Plants and animals on the Nao de China: the other exchange


It is a well-known story and not. Everyone knows it when you say the Nao de China ("China ship"). If you mention the Manila galleon. It's not simple, but we'll take a look at how the 16th-century exchange of plants and animals between Asia and America also influenced the world's food transformation.

Animals and plants were taken on that transport popularly known as the Nao de China, which took some and brought others. The result, as anthropologists like to say, is cultural syncretism - the combination of traditions. If you do not grasp the concept, where you see it or what you eat it with, well, there you have it: you see it and you eat it.

But not everything came from Europe...

From the 16th century onwards, the world's food traditions were radically transformed. At the end of the last century, the environmental historian Alfred Crosby proposed that this was due to the transoceanic exchange between America and Europe so that one of the unexpected products of the Spanish conquest of the American and Caribbean populations was the transport of plants, animals, and microorganisms between the two continents. Thus, animals such as horses, cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, geese, and dogs arrived in this part of the "new world", which were different from the American ones, which, finding a favorable environment and few predators, led to great reproductive and adaptive success. The Spaniards reserved the ownership of cows, sheep, and horses, while chickens and pigs were given and traded to the local inhabitants. This began to transform the stews and gave rise to the combination of flavors.

But, in reality, this was like a second round: European food traditions were the product of various exchanges with Asia, generated since Greco-Roman times, for example, onions, garlic, parsley, and coriander had been cultivated and spread around the Mediterranean and were considered their own. The use of several spices that were known from Asia, but that had not been acclimatized for their cultivation produced the race to open and conquer that market. For which the navigators relied on Aristotle's old idea that the earth was spherical and therefore a new route could be discovered by traveling west. This gave rise to a story that had broad scientific, social, and cultural repercussions, which are well known and which we will not dwell on in this space for now.

Although Crosby's concept of the traffic of species between America and Europe became predominant and gained an important media space, the truth is that this was not the only way. For this we must refer to the Hispanic adventures in the so-called South Seas that ended up opening the transpacific route, the largest commercial route, qualified by some historians as the first global network, since it involved Asia, America, and Europe, with the ports of Acapulco and Veracruz as places of exchange, and the intermediate continental cities as usufructuaries of merchandise, partial markets, and expansion of settlements.

But why has attention to this route been diluted? Some authors have explained it because the main settlements were continental and the main interest was concentrated on mines, cities, agriculture, and livestock, while the ports were only considered routes of passage; in addition, the land cities have more documentary support to address issues of health, economy, demography, and trade.

Much of the literature produced covers relevant aspects such as the arrival of Asian ceramics (Chinese and from other regions in the area), silk and cotton exchanges, and the traffic of silver, which was used as the recurrent currency in this trade. But, this was a more complex network than that, since, in addition to the exchange of goods, there was also an exchange of populations and cultural practices, where there was already a commercial network that went from India to Japan, with the Philippines as one of the main ports of exchange. Thus, the arrival of the Portuguese and the Spanish, followed by England and Holland, mainly, strengthened a cosmopolitan market that had begun a century earlier and expanded this network until it became worldwide.

The road to "spices" and the South Sea

Just to summarize and have a context, we must remember that discovering the transpacific route was a long process that began after the conquest of the Mexica, with the journey in search of riches and the coasts of the South Sea, of which its existence was known since 1513 by the reports of Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Cortés was the first to organize explorations to recognize the coastlines of the current states of Oaxaca, Michoacán, Guerrero, Jalisco, and Colima, looking for large population centers as well as places to create shipyards.

This was the case of the widening of the road between Cuernavaca and Acapulco, between 1532 and 1538, since the shipment of products in preparation for the expeditions made clear the need to better communicate that port with the New Spain capital, as it was the most direct and shortest way to the coast, although complicated because the Ajusco and Sierra del Sur mountain ranges had to be crossed.

Already in the 1540s, there were regular trade routes from the Pacific ports of Oaxaca (Huatulco and Tehuantepec) with current Peru, Ecuador, and Panama, which included silver, mercury, cocoa, among other goods. However, there is little data on the American plants and animals, or their products, that could have been part of this trade, such as llamas, vicuñas, turkeys, potatoes, pineapples, cacao, corn, among others. By 1547 the authorities affirmed that roads had been opened for horses, mules, and carts to Acapulco, Oaxaca, Huatulco, Tehuantepec, Michoacán, Colima, Jalisco, Pánuco, Taxco, Zultepec, Zumpango, and Veracruz, these roads were bad, since at the beginning they did not have regular traffic, but when the shipment of diverse merchandise increased, they were improved.

The navigators who embarked on the expeditions through the South Sea had a diversity of experiences and maritime skills that came from local knowledge in Spain and Portugal, based on indications such as the color of the water, the flight of birds, the nature of the seabed, the stars or the sunsets, elements with which they established rough but regular routes. Moreover, the search for routes to the East or the "spice" markets was based on medieval legends or travelers' tales, such as those of Marco Polo. Thus, the destination points were the Strait of Anian, the Armenian islands, the Amazon island known as Calafia, and the cities of Cibola and Quivira, near Cipango (present-day Japan). In all of them, the promise was the abundance of gold and infinite riches. The successes were diverse, decades of explorations to uncertain destinations, but where other lands, other peoples, and other cultures were described, several of these experiences were unsuccessful: ships and sailors were lost from their routes and were never heard of again, they died in battles, from malnutrition and scurvy, only some reached the Pacific islands or recognized the North American coasts in the Pacific Ocean.

It was between 1519 and 1522 that the first (and eventful) voyage of circumnavigation of the earth was made by Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastian Elcano, arriving in what is now the Philippines in 1521, and then moving on to the Moluccas (Indonesia and New Guinea) or "spices", where nutmeg and cloves were sought, and then sailing to India and Africa and finally arriving in Spain. For our case, it is enough to comment that the explorations through the South Seas and the connection with the port of Acapulco to establish a safe commercial route, was carried out until 1565 by Miguel López de Legazpi and Andrés de Urdaneta, the latter is who is recognized for having established the most difficult part of the route between Manila and Acapulco, the so-called tornavuelta, a discovery that gave rise to the ship of China, the Manila Galleon or the Acapulco Galleon. What is said in a few lines, has several texts, from the testimonies written at the time to several much more recent ones.

Plants and animals on the transpacific route

In the chronicle of Magellan's voyage written by Antonio Pigafetta, one of the survivors, it is said that after many vicissitudes that endangered the expedition, they arrived on March 18, 1521, to what they called the San Lorenzo Islands, later renamed the Philippines. There they made good contact with the local population, so much so that they were offered fish and palm wine, which they called uraca, large bananas, and other smaller and tastier ones, as well as two fruits of the coconut tree, as the same refers.

Later, they recorded other foods such as sweet oranges, rooster, turtle eggs, and sea snails, as well as chicken, crab, eggs, fish, pork, millet, breadfruit, rice, and sorghum. Precious spices such as cinnamon, cloves, garlic, ginger, turmeric, honey, pepper, salt, sugar cane, and vinegar. It is important to note that there is no clear evidence that cloves, pepper, and cinnamon were used by the local inhabitants.

Coconut was unknown to these travelers, so being fed with it seemed surprising to them. Let's look at Pigafetta's own description of it:

"Coconut nuts are the fruits of a kind of palm tree from which they get their bread, their wine, their oil, and their vinegar. To obtain the wine they make an incision in the cup of the palm tree that penetrates to the medulla, from where a liquor similar to the white must, but a little more sour gushes drop by drop. The liquor falls into a cane container the thickness of the leg, which is tied to the tree, and which must be emptied twice a day, in the morning and in the afternoon.

The fruit of this palm is as thick as a man's head and sometimes more. The first bark is green, two fingers thick, and is composed of filaments used to braid ropes with which they tie their boats. Then there is a second bark, harder and thicker than that of the nut, which they burn to extract a powder that they use. Inside there is a white marrow, one finger thick, which is eaten as bread with meat and fish. In the center of the nut and in the middle of this medulla is a clear, sweet, and corroborative liquor. If this liquor is poured into a glass and left to stand, it takes on the consistency of an apple.

To obtain the oil, the marrow is left to rot with the liquor, then it is cooked, and the result is a thick oil like butter. To obtain vinegar, the liquor is left to stand alone, and when exposed to the sun it becomes acidic and similar to the vinegar made with white wine (...). A family of ten people can subsist on two coconut trees, making holes alternately every week in one and leaving the other to stand, so that a continuous spill does not dry it out and cause it to perish. We were told that a coconut tree lives for a full century".

Being familiar with all these foods, or relocating them, was very important for these travelers, since, for example, bananas were known in Europe and Africa since approximately the 15th century, although their origin is Asian, just from the region where Magellan's expedition arrived.

It is important to remember that the daily food of the sailors on these expeditions was very simple: flour cookies, meat or salted fish, which frequently decomposed during the voyage, and when possible, they used the resources that the New Spain territories could provide, such as corn, turkeys, as well as wild animals and rabbits.

Once the stable route between Manila and Acapulco was established, not only the transfer of processed flora and fauna for food began, but also their acclimatization to be reproduced at both points along the route.

From 1567 the first tamarind trees, ginger, pepper, and cinnamon roots and shoots arrived in Acapulco, as well as cloves and pepper for propagation and cultivation. Some were more adaptable than others, but this began to facilitate the trade of these plants both in New Spain and their export to Spain.

Then, in 1578, mango trees, coconuts, and bananas arrived in New Spain, where they also took root and were successfully traded. Later, in a slow but continuous flow, other foods that originated in that region began to arrive in Acapulco, among others: carambolo or star fruit; black pepper, breadfruit, nutmeg, mangosteen, grapefruit, citron, cucumber, eggplant, radish, malanga, and yam, etc.

Along with the arrival of these plants, sailors, traders, ambassadors, peasants, in other words, people looking for new horizons also arrived. Several of them contributed to the successful acclimatization and propagation of plants, to transform both the landscapes of the Pacific coast and then the more continental areas, as well as cultural practices and food in these regions.

The Portuguese were also already in the Asian region by 1500 and were trading cashew, chili, cacao, guava, peanut, tomato, and potato. By 1516, they had established a route to China distributing Chinese cabbage, yams, cucumbers, millet, onions, soybeans, sugar cane, and walnuts. It is interesting to recognize that in 1550 corn, peanuts and sweet potato were foods served on the tables of the Ming dynasty.

The Spanish also began to transport chayotes, tomatoes, cherries, chiles, corn, squash, papaya, and sweet potato for planting. Among their provisions was an assortment of dried beans, corn, olive oil, olives, and capers in brine, ham, almonds, cheese, and grape wine, which later expanded to biscuits, butter, chestnuts, figs, flour, oranges, pears, pineapple, plums, pomegranates and other fruits, sugar, nuts, and pork. But they also brought sheep, goats, cows and pigs, deer, hares and rabbits, as well as chickens and turkeys for breeding, most of them introduced, not without difficulties, successfully.

Other products that are incorporated into the diet in the Philippines are quelite and epazote, which are also used for their medicinal properties; guavas are consumed as jellies and preserves; cherimoyas and pineapple are consumed with salt. Achiote, purslane, sweet potato, papaya, and pumpkins are also used.

As can be seen, a long list of species was transported to make the life of the newly installed Hispanics in the region more affordable, which also led to a deep cultural syncretism, which was manifested in the food, as evidenced in chronicles, recipes, and various documents of the time, as well as in some archaeological explorations.

Such is the influence that in the Philippines there are still plants introduced in the XVI century that are recognized with names that have a certain Nahuatl or Hispanic-Mexican reminiscence, such as abukado (avocado); kakawate and mani (cacahaute; peanut); kamatsili (guamúchil); sayote (chayote); sili (chili).

Exchanges and new bio-cultural landscapes from the 16th century onward

Although it is recognized that the different human cultures since ancient times have contributed to the transport of biological species, be they plants, animals, fungi, or microorganisms, such as wheat, rice, onions, garlic, mustard, among some of those that are easily remembered; The truth is that none had the depth of what happened in the sixteenth century, both for the exchange across the Atlantic between Europe and America, or as we have tried to summarize here, with the one that occurred in this transpacific route, which not only includes current Mexico, but Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador, exchanging organisms as part of one of the first global routes. This aspect also included an important circulation of local knowledge among diverse native peoples, generating diverse culinary traditions that today seem natural to us and that we consider to be part of our cultural roots.

But this process undoubtedly brought about a series of ecological modifications in local biodiversity, both at the genetic level of local and introduced species, which led to a great change in the biocultural landscapes, mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries. One element pointed out by Alfred Crosby is that this was the most important global transformation that affected nature and cultures at a planetary level. And perhaps it is important to recognize that we know little about how these landscape changes impacted current societies and cultures. Perhaps now is the time to sit down and reflect on the importance of this, and a good time to start is by looking at our next plate of food and thinking about where the products that make it up originate from. Think about it: a Mexican pozole? American corn and chili; European pork or chicken; Asian onion and oregano; and if you add lettuce, oh well, it originates in North Africa...but ..... it's good, isn't it?

By Eduardo Corona-M. for El Tlacuache, Source: INAH Morelos Center