If anyone is in Adelaide this weekend it’s your last chance to see the Treasure Ships: Art In The Age of Spices exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia. More than 300 exhibits are on display, and much of the focus is on Portugal’s “golden age of discoveries”. After Sunday the exhibits will go to the Art Gallery of Western Australia, where they will be on display from October 10 to January 31, 2016. Some of the highlights of the exhibition are covered in a previous post here.
Portugal’s history is fascinating – it’s said to have had the first global empire in history – but because it’s “golden age” was relatively short and its influence waned after the 16th Century, not much is known about it by the population at large today. I’ve got some great books on the topic …
I haven’t actually started reading A.R. Disney’s two-volume A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, but when I have 60-plus free days to spare, I will. I am currently reading Nigel Cliff’s The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages Of Vasco Da Gama, but because of other time pressures it’s been a start-stop-go-back-and-start-again affair. Vasco’s ships never seem to leave the port! However, for an easy yet highly entertaining introduction to Portugal’s greatest historical hits, I would strongly recommend Martin Page’s The First Global Village. Page is a writer and journalist first and foremost rather than a historian, so he knows how to make his history sizzle. Some of the really dry historians should take note!
Why the fascination with spices?
Often when I sprinkle pepper on my food, I think of Vasco Da Gama. We take pepper and other spices for granted so much nowadays. So what was the big deal with spices in the spice age? Much of it, of course, was to do with trying to preserve meat, or to disguise the fact that it was rotting, on long sea journeys, but in the press release to the exhibition, co-curator James Bennett says the pre-refrigeration need for spices “takes little account of the complex reasons the condiments of luxury and status were so avidly sought”.
I asked his fellow curator, Russell Kelty, what were the other complex reasons.
“The most common assumption is that spices were used to preserve food but in fact Europe’s fascination and desire for spices was linked partially to the prestige associated with these luxury condiments which were transported vast distances over land and sea, prior to the establishment of maritime routes by the Portuguese, and as a result were extremely expensive,” Kelty says. “Spices were also connected to notions that illness was caused bodily imbalance in hot and cold humours which could be alleviated by certain spices. As with any commodity the more scarce and difficult to obtain the prestige it accumulates.”
(The image above is from the exhibition; it’s a portrait of an explorer I haven’t really heard much about, Francisco de Almeida. Wikipedia has this to say about him: Dom Francisco de Almeida, also known as “the Great Dom Francisco” (ca. 1450 – March 1, 1510), was a Portuguese nobleman, soldier and explorer. He distinguished himself as a counsellor to King John II of Portugal and later in the wars against the Moors and in the conquest of Granada in 1492. In 1503 he was appointed as the first governor and viceroy of the Portuguese State of India (Estado da Índia). Almeida is credited with establishing Portuguese hegemony in the Indian Ocean, with his victory at the naval Battle of Diu in 1509. Before Almeida could return to Portugal, he lost his life in 1510.)
The Australian Connection
“Treasure Ships also examines the impact of the Age of Spices on the ‘discovery’ of the Australian continent”, says the exhibition’s media release. So what can we glean from the exhibition about Portuguese relations with Australia? There are some historians who believe that the Portuguese secretly knew a lot more about Australia than was officially revealed. (For example, Peter Trickett and his book Beyond Capricorn).
I was curious to know if the Treasure Ships exhibition added anything to that debate. Here’s Russell Kelty view.
“Treasure ships does not touch on the Portuguese ‘discovery’ of Australia – which I agree was highly likely – as the exhibition is about art and cultural exchange. There is no evidence of any kind of aesthetic impact by the Portuguese on Indigenous Australian art, as was the case with Makassan trepang fishermen whose visits had a profound impact on northern Australian coastal Aboriginal cultures. The catalogue does briefly discuss [Malaysian-Portuguese cartographer Emanuel Godinho de Eredia (1563-1623)] Eredia’s belief in the existence of ‘New South India; (p.186).”
To see a summary of all the arguments about whether or not the Portuguese were the first Europeans to discover Australia, go here.
The Treasure Ships exhibition images here have been supplied courtesy of the Media section of the Art Gallery of South Australia and may not to be distributed to any other party.