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Throughout my time in England, it was difficult for me to perceive this country as the one that colonised mine for over 200 years. As I think often of how it all began, the word ‘pepper’ stands out. All for pepper? Of course it is nice to have India as a colony, it’s a wonderful country but wasn’t it pepper that tempted them in the first place? Spices. That’s what our history texts tell us.
I know a lot of Indians that still look at England as the ‘country that looted us for years.’ I couldn’t look at it that way for I choose not to connect the unfortunate details of the past with the present and ruin the moment. To me, England’s beautiful, it’s people kind and it’s history and culture fascinating.
But when Artur offered to make chicken for me in a way I had never had chicken before, it fascinated me. It was an experiment with pepper. Artur’s chicken had nothing but chicken, salt and ‘pepper’ roasted in the oven. That basic, that primitive. Maybe that’s how the English had chicken back then, but with no pepper. I on the other hand never had chicken without atleast a dozen spices – never only salt and pepper.
I told Artur the same, that I never had chicken like that before to which he replied – ‘then you never had real chicken.’
That very chicken without pepper – would have been difficult to consume.
Sebastian R. Prange a doctoral student in history at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where he is researching the history of Muslim trading communities on the medieval Malabar Coast writes:
The profits of the pepper trade eventually motivated other European powers to join the fray, and in time the Portuguese were eclipsed first by the Dutch and later by the British. Throughout the centuries, economic and political circumstances continued to conspire against the Mappilas and led to recurrent riots and attacks. However, the Mappilas also preserved their link to the sea, mostly as fishermen in Kerala’s rich waters, and strengthened their involvement in riverine trade and agriculture. Today, Muslims constitute about a quarter of Kerala’s population and remain concentrated in the north of the state on the historic Malabar Coast; in contrast to other regions of India, Kerala experiences very little of the problems of sectarianism. In recent years, many Mappilas have found work in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and so continue the long-standing ties that bind the regions and societies. While historically pepper may have been as much of a blight as a blessing for the Malabar Coast, there can be no doubt that, because of it, the region served as a nexus where the dynamics of world history were played out —a point for reflection on the next turn of the pepper mill.
Pepper’s high profits helped propel European colonialism, and this engraving depicts the port of Bombay (now Mumbai) in the mid-18th century, when much of Malabar’s pepper exports passed through that entrepôt into the holds of ships of the British East India Company.
I was in Fort Cochin, Kerala last year and visited the Spice Market. Europe is still the largest importer of Indian spices, along with the Middle East. Such is their romance.