Monday, 1 July 2013

Good Republic, Good Empire: Pursuit of Happiness

First time seeing this? Start here.


Happiness is a difficult thing to define and even harder to peg exclusively to historical imperial efforts. Empires, unfortunately, did not invent or even have the monopoly on the many entertainments and privileges that make people happy, save for its weighty contributions in civics and liberty, as already discussed. Before I get to the angle I've chosen for this heading, let's talk about what Pursuit of Happiness means. (Or could mean.)

The Pursuit of Happiness is an often discussed term in the Declaration of Independence because it is the most open to interpretation. It is the one tenet that differs from John Locke's "life, liberty, and estate," which some historians hold to be an influence to Thomas Jefferson's phrasing. The differences supposedly stems from an argument against promising a right to property, a tall order for any nation to fulfil, and instead making the more prudent promise for a means to, possibly, maybe, if you've got capital, attain property through diligence and effort. It also widens the concept to a universal happiness achieved through high culture or art or even to Locke's continuation of "the indolency of the body and possession of outward things." Everything we know of Roman entertainment through the Circus Maximus and the Coliseum would definitely contribute to this idea if not for the fact that the Greek city-states also managed to achieve this first through theatre and sports competitions.

So rather than discuss ideas empires did not have monopoly over and did not come up with first, I'll discuss a culinary joy that required a world-spanning empire to proliferate across all social strata:


While today spices in large quantities are easily and cheaply accessible from local supermarkets, they were once the most lucrative and highly-coveted commodity in human history. Popular myth states that spices were primarily used in medieval Europe as a means of masking the foul flavour and odour of rotting meat, but the truth is anything but. Spices were so expensive and exclusive that the use of them with any substandard ingredient was an extravagant waste of money. Sources of spice were so jealously guarded by traders that the price for one of our bottles of nutmeg or cinnamon today could buy us a castle, or at least a large parcel of good land. A handful of cardamon was worth as much as a poor man's annual wage, and many slaves were bought and sold for a few cups of peppercorns. It was typically only kings and pharaohs who could afford to enjoy an array of spices on a regular basis and not the common people.

That changed with "the empire on which the sun never sets," a moniker first used to describe the Spanish Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, and then for the British Empire until the early 20th century. The search for a cheaper way to obtain spices (not only gold) led to the Age of Exploration and the many great sea voyages of European adventurers such as Magellan, Cook, and Columbus. "We are looking for Christians and spices" were the famous words of Portuguese navigator Vasco de Gama upon his landing on the Indian coast. With that declaration, Arab monopoly on spices was shattered forever. 

The European empires warred over the spice trade. de Gama opened the floodgates by establishing trade between Portugal and Calicut: cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and pepper in exchange for gold, silver, and scarlet cloth. The Dutch took over the clove and nutmeg markets and tried jealously to guard their monopolies. As the empires feuded, first Portugal and Spain, then Holland, Britain, and France, the prices of spice lowered, leading to imperial efforts to produce more. Plantations emerged for spice harvesting, together with those for other discovered luxuries such as sugar, cocoa, coffee, and tea.

Spices had become accessible not only to the elite, but to everyone as national cuisines evolved into aromatic and tasty, heavily spiced, dishes and as trade allowed the "spice to flow" freely from port to port. Even chocolate, once reserved solely for Mesoamerican royalty and later for the elite in Spain, was pushed on the market for everyone by humble cocoa empires like Switzerland and Belgium. Through the effort and lust of colonial empire, our tastes were changed forever... and for the better.

Albrecht Silver's contribution this time is rather simple:
"It's the small things you miss most; the stuff you thought you never would. For me? Dominion cuisine -- the food of a thousand worlds. Exiles do what they can with what they have, certainly, and that's admirable, but it's all gruel compared to what the average Dominion citizen's able to eat daily. Exile space also has less to read and watch for entertainment, but that just comes with the territory, I guess."

And to close this section, what goes into a bottle of peacetime root beer, according to World War Z.

molasses from the United States
anise from Spain
licorice from France
vanilla (bourbon) from Madagascar
cinnamon from Sri Lanka
cloves from Indonesia
wintergreen from China
pimento berry oil from Jamaica
balsam oil from Peru

No comments:

Post a Comment