Gama (might have) massacred Muslims returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca. As parents begged him to take treasures and spare the children, da Gama torched the ship and killed hundreds of people — children, mothers and all. (Historians and writers have told and retold this tale. Portuguese clerks and chroniclers, like the likely eyewitness Thome Lopes, also wrote accounts of the incident. Even so, while epic poems, chronicles and earlier scholarship survive, original copies of some firsthand accounts might be lost forever.) Tagging in, Cabral and Almeida helped establish dominance for decades. Cabral shelled Calicut then — just in case townspeople along the harbor hadn’t gotten the message — torched ships that were moored offshore. After them came Albuquerque. Sophisticated and ambitious, he scorned plans for mere management — that is, imperialism — and dreamed of colonizing lands around the Indian Ocean. While the Portuguese never really committed to his vision, Albuquerque helped them consolidate the eastern enterprise, end Arab-Zamorin primacy and consecrate the upstarts’ golden age.

Audacious and rapacious, the Portuguese then tried to rule the waves. They built their own network of nodes in Africa, India and elsewhere. They captured or constrained older ports and waystations. They declared blockades. They seized, sank, torched and taxed ships. Hoping to divide and conquer, the Portuguese (at first) spared Indian captains or crews while targeting the true threat: Arabs willing and able to move pepper toward Europe. Unable to eradicate others, the Portuguese then made money by contriving to allow what they had purported to prohibit: trading pepper. Issuing permits to trade the black spice, the Portuguese secured fees for compliance and levied fines on violators, confiscating or destroying pepper they classified as contraband. Never able to control the trade completely, the Portuguese also attempted seasonal closures of strategic straits (say, Bab el-Mandeb) and ports (such as Aden and Ormuz). Entering treaties with elites on islands between India and Arabia, the Portuguese also prodded others to crack down on merchants who’d been evading enforcers.

Overpowered, rulers weren’t always overawed. As ever, locals exercised agency even in strategic environments they could neither control nor escape. Some played the Portuguese against neighboring rivals, palace enemies and dissatisfied subjects. Others worked with Europeans against powerful neighbors who had subordinated them. In Cannanore and Cochin, for instance, rulers needed little incentive to use the Portuguese against the Zamorins, who, over generations, had increasingly come to dominate their shared strip. Others put up fights giving out what they got or tried to dominate areas on their own. A brutal monarch, Iskandar Muda, struggled against the Portuguese for years at the end of their empire. Instead of joining him, other rulers in Malaysia and Thailand teamed up with the Portuguese to challenge him in the late 1620s, and together they smashed him in 1629. Not always capitulating upon the sight of cannon or the scent of smoke, many people lost struggles for places that some saw as homes and others saw as domains or pepper farms.

As new spice stewards made money with this black gold, rulers in Europe fell for pepper even more. In turn, the Portuguese soon suffered from the scourge of pioneers in every time and place: imitators. Others simply joined the fray, then used pepper to increase their power and prosperity. In doing so, they soon did to the Portuguese what the Portuguese had done to others: defeat them and destroy what they’d built. Struggling for supremacy in the east and stumbling toward colonies in the west, the Spaniards, French, Dutch and British sailed from their tiniest of domains to join the battle over the spice. So did the Ottomans, another faction from the fringe who seized Constantinople in 1453. They swept through the Levant in 1516, then struggled with Europeans for generations to come. Through complex policies and since-forgotten struggles with the Portuguese, the Ottomans shaped the pepper trade by law, land and sea for decades — never quite winning, yet never disappearing or surrendering the trade to rival rulers of sea-based empires.

Meeting in Malabar, they all chased a black spice that became — as one Dutchman, perhaps frustrated with competition, wrote — the “bride around which everyone dances.” Having declared dominance on paper, the Portuguese then tried to protect their position in practice. Even after repelling rivals like the Spaniards and Ottomans, they discovered that people were still people regardless of administrators, kings, emperors, prophets or gods. The Portuguese declared blockades; Arabs sailed around them. The Portuguese shelled ports and coastal towns; Arabs and Malabarians took the hits and kept trading, even though they needed to move to ports up and down different shores. The Portuguese increased patrols in busy sea lanes, closed strategic straits and colonized intermediate islands used by pepper traders; Arabs changed tack, docked in different ports and worked with others to push pepper over land so effectively that the Venetians, their longtime partners, were able to recover their role decades after dreading the “ruin of the Levant spice trade” and humiliating themselves by buying the black spice from Iberian upstarts. Picking up pepper from Arabs in Alexandria and Beirut, the old masters of the Mediterranean were, by the late 1500s, again able to bring in half of Europe’s pepper — allowing them to make profits greater than rivals like famed Florentine financiers.

Ultimately, the Portuguese might have been their own worst enemies. Their monarchs, viceroys and admiral-generals failed to understand — or accept — that they couldn’t just dominate by declaration. Innovative and persistent in some spheres, the Portuguese just didn’t have the knowledge, labor and skill to accomplish their stated objectives. They struggled to master the monsoons. (Apt, perhaps — the word for these weather systems came into English and other languages through Portuguese “moncao” and Dutch “moesson,” originally from an Arabic word for season: “mawsim.”) They struggled to recruit sailors. Forcing convicted people into service, they often shackled these men until they were far enough out to sea. Accepting bribes, Portuguese sailors helped Arabs run blockades — even as Arabs, now wise to these Westerners, hid their knowledge of seasonal winds and currents. They also smuggled plenty of pepper back home. And, of course, port-town bosses disregarded the orders of superiors in distant capitals and regional hubs. While their imperial overlords waged wars and carried civilizational standards, for instance, a Portuguese administrator in Ormuz and an Arab imperial intermediary in Basra arranged their own terms for pepper deals.

The Portuguese failed – at least in the long run, and in their grandest designs. They lost influence as rapidly as they had acquired it. By 1570, other powers had undermined the Portuguese pepper monopoly. The Dutch would later shatter it entirely. A century after the Portuguese rounded Africa and found India, establishing the first European empire in the East, they had become merely another seafaring people making money while others ran the show. Nonetheless, in their brief time at the top, the Portuguese had an outsized influence on world history. In their pursuit of pepper, they established themselves in the East, discovered lands in the West and remade societies in both hemispheres — perhaps none more so than their own, which became a polity resplendent with pepper-funded palaces, public buildings, infrastructure, industries and more. Seizing an empire overnight, they used the black spice to catapult themselves atop the European continent and the Indian Ocean. Outlasting other European imperial or colonial powers, the Portuguese clung to some posts for centuries long after their decline and long after pepper had lost its strategic significance in world affairs. They held Goa, Daman and Diu for 450 years, until Indian forces took the towns in the 1960s. And they held Macau, which has since been a special administrative area in China, until 1999.

People have loved pepper for as long as they have created civilizations — and perhaps before. Struggling to harvest, cultivate or just find it, people have used pepper since before pharaohs took it to the afterlife and have continued to use it long after it became a spice for everyone, everywhere. With pepper being so prevalent as to have become common, people have taken the black spice for granted in popular stories. They have fixated instead on finer spices or treated it as an afterthought while recovering the ships or uncovering the scribbles with which we write histories and fill the voids and silences otherwise left to inference and imagination.

In the centuries after Europeans found the lands of pepper, imperial authorities, corporate officers and regional rulers of every stripe have turned the full-spectrum spice — a prestige product, yet a spice for everyone — into a cheaper, less symbolic, less evocative good. Taking the pepper trade around the world over the past five centuries, producers and traders increased supply, sold the spice in more markets and drove down its value (real and symbolic). Even if pepper’s price hasn’t always been lower than in different points in the past, it has lost and never truly recovered its prized status among other goods.

Ending up on every table and in every kitchen in the world, pepper somehow lost a bit of its punch. From every table, though, it now sits as a subtle symbol and reminder of human history, for people who perhaps look and wonder as they taste and enjoy.

Collecting the black spice on their way up and handing it over on their way down, as if to mark their rise and mull their decline with pouches of pepper, everyone from the Romans and Byzantines to Malabarians and Javanese have used it to save capitals, curry favor or season their deference with the flavor of diplomacy. If pepper has been the symbol of grand achievements and calamities, it has thus also been a tracer for the longer, subtler sweeps of history — and not just in the Western capitals from where people have sometimes projected power, relevance or influence on history. For every Alaric the Goth demanding 3,000 pounds of pepper to lift the siege of Rome, there were lesser-known Asian leaders accepting pouches of pepper from Byzantine praetors and embassies.

Pepper also bound people together during and after conflict. Myths aside, merchants in the Mediterranean traded with each other — Christian or Muslim, Italian, Greek or Arab — at the height of wars, amid pillaging and in the decades after imperial conquests.

For centuries, the story of any peppercorn was the story of all the peoples who might have touched it — drying it in the Indian sun, carrying it across Arabian waters and sands, haggling over it in Levantine ports and pushing it up transalpine passes to the far fringes of their world. For every sentry consuming pepper in the borderlands around Hadrian’s Wall or Northumbrian monk giving a gift of pepper on his deathbed, there was a royal or noble feasting on peppered fish and guzzling honey-peppered wine — or, upon the advice of Christian naturalists or Muslim polymaths, taking a bit of the black spice to arouse themselves and copulate. (That said, the polymath Ibn Jazzar may have preferred other spices. While he still recommended pepper for a kick downstairs, he warned people that pepper might “dry” them out.) For every Galen in Rome, Byzantine physician in Ostrogoth courts or naturalist in France and Albion using pepper to treat people, there was a Syriac doctor in Constantinople, a Malabarian spicer in Calicut or an Arab naturalist in Damascus doing the same (though the latter might have paired it with saffron, too). For every two-bit hustler in London reinventing themselves and their progeny as pepperers, then spicers, then grossers and then the “grocers” we know today, people were moving pepper as middlemen in Venice, Alexandria, Aden, Ormuz and Calicut — until others, forcibly and otherwise, entered the histories of oceans they’d never seen, ports they’d never visited and peoples they’d never encountered but had only imagined.

While they famously loved or relied on the black spice, Arabs, Malabarians and Portuguese were not the only ones to build their power and prosperity with it. And yet, they’ve been among the few to really remake the world in the pursuit of pepper — that simple and stunning spice.

This article was published in the Spring 2023 issue of New Lines‘ print edition.

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