Among my Christmas gifts, were a couple of books I received from my brother and sister-in-law here in Winnipeg. Both of these were books of food history. I’ve just finished the first of these, called Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice. In it, author Marjorie Schaffer details the history of pepper and in particular it’s influence in the development of European colonial history, and modern global trade, The book also opens and closes by looking at pepper’s medicinal qualities.
One thing to notice about the book is found in the title. This is a book about pepper, not peppers. If you are looking for a history of the chili, for example, you won’t find it here. There is a brief mention of chilies, as it relates to Columbus trying to pass them off as peppers, but the book is devoted to pepper. Those few plants that comprise the piper family of plants.
In the first two chapters Schaffer, fairly briefly and concisely deals with the origins and uses of pepper; In chapters 3 to 8 she deals with the effects of pepper on global trade, and the environment. Finally, in the last chapter she comes back to the potential of pepper in medicinal practice.
While many countries were involved in the trading of pepper, Schaffer focuses primarily on the exploits of the English and the Dutch. In part because they were the two major players in the pepper trade (China decided to get out, just about the time these two countries were starting), in part because they also had the greatest animosity towards each other.
Treachery abounds in the history of pepper. The Dutch appear to be the most brutal of all, but no one party is free of guilt for their behaviour. It should be noted that also includes the rulers of the regions where the pepper was grown. As well, just because the Dutch methods were more physically violent, doesn’t mean that other countries such as England and the U.S. were less destructive in their actions. This is especially true when we look at the development of the opium trade alongside the pepper trade.
Schaffer has done a good job in giving us a history of pepper. She has researched thoroughly, yet maintained the story in history. One will come away from the book with a better understanding of both the spice and the way in which it shaped history. Schaffer gives enough information to satisfy your curiosity, but leaves enough unsaid to encourage further discovery. This seems to be what a good history book should do.
Reading Pepper will give you a good sense of the cost of this spice. Cost that is not only made up of dollars and cents, but human costs as well.