Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Spice to Canals

This is going to be a canal post but I'm going to approach the subject indirectly. Actually this subject started with me reading about spices after Jan had produced an interesting dinner dish. Of course the rarest of spices came from the spice islands, which are now known as the Moluccas and part of Indonesia.

The Spice Islands were almost the exclusive source of nutmeg, cloves and mace. For centuries these spices had slowly made their way to Europe by land and sea passing through Persia and on to the Roman Empire. The European end of the trade came to be dominated by the Venetians' and each time the spices changed hands the price rose. Moreover the Moluccas formed part of the greater Islamic world and the Christian West was frequently at war with Islam making spices rare with a corresponding increase in price.

In 1497 the Portuguese explored Vasco da Gama set off to find an alternate sea route to the spices in the east. The plan was obviously to cut out the middle-men and make a fortune. First da Gama had to follow the winds going south west across the Atlantic to Brazil before he could head east and around the Cape of Good Hope. Until now most voyages had been shorter and often followed the coastline. One unforseen consequence of the long voyage was the crew contracting scurvy. Apparently da Gama was a determined, brutal and ruthless leader. He decided scurvy could be cured and prevented by rinsing one's mouth out with stale urine. Naturally this was unpopular with the crew! da Gama had crew members flogged or worse if they objected. The treatment had no effect upon the scurvy, but I would imagine a huge impact upon morale!

Vasco da Gama did reach India and gained access to spices such as pepper and cinnamon. The Portuguese when on to create a settlement at Malacca on the Malay Peninsula and established trading lines with the Spice Islands. However they only held onto their monopoly for a few decades before the Dutch supplanted them in the east indies and the British in India.

By 1619 the Dutch East India Company had a well established settlement at Batavia (modern Jakata).

Meanwhile the British had established their own East India Company with the intention of establishing trade with the East Indies. What actually happened was their domination of trade with India and China. Neither of which are particularly close to the Spice Islands. However in 1616 the East India Company did manage to gain control of one tiny island in the Archipelago. The Island of Run, less than 2 miles long and half a mile wide. By 1620 the Dutch had kicked out the British, although the latter never gave up their claim. In retaliation for the Dutch action the British sent four frigates across the Atlantic and seized the small Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. Initially both companies refused to give up their claims however they eventually agreed to exchange settlement. The Dutch got Run and the British New Amsterdam. Which is why one morning the burghers of New Amsterdam awoke to discover they were now living in New York.

With a mere 2000 occupants New York wasn't much of a settlement and was overshadowed by the likes of Boston or Philadelphia. Things didn't get much better for New York when the majority of the citizens in the colony remained loyal to the Crown during the War of Independence. New York was a bit of a backwater!

However New York did have one significant feature. Running down the east coast of America from Canada in the north to Alabama in the south are the Appalachian Mountains, some 2400km in length. Today they don't form much of a barrier, but in the 16th and 17th centuries they were a formidable obstacle to trade. Goods were either transported across the mountains on pack animals or shipped around by sea. But in New York there was a gap in the mountains!

Throughout the latter part of the 16th century There was talk in New York of building a canal through the Appalachian's. However the State's reputation within the new nation was so low that there was little enthusiasm to support such a venture.

It wasn't until 1817 when a new State Governor, DeWitt Clinton, was elected that any real progress was made. At that time New York had no qualified civil engineers and no one with experience in building a canal. The route was surveyed by two judges, one of whom had only two hours prior experience with rudimentary survey instruments. No one in the Erie Canal Company had any practical experience of building a canal but they; like canal builders in Europe; quickly realised retaining the water inside the canal was an issue. Canvass White, a young and new employee of the canal company offer to travel to England at his own expense and learn all he could about canal construction. For almost a year Canvass White walked the length and breadth of England studying canals along the way he discovered the virtues of 'Roman Cement' which had excellent waterproof properties. Interestingly British canal builders used puddling clay to waterproof their canals.

Armed with his new knowledge Canvass White returned to New York to play an important part in the construction of the Erie Canal which was completed in 1825. The canal was an immediate commercial success and became one of the dominate factors in turning New York into a major commercial hub.

Railroads started to be built within 10 years of the canal's opening, however the low cost of moving freight by water meant the canal was still carrying 13 times more tonnage than the railways in the 1850's.

From spice to canals.


Jenny said...

A very interesting history lesson, Tom, but the overwhelming question is, what was the spicy dish which Jan cooked you for dinner?

Tom and Jan said...

Sorry..... family secret Jenny! ;-)