Posted in Kafevend Blog

In today's blog we are going to be taking a look at a period of time known as the Age of Discovery, in particular the efforts of the explorers sponsored by the Portuguese and Spanish who paved the way during the 15th century. Their efforts brought Europe in to contact with, amongst many other things, tea, coffee and cacao.

From the middle of the 13th century to the 15th century there had been overland trade between the Occident and Orient- the West and East- thanks in part, ironically, to the stability provided to the region by the Mongol Empire (after all the bloodshed, of course). The Maritime republics of Italy grew fat on the trade that flowed in from the Eastern Mediterranean. Individuals like the Venetian Marco Polo travelled throughout the Orient at the end of the 13th century and brought back fantastical tales of the lands, people and items they found there. However, over the years as the Mongol Empire collapsed, the Black Death ravaged Europe and the Ottoman Empire began to make its mark in the Levant, European access to the Orient was once again blocked.

The exotic goods of spices, herbs, drugs and silks that made their way into Europe via the hands of Italian merchants were much sought after by those who could afford them. The capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 must have had a similar effect on the European aristocracy of the time, as snatching away everyone's phones today. With the land route blocked, it turned to those up for a bit of sailing to reestablish the trade route- enter Henry the navigator, a Portuguese prince. In the early 15th century, Henry began wondering if it was possible to find a sea route to the Indies and the source of the lucrative spice trade. This bid for a little mercantile manouvering around the Ottomans in the Middle East can be argued as the beginning of the Age of Discovery.

Henry sponsored many sailors to make their way around and down the western coast of Africa in a systematic manner, mapping the route as they went. A combination of new technologies, ship designs and outright bravery allowed them to make their way southwards. Although Henry died in 1460, his legacy remained and by 1488 the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa. King John II of Portugal renamed the Cape of Storms- Dias' name of choice- to the Cape of Good Hope, as realisation dawned that a sea route to India really was possible. In the closing years of the 15th century, another Portuguese explorer named Vasco de Gama managed to find his way to India with his small group of vessels, becoming the first European (alongside his crew) to reach India by sea.

A few years earlier, Portugal's rivals on the Iberian peninsula had begun to contribute to the Age of Discovery themselves. Following the unification of the crowns of Castile and Aragon (the kingdom that would eventually become Spain) and finally winning their centuries long war to push the Moors back to Africa, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs, had the time and money to spare to sponsor the voyage of the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus. The purpose of his voyage was to attempt to find a westward route to India, as it was unlikely Portugal would want to share their route around Africa.

Setting out in 1492, Columbus reached the Bahamas in October, and also went on to find Cuba and Hispaniola. He firmly believed he had reached India and named the area the West Indies, in what has perhaps been one of history's larger misunderstandings, before returning to Spain. Unlike De Gama however, he can't claim to have been the first European to reach the Americas, as that honour went to the Norseman Leif Erikson who had sailed to North America in the 11th century. Columbus' own discovery was to have more of a lasting impact however as wide spread European colonization of the Americas began. Aside from his (re)discovery of America, he does appear to have the claim as the first European to see cacao beans- on his fourth voyage in 1502, he stopped a Native American boat filled with them. Not aware of their potential value at the time, he sent it on its way.

Following Columbus' return, Portugal and Spain came close to hostilities over disagreements on which country had ownership of the newly discovered Americas (obviously the natives didn't get a vote). King John II pointed to a previous treaty and declared that he would shortly be sending a fleet to take control. The Catholic Monarchs went to the Spanish Pope Alexander VI for help, and he passed a Papal Bull that gave Spain control of all new lands beyond a certain pole to pole line. Of course, the world being a sphere, this rather put a damper on Portugal's bid for India. King John II  managed to work out the Treaty of Tordisillas with Spain, which allowed Portugal to claim new lands east of the line- which again, with the world being a sphere, caused more troubles in the 1520s when they met each other in the Pacific. Finally realising the mistake, the Treaty of Zaragoza marked another line, splitting the globe in two between Portugal and Spain.

With the first treaty in effect, Portugal went on to establish many new colonies in the 16th century. In 1511, Alfonso de Albuquerque conquered the important Asian trading centre of Malacca. A year later,the fleet he sent under the command of António de Abreu discovered the supremely valuable Spice Islands. A year later again saw the Portuguese diplomat Jorge Álvares make contact with China. Trade began to flourish between the two nations, but it was cut short in 1521 after the deplorable actions of Simão de Andrade enraged the Chinese authorities. It took several decades for the dust to settle, but finally in 1557 the Chinese allowed Portugal to occupy Macau, which went on to become a hub for trade between Europe and China.

Tea had been written about by many European travellers over the centuries prior to 1557, but word spread quickly of the Chinese drink after the occupation. Though it isn't known if tea was brought to Portugal at this point, it had definitely become a commodity a century later, before Catherine of Braganza came to England to marry King Charles II. She brought the established custom of tea drinking with her which had taken hold in the Portuguese courts, and is credited with popularising the drink in England.
Back on the other side of the world, Brazil had been discovered by Pedro Álvares Cabral for Portugal. Spain began to make its presence felt on the continent as well, particularly in 1519 when the (in)famous Hernán Cortés landed  in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico and claimed the land for Spain. Over the next two years, he allied with some natives and fought battles against others, pushing inland as far as the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan which he captured in 1521, ending the Aztec empire. Amongst the many treasures he brought back to Spain were reputed to be cacao beans, and as such he is typically credited with introducing them to Europe. The Spanish took to the bean well, and by adding honey or sugar to the drink as well as heating it, created the precursor to the hot chocolate we enjoy today.

Over the the rest of the 16th century, Spain and Portugal went on to establish great empires, growing rich on imported goods such as gold and silver from South and Central America and the spices from Southeast Asia. Their new found wealth hadn't escaped the eyes of their northern counterparts however, and Britain, France and Netherlands moved to join in on the empire building. The Dutch in particular were quick off the mark. Many of their sailors had been part of Portuguese crews, and brought back knowledge of the routes to the Orient. In a daring act to get their hands on a potential cash crop, The Dutch merchant Pieter van der Broecke managed to acquire a few of the well guarded coffee bushes from Yemen in 1616. He brought them back to Amsterdam where they thrived in the botanical gardens. When cuttings were taken from them four decades later, the colonial landscape was a very different one indeed.

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