The New World
The spice race to the East Indies is best understood in relation to the preceding and parallel economic successes that were taking place in the Americas and Caribbean.
Advances in charting techniques and naval technology, most notably the mariners compass, at the start of the 14th century had encouraged Europeans out of their home territory, the Mediterranean and Black Sea. It too them away from rivers and shorelines into the open Atlantic Ocean.
Prince Henry of Portugal (1394-1460) (‘Henry the Navigator’) made exploratory forays investigating the possibility of following a western route by rounding the southern tip of Africa on the way to trade in Arabia and India. The result was the discovery of several island groups off the northwest African coast, the ‘Fortunate Islands’: Porto Santo (1418), Madeira (1420), Azores (1432), Cape Verdes (1442) on the way to the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope by Diaz in 1486; all these encounters paving the way for the more ambitious voyages of Columbus (1451-1506) and Vasco da Gama.
There were exciting botanical discoveries as well: in the Canaries the Dragon Tree, Dracaena draco, on Cape Verde the Baobab Adansonia digitata and further south a spice-plant Malaguetta Pepper, Amomum melegueta used to spice up an Elizabethan drinks called Hippocras. The Portuguese began what would become a new pattern of Atlantic trade by introducing the grape vine and sugar cane to Madeira, maintained in plantations by slave labour.
The question of what might be found on a westward voyage across the Atlantic was addressed by Christopher Columbus when he gained the financial support of Spanish Ferdinand and Isabella who named him Admiral and Viceroy of all he might discover, also granting him one tenth of all he might capture by conquest or trade. Between 1492 and 1503 Columbus completed four voyages between Spain and the Americas. The first set out on 3 August 1492 his fleet of three vessels encountering the Sargasso Sea of floating seaweed on 16 September then reached the Bahamas and Cuba. Of permanent global significance were the plants that Columbus experienced in cultivation, which included maize, cotton and tobacco with other botanical economic treasures discovered on his later trips.
The Spanish are remembered from later years for the destruction visited on the native populations, Cortes on the Aztecs of Mexico (1519-1521) and Pizarro on the Incas of Peru (1531-1533). Reports of Cortes and others indicate botanic gardens and zoos greater in content than any in Europe at that time. Mexican food plants included maize, cotton, agave, pita, cocao, tomato, capsicum, opuntia, haricot beans while the Incas cultivated cassava, banana, maize, potato, tobacco, agave and coca. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés (1478 – 1557) was a Spanish historian and writer who first mentions manioc, guava, avocado, calabash and sweet potato.
Francisco López de Gómara (c. 1511 – c. 1566) was a Spanish historian who worked in Seville, reporting the early 16th century expedition undertaken by Hernán Cortés. Gómara never travelled to the Americas but he had firsthand access to Cortés and other conquistadores though the accuracy of his work is suspect. His Historia general de las Indias (1553) reports the cochineal cactus, agave, sisal and cocao.