In search of spices: 500 years since the first voyage around the world

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By CAPosts 26 November, 2020 - 05:30pm 54 views

On November 27, 1520, a day like today exactly 500 years ago, three of the five ships under the command of Captain Fernando de Magallanes that had left the port of Seville on August 10, 1519 in search of the spices of the Indies, They crossed the strait that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific. After 36 days sailing through the strait, located in the extreme south of Chile, between what we now know as Patagonia and the Big Island of Tierra de Fuego, the navigators of the Victoria , Concepción and Trinidad ships were about to be the first to fulfill Christopher Columbus's dream: to reach the East from the West.

Antonio Pigafetta, the expedition's chronicler and one of the 18 survivors of the 250 men who embarked on Seville, wrote in his diary that at the cry of ¡Mar open to view !, the sailors and Captain Magellan "had wept with joy." The company commissioned by King Charles I to establish a spice route between Spain and the Moluccas Islands, in Indonesia, to bring to Europe cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper and, above all, cloves seemed to be getting closer and closer. From that moment on, the expedition sailed north for more than three months without finding solid ground. The crew suffered from hunger and disease. The bread had turned to dust filled with fungi and worms; the water was scarce, hot and smelled of rot; and rats were a delicacy, which the adventurers alternated with wood sawdust and soaked leather, says Pigafetta in his diary.

The sailors who survived the scurvy and the confrontations with the native tribes that were in their path followed the path by high sea, they arrived at the San Lázaro archipelago in the Philippines and from there they reached the Moluccas Islands. There they bought 27,000 kilos of cloves and began to return home. In total they traveled 14,460 leagues until on September 6, 1522 they finally returned to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, in Cádiz, Spain, thus culminating the first round the world tour. The 500 years of this journey are now commemorated with the publication of the book In Search of Spices. The plants of the Magallanes-Elcano expedition (1519-1522) , directed and edited by Pablo Vargas Gómez , a researcher at the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC).

Vargas tells by phone that when Pigafetta's diary reached his hands he decided to embark in writing the book. This diary is unique because it is the first account of the Modern Age on a voyage of exploration that crosses several continents. "It is the first documentary source where new animals and plants from South America and Asia are described," says Vargas. According to the researcher, who has been working at the Madrid Botanical Garden for 30 years, the new book attempts to represent the diversity of the plant world through the contribution of botanists and historians from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Spain, the Philippines and Portugal. The book is an exciting journey through food, anthropology, history, cartography, economics and the limited communication of the time, always with plants as the common thread.

The journey that began with Magellan and ended under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano was the definitive and irrefutable proof that the earth was spherical. “At that time most of the population still believed that the earth was flat. The expedition put an end to that myth, ”says Vargas. “Not only was the shape of our planet checked, but its actual size. Many sailors believed that it was smaller than it really is ”. Pigafetta's diary was also the primary source for numerous maps that shaped the oceans and continents as we know them now. However, the authors of the book agree that perhaps the greatest contribution of the first round the world was that it initiated the globalization process, understood as the possible connection between any part of the globe. "This trip has more consequences in our day to day than the arrival of man to the moon," insists Vargas. And he concludes: “Even the viruses that affect us today are the result of that globalization. Modern society begins with this trip around the world. ”

The book also includes an imaginary Twitter profile supposedly written by Pigafetta, in which a version of this chronicle can be read in mini-chapters of 280 characters. According to Vargas, the text also gives an account of the expansion of illustrated herbaria in the 16th century and the emergence of botanical and acclimatization gardens, which allowed the cultivation and display of plants from the most remote regions of the globe.

Why go across the world looking for cloves?

In 16th century European societies, cloves were as expensive as gold. Wealthy families, Vargas says, used it as medicine and not just as a condiment or preservative for food, as previously believed. “Although there was no evidence of its efficacy in alleviating disease, it was thought to have healing, mystical and aphrodisiac benefits. That is why the nail was so coveted, ”explains Vargas. "We are in the Middle Ages, plants were the only remedy to help the sick."

The book explains that the high price of this spice was also due to the fact that its tree only grew in the mountains of five small islands of the Las Molucas archipelago and therefore its transportation was time consuming and expensive. “This spice has a large amount of essential oil, between 15 and 20% in relation to its dry weight, and it is the one that contains the most eugenol. It is also an effective antioxidant and flavoring agent ”the book reads. In fact, the 27,000 kilos of cloves that the survivors of the expedition brought to Spain served to pay the investment of 8 million maravedís (3 million euros), which the Crown of Castile had made.

In addition to cloves, spices such as pepper, nutmeg, and cinnamon also served to fuel the growth and development of science. “In the centuries to come, expeditions to new territories would always include geographers, geologists, botanists and zoologists. The exact description of a plant or animal for later recognition, as well as the places of growth, became an important element to continue exploring distant territories ”, the authors explain .

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Source: Elpais

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