Science writer and former business reporter Shaffer traces the action-packed, often bloody trail of black pepper from its uses in ancient times as a cure-all to the intense rivalries among the Portuguese, Dutch and English to control the pepper trade in Indonesia to the rise of 19th-century American pepper merchants.
This is not so much a culinary history as it is a compelling account of commerce and power that laid the groundwork for empire building. Common on every household table today, pepper was more valuable than gold or silver in the Middle Ages. Europeans loved it, but only the wealthy could afford the pungent seasoning. It wasn’t until the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 that a sea route to India and China opened up the pepper trade to Europeans, leading to what Shaffer describes as the “pernicious twined branches, colonialism and imperialism,” perpetuated by the English and Dutch East India companies. Using first-person accounts from journals and ships’ logs, Shaffer crafts a textured story of exploration, danger, wealth and greed. Readers will find adventures on the high seas, pirates, ambitious Jesuits, sultans living in opulence and the plunder of what was once considered a “Garden of Eden.” Like all good stories, Shaffer’s has its honorable and dishonorable characters, including the English pirate William Dampier, who couldn’t stomach the cruel treatment of the “Malayans” by the British; Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the “brutal governor-general” of the Dutch trading company; and the English traveler Peter Mundy, whose journals and drawings captured the people and exotic beauty of Sumatra. The author also discusses the botanical and medicinal characteristics of the pepper plant. The included maps are most welcome, but some readers may also want a current world map at hand for reference.
A vividly told story of a common spice’s uncommon history.