Floating Medicine Chests

Steven Shapin

  • Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine and Science in the Dutch Golden Age by Harold Cook
    Yale, 562 pp, £25.00, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 300 11796 7

In 1617, the governors of the Dutch East India Company placed an order for goods to be procured by their agents. The shopping list included a hundred thousand bags of black pepper and thousands of pounds of other sorts of pepper; as much in the way of cloves, ginger and cinnamon as the ships could carry; 1000 barrels of nutmeg and 300 of mace; 3000 pounds of cassia wood (closely related to cinnamon); 6000 pounds of camphor; and the same amount of the ginger-like galingale. That sort of cargo came from Asia: the pepper from Kerala, Java or Sumatra; the cassia probably from India or Sri Lanka; and the other spices mainly from the Moluccan (or Spice) Islands. They were extremely profitable goods: nutmeg sold for three hundred times more in Amsterdam than it cost Dutch merchants in the Spice Islands. And they were luxury goods: in Restoration London a pound of nutmeg went at wholesale for the present-day equivalent of £46; cloves for £76. Nutmeg was so valuable that the Treaty of Breda, ending the second Anglo-Dutch War in 1667, delivered the tiny nutmeg island of Run to the Dutch in exchange for another island colony in America then known as New Amsterdam. When Samuel Pepys inspected a captured Dutch East India Company ship, seized in 1665, he was amazed by its cargo: ‘The greatest wealth . . . that a man can see in the world. Pepper scattered through every chink, you trod upon it; and in cloves and nutmegs, I walked above the knees; whole rooms full . . . As noble a sight as ever I saw in my life.’

From the seventh century, the spice trade was dominated by the Arabs, eventually in concert with the Venetian Republic. The palazzi on the Grand Canal are the enduring artefacts of financial alchemy, Oriental pepper transmuted into orientalised marble. But by the late 15th century, the Portuguese had their long-sought-for sea routes to India and the Banda Islands, and were running the trade in pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon and cardamom. The Dutch desperately wanted in: by the 1580s, merchants of the United Provinces were forming consortia, and the establishment in 1602 of the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), or Dutch East India Company, was the government’s way of ensuring commercial co-ordination and organisational permanence. Previous merchant trading consortia were dissolved at the end of each voyage and re-formed for a new one. (The Dutch were following the creation of the British East India Company in 1600.)

The VOC did business over much of the Eastern non-European world, including the Cape Colony; it was a shared-risk public stock-issuing company; it sought to manage competition and realise economies of scale; it was a state creation but it exercised enormous, often brutal military power, functioning on the world stage as a quasi-state entity; and it was arguably the world’s first multinational corporation, with stock held by foreigners as well as Netherlanders. So if you want to tell a story about the origins of the modern world – a story that centres on globalised practical action; networks of worldwide information exchange; property rights in knowledge; the power of multinational, quasi-state actors; and the development of technical and commercial standards – you could do a lot worse than start with the VOC, the ships it sent out to the East Indies, and the cargos those ships brought back.

Some narratives about the origins of modernity talk about new forms of governance, commerce and the projection of power; others talk about new knowledge, about the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century and the rise of philosophical rationality. It is one of the many virtues of Harold Cook’s Matters of Exchange that it treats these as different aspects of the same story. So start with the VOC want-list and ask two questions: What were the goods good for? What did you have to know to get them, get them back home, get them rendered accessible on demand, and get them to do the jobs they were meant to do?

VOC merchantmen were stuffed with all sorts of exotic Oriental goods – porcelain, saltpetre, indigo, civet musk, tea, sugar, sappanwood and sandalwood – but spices had pride of place. It’s been said that pepper and other spices were used to mask the smell of rotten meat, but salt was always the preservative of choice. The currently accepted story is that spices denoted conspicuous culinary consumption – they were lavished on food and drink as an olfactory mark of opulence. Everyone knew how expensive they were, and the more evident spices were in the food you gave your guests, the more social capital you acquired. Spicy food smelt of success.

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