IN FEBRUARY AND MARCH 1935, pandemonium erupted in the British parliament over a significant economic catastrophe not dissimilar to the 2008 bloodbath on Wall Street. For days the parliament and the press in England raised apocalyptic din fearing the onset of another Great Depression that would bankrupt Europe itself. This 1935 crisis was engineered by exactly the same motive as the 2008 “crisis”: smash-and-grab greed with unparalleled recklessness.
The terminology that described this avaricious practice was “cornering.” But in more honest terms, it was unclothed gambling using other people’s money. From the end of 1933 to the end of 1934, the price of pepper in England skyrocketed to more than double. In that year alone, stocks multiplied to ten times.
Mincing Lane, London, was the hub of this gambling given its age-old pre-eminence as the nerve-centre of world spice trade after the British East India Company devastated all the trading ports of the Dutch East India Company in 1799. But this nearly two hundred and fifty years of unchallenged dominance was undone in just a year. The minor bonus to this catastrophe was the fact that England was the world’s largest consumer of pepper. It was the same story familiar to the stock market: mindless speculation culminating in disaster.
When they observed such unreal, record-high prices, the end consumers used common sense: instead of buying from brokers (i.e., speculators), they went straight to the producers. And so, in that selfsame one-year span, these brokers who had anticipated stupendous fortunes were now facing stupendous ruin. They were suddenly sitting on two mountains: of pepper stocks and debt. And they crashed right down to the ground.
Rolls & Son, Strauss & Co, and Francis Willey & Co, three of the largest commodity traders went bankrupt. A familiar scene ensued in the House of Commons: the woolly eminences of these firms were summoned and the explanations they gave were “unsatisfying.” Another familiar scene ensued: it was discovered that “a private as well as an official pool was manipulating the value” of the commodity. Yet another familiar scene ensued: “friendly bankers stepped in to avert a total crash” and a “week’s moratorium on pepper dealings had to be called.” The amount owed by the speculators: £2,000000. In 1935.
Sounds familiar with Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, et al? Congressional hearings? Bailout? Too big to fail?
However, this “pepper corner,” of 1935 England reveals several intriguing and fascinating details of the incredibly long history of pepper since the proverbial dawn of civilisation. In 1935, pepper was really a minor article in global trade. But the fact that it had singlehandedly crashed the UK financial market so recently leads us to a deeper and extensive historical investigation into this prized spice over which devastating wars had been repeatedly fought across three continents for about two thousand years.
That investigation takes us to our own sacred land: Bharatavarsha.
Alien invasions, especially, the European colonization of India was the latter-day, inseparable co-passenger of pepper. Just 250 years ago, the entire world’s pepper supply came from India.
Throughout history, the rest of the world regarded pepper as the essential ingredient of “comfortable living.” From the ancient times, traders came flocking to India in search of this black gold. Entrepreneurs invested enormous capital, outfitted fleets and expeditions to India in quest of this spice. This tiny, weightless fleck of Indian flora decided the fortunes of entire nations and empires. Malabar pepper built the opulence of Venice. To repeat an over-worn cliché, good things come in tiny packages, and Indian pepper was the uncrowned emperor that gave the world the truth of history that for centuries, India exported essentials and imported luxuries.
Venice is a rather felicitous choice to trace the extraordinary and grand history of Indian pepper.
We first arrive at 47 CE as a rough but reliable starting point of this journey when the Greek navigator, Hippalus first discovered what came to be known as “monsoon winds,” or the winds of the Indian Ocean. This was a momentous discovery for Europe, and with the coming dominance of the Roman Empire, a thriving sea trade route was opened up with Alexandria through the Red Sea. Year after year, in July, enormous commercial vessels sailed from Alexandria and stopped at Ocelis at the mouth of the Red Sea. From there, a forty-day journey culminated at Muziris, in the general region of Kodungallur (Kerala).
This thriving commercial intercourse between Rome and India via Egypt lasted unbroken for nearly two centuries till Caracalla ordered the infamous genocide in Alexandria in 215 CE. Throughout, pepper remained at the centre of this trading relationship. Seventy-five percent of the Roman cargo that left the Malabar shores comprised pepper, and more than ninety percent of all of India’s pepper produce came from Malabar.
Pepper occupied the throne in the culinary world of Europe for centuries because of its pervasive use in seasoning food and in preserving meat, which would quickly spoil given the climate. The Western world’s pioneering medical expert Hippocrates called pepper the “Indian remedy.” Others like Pliny, Galen and Celsus followed his lead in recommending pepper’s inevitability for medical purposes.
In the Rome of Augustus, pepper costed a princely sum of ₹ 7 per pound, and in faraway India, it costed less than thirty percent of the price. In a good season, the profits that Roman traders made was as high as two hundred percent. But with the expansion of transportation and storage facilities, the price stabilized but the demand remained intact. In 192 CE, enormous warehouses eponymously named horrea piperataria (pepper warehouses) dedicated to storing pepper were built on the Sacra Via (Sacred Street, i.e., the main street in the city of Rome). Pepper mills (molae piperatariae) were constructed to grind pepper and the powder was sold in small packets in markets throughout Rome.
Almost in one swift stroke, Indian pepper had transformed Rome so thoroughly that it was considered a mark of high culture, wealth, and aristocracy to display the Piperatoria (silverware for storing pepper or pepper powder) on the dining table. The conservative Pliny deplored this new vulgarity that had swept Rome before his own eyes:
But Pliny’s protests fell on deaf ears. If anything, it only increased the import of pepper and eventually led to the bankrupting of Rome’s economy as we shall see in the next part.
To be continued
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