As rich as a bag of pepper

‘As rich as a bag of pepper’ is a term used today in some regions of Europe to describe a very rich, but not very generous person. The term pepper sacks was initially branded to mockingly refer to businessmen belonging to the Hanseatic League or the merchants of the East India Company. The word can be traced for example as the Dutch peperzak or the German Pfeffersack from the 13th century onwards and was then later, especially from the 16th century on, generally used as a scornful term for a rich merchant or wholesaler in reference to the extremely high price pepper used to command.

An example for the historic background shows the prices obtained quite convincingly.

The only ship returning from Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world, the Victoria, brought home 26 tons of spices from the Moluccas. The proceeds from the sale covered the loss of four ships, even if not yet wages and compensation.

The mouth of the River Tagus with the port of Lisbon and Cascais on the coast was one of the end points of this Spice Route from India and the Moluccas and also of the Silk Route from China. Several wrecks with such pepper loads were recently found there by researchers of Lisbon University around Joao Oliveira Costa and Alexandre Monteiro.

The Pepper Wreck, probably the wreck of the Nossa Senhora dos Mártires, is a shipwreck located and excavated at the mouth of the Tagus between 1996 and 2001. In 2018 another wreck with a pepper and porcelain load was found in the mouth of the Tagus and dated to the 16th century.

These boats show impressively the seafaring history of Portugal. And the price paid for the conquering spirit is sometimes even yet underestimated. Seafaring was at the time a dangerous and often short-lived adventure. When Vasco da Gama first sailed to India, in search for the priced pepper, he lost for example two of his four ships, over half the men of the initially approximately 170 as well as his own brother.

When he returned a third time on the way to India, he contracted Malaria and died himself on the Island of Kochi. Still today Kochi is a main point for pepper trade and one can see the piles of pepper in the courts of the houses. In the church, in which’s courtyard Vasco was initially buried, huge sails like those of ships move during services to bring fresh air to the believers, remembering them of the history of the not always friendly, but certainly culturally enriching connection between India and Europe.

U.C. Ringuer

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