Blogs > Cliopatria > The NYT Perpetuates an Old Myth About the Spice Trade

Oct 25, 2004 9:55 pm

The NYT Perpetuates an Old Myth About the Spice Trade

HNN intern Brandi Lux reports:

In the New York Times on Tuesday, October 12, 2004, the following statement was made as the introduction to an article regarding an art exhibit in London:

It is tempting to imagine that Europeans' fear of putrid food led a Portuguese navigator to open the sea routes to India and, in the process, alter the history of Europe and Asia. It was almost that simple. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, the Turks seized control of the overland trade routes from the East and Europe was suddenly short of the Asian spices needed to preserve its food.

Alas, the simple explanation is not the correct one. It is based on an old myth debunked by A. H. Lybyer as long ago as 1915. In Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, sociologist James W. Loewen explains that it would have been counter-intuitive of the Turks to close off the overland trade routes. Keeping the spice trade going offered them an opportunity to make money.

The incentive to make money was a significant reason for navigators to take to the sea and find a more direct route to the luxury goods that Europeans desired. Loewen lists four factors that also contributed. First were advances in military technology. Second were the "new forms of social technology -- bureaucracy, double-entry book keeping, and mechanical printing," which helped the owners manage these ventures efficiently. A third factor was ideological; "amassing wealth and dominating other people came to be positively valued as the key means of winning esteem on earth and salvation in the hereafter." Lastly, according to Loewen, "Europe's readiness to embrace a 'new' continent was the particular nature of European Christianity."

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, author of Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants and Intoxicants, says profits were the driving force behnd the developing overseas spice trade. "The fifteenth century equivalent of today's quest for alternative fuel," he writes, "was a less costly trade route to the lands where spices grew, a route that would at once steer clear of toll restrictions and permit the transport of larger quantities of goods…a whole generation of entrepreneurs and adventurers went in search of this route."


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