By many accounts, Britain was a quiet agricultural outpost in the Roman empire. The native inhabitants had a well-established growing system that prioritized crops such as broad beans, barley, oats, and wheat. Needless to say, Britons ate a lot of bread and drank a lot of beer.
Their livestock consisted of the usual range of domesticated animals: cattle, sheep, chicken, and pigs. Foraged foods included mushrooms, wild onions, and herbs such as mustard. Those who lived near the coast enjoyed seaweed, fish, and oysters. Rural life and food looked much the same as it does today, with a key exception — lack of spices.
The Romans brought a wealth of spices from all over their empire. The trade along the Spice Road had been good to them, and they introduced pepper, rosemary, thyme, coriander, mint, and garlic to Britons. Some of these herbs were dried and some were in plant form. Those plants that grew well in the Isles still remain a part of British cuisine. (Cowen)
Many tall tales developed as to the origins of spices, but by the 13th century, travelers like Marco Polo (1254-1324 CE) and missionaries were beginning to improve Europe’s geographical knowledge of the wider world.
India seemed awash with black pepper. Sri Lanka was rich in cinnamon. Sandalwood came from Timor. China and Japan were getting spices like cloves, nutmeg, and mace from India, South East Asia, and the Maluku Islands or the Moluccas in what is today Indonesia – not for nothing were they nicknamed the Spice Islands.
Then, in 1453 came the fall of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, and so one of the principal land routes for spices into Europe was lost. (Cartwright)
One of the major motivating factors in the European Age of Exploration was the search for direct access to the highly lucrative Eastern spice trade. In the 15th century, spices came to Europe via the Middle East land and sea routes, and spices were in huge demand both for food dishes and for use in medicines.
The problem was how to access this market by sea.
Accordingly, explorers like Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and Vasco da Gama (c. 1469-1524) were sent to find a maritime route from Europe to Asia.
Columbus (who was looking for a new route to India, China, Japan and the ‘Spice Islands’ of Indonesia to bring back cargoes of silk and spices (ginger turmeric and cinnamon)) never saw the mainland United States, but the first explorations of the continental United States were launched from the Spanish possessions that he helped establish.
To the south, da Gama did round the Cape of Good Hope, sail up the coast of East Africa, and cross the Indian Ocean to reach India.
From 1500 onwards, first Portugal, and then other European powers, attempted to control the spice trade, the ports which marketed spices, and eventually the territories which grew them. (Cartwright)
On November 28 1520, Ferdinand Magellan entered the “Sea of the South” (which he later named the Pacific) and thereby open up to Spain the possibility of an alternative route between Europe and the spices of the Orient.” (Lloyd)
Then, almost 50 years after the death of Christopher Columbus, Manila galleons finally fulfilled their dream of sailing west to Asia to benefit from the rich Indian Ocean trade.
“The Spanish Galleons were square rigged ships with high superstructures on their sterns. They were obviously designed for running before the wind or at best sailing on a very ‘broad reach.’”
“Because of their apparently limited ability to ‘beat their way to windward’ (sail against the wind), they had to find trade routes where the prevailing winds and sea currents were favorable.” (Lloyd)
Starting in 1565, with the Spanish sailor and friar Andrés de Urdaneta, after discovering the Tornaviaje or return route to Mexico through the Pacific Ocean, Spanish galleons sailed the Pacific Ocean between Acapulco in New Spain (now Mexico) and Manila in the Philippine islands.
Once a year, gold and silver were transported west to Manila in exchange spices (pepper, clove and cinnamon), porcelain, ivory, lacquer and elaborate fabrics (silk, velvet, satin), collected from both the Spice Islands (Moluccas, Indonesia) and the Asian Pacific coast, in European markets.
They also carried Chinese handicrafts, Japanese screens, fans, Japanese swords, Persian carpets, Ming dynasties and a myriad of other products. East Asia traded primarily with a silver standard, and the goods were bought mainly with Mexican silver. (Pascual)
The galleons leaving Manila would make their way back to Acapulco in a four-month long journey. The goods were off-loaded and transported across land to ships on the other Mexican coast at Veracruz, and eventually, sent to European markets and customers eager for these exotic wares. (GuamPedia)
In 1668 a royal decree required the galleons to stop in Guam in the Mariana Islands on their westward voyage from Acapulco to Manila. This allowed ships to replenish supplies and was the only means for communication between Spain and the Marianas colony.
The Manila Galleon Trade lasted for 250 years and ended in 1815 with Mexico’s war of independence. More than 40-Spanish galleons were lost during this 250-year period. (Lloyd)
“‘The voyage from the Philippine islands to America may be call’d the longest, and most dreadful of any in the world; as well because of the vast ocean to be cross’d, being almost the one-half of the terraquous globe, with the wind always a-head; as for the terrible tempests that happen there, one upon the back of the other …”
“… and for the desperate diseases that seize people, in seven or eight months living at sea, sometimes near the line, sometimes cold, sometimes temperate, sometimes hot, which is enough to destroy a man of steel, much more flesh and blood, which at sea had but indifferent food.’” (Dr. Gemilli, Popular Science, 1901)
“The Spanish captains normally made their eastbound Pacific crossings between 31o N and 44o N latitude to insure that they would remain in the zone of the westerly winds. They would want to avoid the ‘horse latitudes’ (around 30o N) and they would certainly want to remain well north of the northeast trade winds that would drive their square rigged ships back to the Philippines.”
“This northerly route back to Acapulco would normally keep the galleons at least 1,000 miles north of Hawaii and it would not be surprising if little or no contact with the Hawaiian Island occurred during these difficult eastbound crossings of the North Pacific.”
“The westbound route from Acapulco offers an entirely different set of navigational considerations. Friar Urdaneta’s route involved sailing down to 13° N latitude (or 14° N) and following that parallel all the way to Guam and on to the San Bernardino Strait in the Philippines.”
“Unknown to the Spanish navigators, the very favorable ocean currents mentioned above would position their ships much further along their westbound course than indicated by using their ship’s mechanical ‘log’ to measure their ship’s speed through the water.” (Lloyd)
Some suggest the Spaniards came to the Hawaiian Islands a couple of centuries before Cook saw them.
“Old Spanish charts and a 1613 AD Dutch globe suggest that explorers from Spain had sighted Hawaiʻi long before Captain Cook. When Cook arrived in 1778, galleons laden with silver from the mines of Mexico and South America had been passing south of Hawaiʻi for two centuries on annual round trip voyages of 17,000 miles between Acapulco and Manila.” (Kane)
“It seems to be almost certain that one Juan Gaetano, a Spanish navigator, saw Hawaii in 1555 AD. A group of islands, the largest of which was called La Mesa, was laid down in the old Spanish charts in the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands, but 10 degrees too far east.” (Hawaiʻi Department of Foreign Affairs, 1896)
“There are undoubted proof of the discovery of the Hawaiian Islands by the Spaniard, Juan Gaetano. This is the first known record of the islands among the civilized nations. There are evident references to this group in the legends of the Polynesians in other Pacific islands.” (Westervelt 1923)
La Perouse noted, when he briefly visited the Islands (1786,) “In the charts, at the foot of this archipelago, might be written: ‘Sandwich Islands, surveyed in 1778 by Captain Cook, who named them, anciently discovered by the Spanish navigators.’” (La Perouse, Fornander)
“By all the documents that have been examined, it is demonstrated that the discovery dates from the year 1555 and that the discoverer was Juan Gaetano or Gaytan. The principal proof is an old manuscript chart, registered in these archives as anonymous, and in which the Sandwich Islands are laid down under that name, but which also contains a note declaring that he called them Islas de Mesa”. (Spanish Colonial Office letter to the Governor of the Philippines, The Friend May 1927)
“It is true that no document has been found in which Gaytan himself certifies to this fact, but there exist data which collectively form a series of proofs sufficient for believing it to be so. The principal one is an old manuscript chart … in which the Sandwich Islands are laid down under that name…” (The Friend May 1927)
Gaetano passed through the northern part of the Pacific and discovered large islands which he marked upon a chart as ‘Los Majos.’ The great mountains upon these islands did not rise in sharp peaks, but spread out like a high tableland in the clouds, hence he also called the islands “Isles de Mesa,” the Mesa Islands or the Table Lands. One of the islands was named “The Unfortunate.” Three other smaller islands were called “The Monks.” (Westervelt 1923)
Fortunately, however, the Spanish made no use of this discovery, thus permitting the Hawaiians to escape the sad fate of the natives of the Ladrones and Carolines under Spanish dominion. (White 1898)
Juan Gaetano may not have been the first Spaniard, here. Stories suggest an earlier arrival of shipwrecked Spaniards at Keʻei, Kona Moku (district,) Island of Hawaiʻi.
There is fairly complete evidence that a Spanish vessel was driven ashore on the island of Hawai‘i in 1527, it being one of a squadron of three which sailed from the Mexican coast for the East Indies. (White 1898)
“A well known Hawaiian tradition relates that in the reign of Keliiokaloa, son of Umi, a foreign vessel was wrecked at Keei, South Kona, Hawaii. According to the tradition, only the captain and his sister reached the shore in safety. From their kneeling on the beach and remaining a long time in that posture, the place was called Kulou (to stoop, to bow,) as it is unto this day.” (Alexander 1892)
“The natives received them kindly and placed food before them. These strangers intermarried with the Hawaiians, and were the progenitors of certain well known families of chiefs, as for instance, that of Kaikioewa, former Governor of Kauai.“ (Alexander 1892)
Jarves expanded on the story, “In the reign of Kealiiokaloa, son of Umi, thirteen generations of kings before Cook’s arrival, which, according to the previous calculation, would bring it near the year 1620, a vessel, called by the natives Konaliloha, arrived at Pale, Keei, on the south side of Kealakeakua bay, Hawaii.”
“Here, by some accident, she was drawn into the surf, and totally wrecked; the captain, Kukanaloa, and a white woman, said to be his sister, were the only persons who reached the land. As soon as they trod upon the beach, either from fear of the inhabitants, or to return thanks for their safety, they prostrated themselves, and remained in that position for a long time.”
“The spot where this took place, is known at the present day, by the appellation of Kulou, to bow down. The shipwrecked strangers were hospitably received, invited to the dwellings of the natives, and food placed before them.” (Jarves 1843)
One more thing, the first Hawaiian word written is ‘Hamaite’ – it was spoken to Captain Cook at the time he made contact with the Islands and he wrote it in his journal.
It was made in reference to iron. Some suggest it refers to Hematite (ferric oxide – a mineral form of iron oxide – that is Hematita in Spanish.) However, others suggest ‘Hamaite’ is actually a Hawaiian expression of He maita’i – good. (Schutz)