It’s Time to Thank the Portuguese

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…

… and he brought back a strangely hot fruit that reminded him of the black pepper he was after. So, we credit him with the Western world’s discovery of the chili pepper.

We’re not wrong for doing that. But, we’re not right either. It’s time we started thanking the Portuguese for their role in the hot sauce world we live in now.

The Portuguese Had More to Do with It Than You Think

If you’ll recall, Christopher Columbus sailed for Spain. He was charged with a few different tasks by the monarchs that funded his voyage. Finding a new chunk of land (or, rather, a couple of enormous continents) was not part of his mission.

Primarily, he was after new trade routes to India. There was a bit of a headache crossing through to India on the long-established land routes. And, Western Europe had come to rely on the spices (amongst other goods) that could only be procured in this part of the world.

Columbus was probably quite frightened to return to the Spanish court after he realized he hadn’t succeeded in his quest, so he grabbed whatever he could find, including the chilies that reminded him vaguely of the black pepper he was supposed to bring back from India. Then, he set sail back to Spain (not Portugal).

But, it was the Portuguese who ruled the seas at the time. Before the Dutch East India Company was even founded (which you should remember from Pirates of the Caribbean if not from your high school history lessons), Portugal controlled a lot of sea trade and was busy building themselves a small empire.

By the time the Portuguese government handed overall control over the territory to the colonies they had founded, they had established themselves in South America, Africa, India, East Asia, and a sprinkling of smaller bases in between.

The chili peppers that the Portuguese introduced in Goa (India), Mozambique, and Singapore didn’t come from the same strain as the South American chilies Columbus brought back with him. They came instead from Mexico.

And, the effects of chilies can still be seen clearly in the cuisines of all the areas where Portugal established colonies (including Brazil). The fruit Columbus brought back home didn’t have nearly the wide-reaching effects on Spanish cuisine.

But America’s Obsession with Chilies Came up from South of the Border, Right?

Again, this is a yes and no sort of answer. Wild chilies have long-established the areas around what is now known as Texas. But, they haven’t cultivated crops. The Native North Americans had no need (and, sometimes, no culture) of intentionally planting and farming chili peppers. That’s not to say they only taught the first colonists about the benefits of maize, but that’s not where the American obsession with chili peppers comes from.

We need to thank the Portuguese for their efforts. They’re the ones that took chili peppers everywhere they went. (And, indeed, it does seem as though they centered their colonization efforts in the hottest parts of the world… where trading was easy and necessary.)

It’s the Portuguese that promoted chili peppers to local peoples wherever they were. That included Africa. And, it’s only when African slaves arrived in the Americas that chili peppers made their mark. And if you don’t recall from your history lessons, it was indeed the Portuguese who began the transatlantic slave trade.

We’re not thanking them for that. Nor are we giving their colonization efforts any sort of nod. But, we think you should know that Columbus isn’t really responsible for your unceasing devotion to fiery foods. It’s the Portuguese.

That said, chili peppers were around way before Columbus and all cross-Atlantic trading that happened thereafter. They were under cultivation as early as 5000 BC. All we can really do is thank the Portuguese for speeding up the process of bringing chili peppers to us; it only took 7000 years for hot sauces to appear on grocery store shelves.


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