There would not be any other foliage in the world that has had so much sway over providence and destiny than this small, black lump of spice that grows in our backyard in Malabar.
Pepper has influenced individuals and nations like nothing before it, or after.
The Chinese, Arabs and Romans came here looking for it, and made a fortune trading in it for centuries.
Later on, it motivated a rag-tag European Kings to send audacious voyagers on sea journeys never undertaken before.
Wars were fought over it.
And consciously or inadvertently, it led to the colonization of the world most prosperous civilization.
The Black Gold; this was the backbone of world trade long before petroleum made its ostentatious ingress.
I don’t think it was ever cultivated on a cash crop in Malabar, because it would anyway grow liberally and generously, without any encumbrance, in the lush green forests and hills that adorned the heart of what is now known as Kerala, aided by the ever-beautiful monsoons.
All that was needed was for somebody to discover its worth as a spice and let the world know that.
At a time when Arabia was still following its primordial Gods, we have them here, crossing the seas, coming in search of the Black Gold. The sea route from Mediterranean and Europe was still virgin, and they made a fortune doing business. Was it the deprived business sagacity of our forefathers or idiosyncrasy of fortune, what was bought cheap in Malabar was sold mostly at 15 to 20 times its value in the secondary markets, generating untold wealth for the Arabian traders, much before they got to bathe in money that petrol would gradually give them.
The Europeans were a downtrodden lot, who were forced to feed off the hands of the Arabs, for a commodity that was so dear to them. At that time, the Black Gold was a luxury item, affordable only to the wealthy higher class of the European Elite. There, it was even used as currency.
They tried their best to get a way bypassing the Arabs. Land route was explored, but turned out to be way too expensive and time consuming. Travelers like Marco Polo came and went, but the elusive trade remained under the cartel of the Arabs. They continued paying exorbitant prices for their preferred spice.
This was when King Manuel I of Portugal authorized a certain sailor called Vasco Da Gama in his country to try and find a sea route to Indies. They set off, but were not sure of the outcome of the journey. They were daring to do what no one had ever done before. It took a long time to materialize. But after the end of a treacherous, long journey that saw them switch roles between sailors and pirates at various stages of their journey, landed at the famed Calicut Port on Malabar Coast, just before the advent of the monsoons of 1498 AD.
They came with a lot of hope. Walking through the fabled land of spices, aroma of the Black Gold gave them new optimism and sanguinity. But like all commerce cartels of the present day, like Oil, Arms Trade today, Pepper was too cherished a commodity for the Arabs at Calicut to leave to. With the Portuguese coming in and doing direct trade, they could see their lofty earnings and gigantic riches sinking down the Arabian Sea.
What best they could do, use their influence at the court of the Samoothiri to break the deal before it was even made.
The Parangi ambassadors met the Samoothiri and talked terms of trade. They were ready to pay more than 3 times the price for Black Gold in the Calicut market. But the bribes paid by the Arabs to the Samoothiri‘s henchmen had their effect. Da Gama and his men had to return almost empty handed from Calicut.
All they got from Calicut was just a handful of pepper, just a handful.
Desperate and distressed, they could just manage to get enough stock to fill their ships from the more friendlier King of Kolathunad at Cannanore, a port they had ignored on their way down to Calicut in expectation of healthier covenants. They reached back to Lisbon, and were celebrated and fêted. Despite not getting the treatment they expected, the expedition was profitable, and earned revenue of at least 3 times the total expenses.
This was one turning point in the chequered history of Black Gold.
The Parangi’s did not take the insult meted out by the Samoothiri in juxtaposition with the Arab traders lightly, and over the next few centuries the shores and seas of Calicut and Malabar saw a series of extreme events and wars, all for the control of the trade for pepper. The sinking of the Meri, the wars with the Marakkars, and the loss of power of the Samoothiri’s in the coming generations was just part of the screenplay written by providence.
A handful of pepper had changed the destiny, and course of history of the famed spice kingdom of the east.
The Portuguese came and left, followed by the Dutch, French and finally the British. The Arabs, who had absolute domination over the seas and trade, slowly ceded control to the Europeans. The local rulers weren’t gifted enough to stop fighting between themselves, slowly lost the plot that culminated in the Mysore invasion of 1766.
Centuries away from where it held sway, the Malabar Pepper today ceded its top spot to Vietnam in the world trade. Today, the pepper vines of Malabar are replaced by rubber trees, which throng the countryside and Ghats alike, and the Black Gold is relegated to the backyard of our life and times.
Many a times, whenever I get to run my hands through the pepper vines in the backyard of my house, I wonder, how life and history of the Malabar county and would have been different if gluttony, fate and consciousness had not combined to chart the course of the journey of Black Gold.
Pepper is still our course to fortune. We just need to rediscover it, and move ahead.
Remember; the Samoothiri once quipped to Gama, who tried to take a few pepper vines with him back from Calicut – “You can take our pepper vines, but you can’t seize our monsoons”
(Pictures of Black Pepper from my backyard at home. Malabar is still home to the best of the Original Black Gold)