A Short History of the Black Pepper Trade
While today pepper is a commodity, at one time it was worth its weight in gold and used in lieu of money to pay taxes, dowries and tributes. In Medieval Europe, dock men unloading pepper from ships were forbidden to have pockets in their clothing to avoid their hiding even a few precious peppercorns. Pepper was a symbol of wealth and a poor family was said to “lack pepper.”
Due to its pungency and flavor, black pepper has always been valued as a spice, preservative and an aphrodisiac. Indigenous to the forests of Malabar and Travancore in India, it was introduced by Indian merchants across Southeast Asia. It was also taken by Arab traders to the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Pepper had such great value that three thousands pounds were demanded by the Visigoths as part of the ransom of Rome.
During the Dark Ages, pepper stopped reaching Europe as trade with the East ceased. In the twelfth century the Venetians reestablished trade with the East and were the first European power to control the pepper trade. Alexandria in Egypt was the primary port for distribution of pepper and one of the city’s gates was known as the Pepper Gate.
Much of Europe’s history in the 15th – 16th centuries was driven by the desire to find trade routes to the fabled Spice Islands to circumvent the Venetian monopoly. Competition, among the great seagoing powers of Portugal, Spain, England and Holland to find and control these routes was fierce. In the late 15th century the Portuguese finally supplanted the Venetians and ended their monopoly on the pepper trade when a small group of soldiers, priests and traders waded ashore at Calcutta, India with the cry “For Christ and Spices.”
Pepper was largely unknown in the American colonies as a condiment or preservative until the end of the 18th century. Merchants from Salem, Massachusetts initially began exploiting the profitable trade in pepper between the Far East and Europe. As demand for the spice grew in the United States, the pepper trade became so profitable that by the time the trade ceased in the mid 19th century more than 950 voyages had been made by ships from Salem alone. This is remarkable when one considers that each voyage typically took two years and was very dangerous.
Today, the worldwide pepper trade today is dominated by a handful of major trading and retail giants. In the United States, the best known of these is McCormick & Company, www.mccormick.com. The company was founded in Baltimore, MD in 1889 by 25-year-old Willoughby M. McCormick and his staff of two girls and a boy. While the company’s first products were root beer, flavoring extracts, fruit syrups and juices they are now the largest buyer of black pepper and many other spices in the world. These spices are processed, blended and packaged for retail and industrial customers around the world.