Plants, spices and links from another century
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It might not be politically correct to say this, but Goa has indeed gained significantly from its global links over the centuries. Of course, the region has also paid the price, which cannot be denied. But, for a change, let’s look towards the glass that is half-full.
Recently, one chanced across a couple of books which situate Goa’s role in global history. Both deal with plants (and spice). But a similar case can be argued out by focusing on Goa’s experience with music, printing, food, migration, and simply allowing its people to play the role of ‘cultural brokers’. Few realize that Goa’s very early encounter with colonialism itself shaped this small region in a way that you can find people from here — at least a few of them — in virtually any part of the globe.
The first book is about spices. It doesn’t deal exclusively or even mainly with Goa as such, but Goa does play a crucial and rather obvious link in this entire story. Michael Krondl, a noted chef turned writer and food historian, tells the story of three “legendary cities” — Venice, Lisbon and Amsterdam — and how “their single-minded pursuit of spice helped them to make (and remake) the Western diet and set in motion the first great wave of globalisation”.
‘The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice’ argues that the world’s people were “irrevocably brought together as a result of the spice trade” in the 16th and 17th century.
Before Europe’s “great voyages of discovery”, Venice controlled the “business of Eastern seasoning” and thus became medieval Europe’s “most cosmopolitan urban centre.”
That’s where Portugal comes in, with its mariners “driven to dominate this trade”, and undertaking its voyages to India “to unseat Venice as Europe’s chief pepper dealer”. Soon, in the 1600s, we’re told, the savvy businessmen from Amsterdam invented the modern corporation. It was the Dutch East India Company which helped them take over as “spice merchants to the world”.
Here’s just one hint of Goa’s role: Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, who left home as a 16-year-old Netherlander out to make his fortune, somehow got a job with the new archbishop of Goa and sailed for India. His “resulting expose of the Estado da India" turned out to be a bestseller, not only in Holland, but in England and France, too. The book was full of information that Lisbon considered state secrets. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the Dutch were the early challengers to the Portuguese in Asia.
If one got Krondl’s interestingly narrated work at a sharp discount from Strand in Bombay, the other book came as a complimentary from a friend. Anabela Mendes’ ‘Garcia de Orta' and Alexander von Humboldt: 'Across the East and West’ is clearly informative too.
Orta is the amazing 16th century Portuguese physician, naturalist and pioneer of tropical medicine. Today, he has a municipal garden in Panjim named after him. If you search for online information on Garcia da Orta today, you might end up thinking that his lifetime was subsumed in religious infighting alone. But this is as much a reflection on those times, as it is on our times, and the politics of today which tend to obsess about the politics of the past!
But this book takes us to the “lands where Orta lived”; and there are papers on “botanizing in Portuguese India”; Orta as a philosopher of science; another eminent botanist in Goa from past centuries called Gelasio Dalgado; Orta’s efforts at documenting the ‘medico-botanical traditions of India’; a closer look at his writings; and how some Portuguese discoveries and plants “changed Goan gastronomy”. The book also looks at the Ayurvedic wisdom gained from India.
All in all, some very insightful information to that helps us understand the past, how it shapes the present, and where we could stand in the future. Looking forward to more texts which can help us understand the past from different dimensions.