The Ship that Shaped the World

It may, at first, seem peculiar to talk about ships when visiting what is, ostensibly, a food blog. But if we’re going to talk about the logistics of bringing foods to the masses, then technology, of many sorts, plays a tremendous role. All of this? All of this is my way of bringing the caravel into the discussion of the spice trade.

Before going into that, let me paint a picture of trade routes at the time. Before the caravel was introduced, no European country had the resources, either in ships or money, or knowledge, to find away around the Cape of Good Hope of lower Africa. As such, spice trade to South Asia and Indonesian had to be conducted primarily over land, at least from a European perspective. (It should be noted that the Asian countries, who had little to no desire to head to Europe, had the naval technology they needed in order to get their spices to market).

The primary European controller of those routes? That would be Venice, who had ensured the trade routes from the Ottoman Empire (when they weren’t fighting with them), as well as many Arabic and Egyptian routes as well. This isn’t to say other areas of Europe weren’t making money in the spice trade (in fact, the Genoans were doing brisk business as well, when they weren’t fighting amongst themselves), but the Venetians were clearly the primary power in the Spice Trade.

This fact stuck in the Genoans craw. They were always looking for ways to stick it to the Venetians, but did not have the resources to usurp the City on the Adriatic. They had the money, but either did not have the people or the willpower to fully commit to finding a way to get control of the spice trade.

Enter the Portuguese.

The Portuguese had approached ship building differently from the Italian city states. Largely due to the Islamic influence on the Iberian peninsula, their fishing craft did not demonstrate the size and power of the galleys of Venice and Genoa. Instead, their craft was lighter and more nimble.

Things really became interesting when Henrique o Navegador, known to us english-speaking folks as Henry the Navigator, an infante of the Kingdom of Portugal,found himself flush with money, from both the Order of Christ (of which he was their leader), and financiers from Genoa (who really wanted to stick it to the Venetians). Somewhere in the midst of all of this influx of cash, Henry came up with the idea of expansionism and empire, and began funding for what was to become a navy. The caravels were perfect for this task, as they required a smaller crew, held more space, and was nimble enough to head into rivers, but strong enough to last days at see without land in site.

Add to this mix the Portuguese dedication to cartography, as well as paying craftsmen to improve upon the designs of the caraval, and soon Henry found his empire colonizing the Madeira Islands in 1420, the Azores in 1430, and then was able to beat the the changes in winds that occur at Cape Bojador, where conditions of the continuous sharp winds from the Northeast prevented seamen from heading further down the West coast of Africa. In the caravel, a ship that didn’t need to hug the shoreline, they found that setting a course a few leagues to the west, outside the sight of land, more favorable winds could be used. Soon, more trips were financed for further down the coast of Africa. What made these trips profitable wasn’t spice, but slavery, which the Pope so graciously said was allowable, as long as they weren’t Christian.

After Henry passed away, the royal house of Portugal saw the benefits of Henry’s ideals, and pushed them even further. John II of Portugal set out on many long reforms. To break the monarch’s dependence on the feudal nobility, John II needed to build up the royal treasury and saw royal commerce as the key to it. With money from Genoa (and their continual pointing out how wealthy Venice was), he tasked Bartolomeu Dias with taking a small fleet (that included caravels) around the Cape of Good Hope, and did so in 1488. Then, in 1497 (five years after Columbus departed from the New World with two Caravels – the Pinta and Niña) Vasco da Gama led a fleet of four ships (one of which, the Berrio, was definitely a caraval, and another which was lost at sea,that might have been) the and a crew of 170 men from Lisbon to Calcutta. Even though da Gama lost two ships, 115 men, and took two years to complete the task, he returned with a cargo that was worth sixty times the cost of the expedition.

And in Venice, a collective “Oh, shit” was said when news of the Portuguese success made its way to their doge.

None of this could have been accomplished without the caravel. The European (and later, American) desire for cinnamon, cloves, mace, and especially black pepper can be directly attributed to the success of this ship. For without this technology (as well as the greed of various men that I will discuss at a later date), the spices in our cabinet would have arrived in a far different route, if at all.