You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Colonial’ tag.
Behold the majestic Crown of Ardra!
Well actually, the crown might look regal, but it is only made of velvet, copper, and glass. It was crafted in 1664 by an unknown English goldsmith as an impressive (but inexpensive) gift for the king of Arda, a tiny slave-trading kingdom on the Bight of Benin.
Though worthless (aside from its antiquity and workmanship), the crown reveals a great deal about the era during which it was made. In 1663, the Duke of York (Lord Admiral of the British Navy and brother to Charles II ) had sent an expedition to the West African coast to capture Dutch forts and trading posts. Then in 1664, the English expelled the Dutch from North America by taking over the New Netherlands colonies (which were renamed in honor of the Lord Admiral). The lands in North America were not especially valuable, however the Dutch coveted access to Africa, so in 1664, the Dutch navy struck back. A fleet led by Michiel de Ruyter recaptured the African posts (before sailing across the Atlantic to make a punitive raid on the English colonies in North America). This colonial grasping served the purpose of both sides–each of which was trying to goad the other into outright war. The 2nd Anglo-Dutch War was declared in 1665.
During de Ruyter’s 1664 mission, the Dutch fleet happened to capture the crown of Ardra, which was kept as a trophy of war and sort of survived the centuries by accident. Today it is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and visitors can see it for what it truly is—a piece of junk meant to impress a tin-pot king and thereby pry open the African vertex of the triangle trade (which was key to controlling the valuable slave trade).
Vanilla is easily the most popular flavoring on the market. Not only does vanilla outsell all other ice cream flavors, it is the principle flavor in innumerable cakes, cookies, candies, fillings, icings, and drinks. It is also the dominant scent in many perfumes, cosmetics, and scent-based products. Vanilla (and fake vanilla) is so popular that the word has acquired a second definition as an adjective meaning “commonplace, boring, or lacking any special features.” The second definition seems tremendously incongruous with vanilla’s fundamental nature. True vanilla extract is derived from a beautiful and exotic tropical orchid. For a long time it was one of the rarest and most precious ingredients available. The plant’s cultivation history involves subjugation, genocide, stingless bees, slaves, and the fate of nations. Many many things in this life are dull and unexciting but certainly not vanilla.
Vanilla is derived from tropical orchids of the genus Vanilla. These plants are epiphytic vines which climb trees or other similar structures. Vanilla vines produce white, yellow and green flowers which look like narrow cattleyas. Although the Vanilla genus consists of more than 110 species of plant, almost all vanilla extract comes from one Mexican species, Vanilla planifolia–the flat leafed vanilla–or from cultivars derived from V. planifolia. According to Orchid Flower HQ, “The name vanilla comes from the Spanish word vainilla, a diminutive form of the word vaina which means sheath. The word vaina is in turn derived from the Latin word vagina, which means ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’.” As you might imagine from such an etymology, the long narrow annealed lips of a vanilla flower do indeed resemble a sheath.
Once they are fertilized, vanilla flowers produce fruits in the form of long black pods. Totonac people—pre-Colombian Mesoamericans who were indigenous to mountainous regions along the eastern coast of Mexico—were the first people to realize the food potential of these pods. Although initially inedible, the pods produce the sweet heady smell and taste of vanilla when sun-ripened for several weeks. The Totonacs had a myth that the vanilla flower originated when Xanat, a princess and priestess to the goddess of the crops, eloped into the jungle with a handsome lover whom she was forbidden to marry. When the pair were discovered hiding in the forest, they were beheaded. Where the lovers’ blood mingled on the jungle floor, the first vanilla vine first sprouted.
The Totonac people did not get to enjoy their vanilla unmolested for very long. From the mid 15th century up until the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs subjugated the Totonacs and forced them to pay stiff tributes–which included vanilla pods. Not only did the Aztecs use vanilla for medicine and as an aphrodisiac, they added it to their sacred drink xocolatl—a bitter beverage made of cacao which they had learned about from the Mayans. When Cortés marched to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, he met the Totonacs along the way and they joined the conquistador as allies. Totonac support was instrumental to Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs. It was Cortés himself who introduced vanilla to the courts of Europe.
Vanilla was initially used only as a chocolate additive in Europe, but it soon became popular as a pricey stand-alone ingredient. Like the Aztecs, jaded European aristocrats regarded it as an aphrodisiac and a sensual aid. It was also found to be perfect for baking and producing confections. Colonial powers rushed to plant the vine in Africa, Polynesia, Madagascar, and other suitable climates, but there was a problem: although the vines flourished, there were no pods. It was not until 1836, that Charles Morren, a Belgian horticulturist unlocked vanilla’s secret. The vanilla flower (Vanilla planifolia) can not be pollinated by any insect other than the stingless Melipone bee.
Unfortunately the method of artificial pollination devised by Morren proved too expensive and difficult to be commercially viable. It was only when Edmond Albius, an orphaned slave sent to serve a horticulturist on the island of Reunion, discovered a quick easy method to pollinate vanilla by hand that vanilla plantations became viable beyond Mexico. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies, Albius was freed, but he did not see any recompense for his discovery. He ended up imprisoned for jewelry theft and died in poverty.
Fortunately Albius’ discovery made plentiful inexpensive vanilla internationally available. The flavoring rose to dominance because it is almost universally pleasing to humans (although vanillin acts as a trigger for a small minority of migraine sufferers). During the twentieth century, organic chemists discovered how to synthesize vanillin (a phenolic aldehyde predominant in vanilla extract) from wood pulp bi-products. Compared to natural vanilla extract (a mixture of several hundred different compounds) it tastest quite vile: anyone who has compared real vanilla extract with synthetic vanillin could easily expound on the superiority of the former. Real vanilla has a taste of orchids, Central-American jungles, and divinely transfigured princess which synthetic compounds can never capture.
And that is why home-made cookies are so much better.
Last night my roommate told me about bitcoins, a digital currency created two years ago by Satoshi Nakamoto, a shadowy entity who may be a financier, a programmer, or an anarchist (or he/she/it may not even be a person at all). The name “bitcoins” also refers to the software and built-in encryption features which allow the “coins” to be anonymously transferred while still retaining whatever “realness” they have. The concept initially filled me with unreasoning anger, but thinking about bitcoins has caused me to reflect more deeply on the notional nature of all money. Most dollars are no more real than bitcoins: only a tiny fraction of American legal tender exists in the real world (as the paper scraps or metal disks found in cash registers, laundry machines, money clips, dancers’ garters, underground hoards, piggy banks and what have you). The majority of money is ones and zeros zipping through huge servers run by large financial institutions–not really that different from bitcoins (although the dollar is backed by lots of important guys in suits and by a huge military rather than by the personal assurances of a Japanese cyberpunk shadowspawn).
Instead of thinking about today’s national currencies I like to reflect on currencies based on real objects but still not pegged to any use value. The rather beautiful giant stone coins of Yap are probably the most well-known example of such money, however, a more interesting and widespread example is provided by mollusk shells–which have been used as a medium of exchange by different societies worldwide throughout history. Over three thousand years ago the Chinese were using cowry shells as currency. It is said that the classical Chinese character for money was the same as for cowry (I am going to leave Chinese scholars to argue over the actual characters—trying to follow the vagaries of Chinese etymology left my head spinning). In Thailand the “bia” was a unit worth 1⁄6400 Baht and was literally a cowry (which was also a common counter used in gambling). On the East Cost of the United States, Iroquois and Algonquian tribesmen utilized “wampum” belts manufactured from littleneck clams to solidify treaties or as exchange for personal transactions. Tribes of the Pacific Northwest utilized tusk shells or scaphopods for their shell money. Different tribes of Australian aboriginal people utilized different shells as money and often regarded the money shells from other tribes as worthless. Other examples of shell currency are numerous and come from all parts of the world, but one is particularly instructive.
The most infamous use of shell currency may also have been the most complicated and lucrative. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries competing Dutch, Portuguese, English, and French slave traders utilized cowry shells as a common medium of exchange (among several others) to buy slaves along the African coast. The slaves were sold by local rulers who obtained them in internecine tribal wars or by Arab merchants who specialized in mass kidnappings. The cowrie shells used in such transactions originated from the Maldives and later from Zanzibar. They were carried to the Mediterranean and to the Sahara by Arab traders and to Europe by merchants from the miscellaneous colonial powers. The potential “mark-up” on such shells was tremendous since one could obtain then easily from living snails in the Indian Ocean and then exchange them for living people in the Bight of Benin.
My personal feelings about international trade are not as negative as this grim historical example would seem to indicate (I feel that today global trade is, on balance, more likely to deliver people from slavery than into it). However I feel that this example is a good metaphor for the central mystery of money. Cowry shells are pretty and have been used for rituals, games, and adornments for a long time–but their value does not seem intrinsic in any special way–except maybe to living cowries. Indeed the monetized mystique such shells had in the eighteenth century is long gone: I found many web sites which will sell you barrels of money cowrie shells for next to nothing. What is the magic that makes shells worth a human life in one era and a quasi-worthless novelty in another? I have no answer other than to point at the strange epic that is history. I suspect that the smug Federal Reserve Board members discontentedly shaking their heads at the tone of this article do not have one either. Money is a fairly obvious illusion…and yet you will never live your life outside its thrall.
Here is a painting of a turkey pie and oysters created by the Dutch still-life master Pieter Claesz in 1627. The original is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (which provides high quality digital images of the works within its collection—so if you click above, you will be rewarded with a much larger picture). The painting is small and was painted from a muted palate but Claesz employed a variety of subtle techniques to arrest the viewer’s attention. The overall meaning of the painting is clear—it highlights the owners’ good taste and wealth. It also symbolizes the success and growth of the Dutch Republic which were then at an all-time apogee.
This sort of painting is called a “banketgen”—literally a banquet painting. This example is exceptionally realistic. Notice how the pewter jug reflects the rest of the feast and how the wine in the glass römer throws a yellow shadow over the table. Protruding from the plane of the table, the lemon plate subconsciously invites the viewer to prevent it from tumbling onto the floor. With consummate skill, Claesz has put his initials and the painting’s date on the blade of the knife as if they were engraved there.
The individual components of the feast form a picture of seventeenth century globalism. The still-living oysters may have come from the coast of Holland but the lemons and olives were not native and could not survive the harsh northern winter. They are the literal fruits of Dutch success at trade as are the Chinese porcelain kraak and the Persian table weave. The twist of printed paper from the almanac contains salt and pepper, expensive commodities in the early seventeenth century but not as rare as the overseas spices in the pastry which has been broken open with a silver spoon.
Towering above the rest of the composition is the remarkable turkey dish, a large meat pie ornamented with the plumage, wings, and head of a wild turkey from the New World. The exotic nature of the turkey and the rich gold and jewels of the nautilus goblet are the focal point on the composition. Any Dutchman of the time would have instantly understood the meaning. Manhattan had been purchased by Peter Minuit in 1626, only a year before this painting was finished. New Amsterdam was growing across the Atlantic. The maritime merchants of the Dutch republic were setting their table to gobble up the world itself. It is almost a shame that Claesz did not include a bowl of Indonesian sugar or a tank of Shell petroleum to perfect the picture.
Of course there is a final element to this painting. Tiny black spots of rot are forming on the apples inside the Chinese bowl. Did the artist foresee the ruinous colonial wars with France, Spain, and England? Did he notice the growing tension between Royalists and Republicans or the schism between Dutch churches? Could he see that the banquet was about to be spoiled by events of the wider world or were the first touches of rot merely a visual flourish to convey a lesson about the limits of our little lives?