Black pepper - history
OriginsBlack pepper is native to the Western Ghats of Kerala State, India, where it still occurs wild in the mountains. This area is thought to be the centre of origin for the crop because the diversity of cultivated forms are greatest here. It spread from India to Southeast Asia as cuttings brought by Hindu colonists migrating from India to Indonesia and other countries.
|Botanical watercolour of a black pepper plant painted between 1802-1824.|
South Asian historyPepper has been one of the most ancient commodities of the spice trade. Together with ginger, it has the longest history of export from South Asia dating back at least 4000 years. Most ports and trading stations for black pepper were located in Southwest India where wild populations of the plants grew.
Pepper was an essential seasoning in Indian food and there are numerous references to it in Tamil literature dating between the 1st to 4th centuries AD. The epic Mahabharata written in the 4th century BC describes feasts with meat sprinkled with pepper. Pepper was of great value as a traditional medicine and was featured in early medicinal documents such as the Susrutha Samhita.
European historyThe black pepper plant is also used to produce white pepper, both of which are among the most important Indian spices. Peppercorns have been eagerly sought by Europeans since ancient times. The pungent fruits, or peppercorns, were known in classical Rome and were well established as an article of commerce. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius imposed a customs tax on white pepper and the related species long pepper (Piper longum) arriving at Alexandria, but exempted black pepper.
Long after the decline of the Roman empire, Europeans continued to prize pepper. It was the lure of pepper and other spices which brought the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama to the Indian coast in 1498. Other European countries were soon to follow and set up rival trading companies.
By the Middle Ages, pepper was of great importance in Europe to season or preserve meats, and to overcome the odours of rancid food. Peppercorns were very expensive and were accepted in lieu of money in dowries, taxes and rents. This still survives in the phrase 'peppercorn rent', which now means virtually free - exactly the opposite! A pepperers' guild of wholesale merchants was founded in London in 1180 and was later incorporated into a spicers' guild. In 1429 it was succeeded by the Grocers' Company which still exists today. The original pepperers and spicers were the predecessors of apothecaries, emphasising the role spices played in traditional medicine.
When the pattern of the monsoon winds over the Indian Ocean was deciphered in the 1st century AD, ships voyaged to India between June and September from the Horn of Africa, using the south-west monsoon, across the open sea. They sailed back utilising the north-east monsoon winds that prevail during the rest of the year. The anonymous 1st-century AD Greek sailor who authored the Periplus maris erythraei (The periplus of the Erythraean Sea) noted that India exported spices, precious stones, muslin and other cotton goods to the West from the port of Muziris in south India. Pepper and ginger would have been India's own exports, but other spices must have come from further east. At this time Pliny mentioned black pepper and wrote ruefully of the annual drain of silver sesterces to India.