The 17th-century Dutch considered nutmeg a sovereign remedy for all sorts of ills, including diarrhoea, and pains in the head, muscles or uterus; in , Pepys was instructed by his apothecary to take nutmeg and honey for a cold. Among other exotica brought back from the East, pepper relief from fever and flatulence , cloves for toothache and local anaesthesia , cardamom for colds, fevers and inflammations , ginger for dyspepsia , camphor for mania , cassia and cinnamon for diarrhoea had notable medicinal uses and great value in the medical marketplace.
Many of the commodities that were eventually naturalised as normal European consumables were at first advertised and taken for therapeutic purposes, reckoned to have powerful drug-like effects. One of the strangest, and at the same time most valuable, bits of materia medica in which the VOC traded was the bezoar.
Cook, Harold J.
Bezoar stones are concretions found in the guts of ruminants, including goats and gazelles, from a variety of sources, including islands off the Coromandel coast of India, and they were so greatly valued as a universal antidote to poisons and plague that in 17th-century England there was a thriving market in fake bezoars. The law had to take action — in , this was the precise context for the legal ruling of caveat emptor — and one of the reasons Robert Boyle included bezoars in his experiments on determining specific gravity was to distinguish true from counterfeit stones.
The British East India Company wanted bezoars so much that they were joined at the top of their shopping list only by diamonds, ambergris and musk. Bezoars remain the stuff of legend, if not the object of Big Pharma research: in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire , Harry screws up his potions class practical by forgetting to add bezoar to his antidote, and in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer something called a bezoar monster is laying seriously nasty eggs underneath Sunnydale High.
The ships of the VOC carried trade goods, but they also carried the embodied skills and knowledge needed to get to where these things were and then to get safely back, to protect their continuing business interests against threats native and foreign, to tell others how to make the trip, to find and secure the goods they wanted, to differentiate them from similar goods of lesser value, to recognise their powers and virtues, and to learn about all sorts of other valuable and useful new things of which they had previously been unaware.
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Knowledge travelled, and accumulated, along the trade routes. Sailing a ship over long distances with any accuracy required cartographic knowledge, and in the open ocean this involved a range of astronomical, instrumental and practical mathematical competencies. Into the 18th century, the determination of longitude remained a great prize, and clock technology vied with astronomy in winning that prize. But the great 16th and 17th-century voyages of discovery were undertaken without the benefit of a precise solution to the problem, and Matters of Exchange has little to say about the physical and mathematical sciences that were used onboard a VOC ship and helped it achieve its goals.
Instead, Cook wants to draw attention to the cargo of natural historical and related medical knowledge, neither of which usually springs to mind when one thinks about science as an engine of modernity. The sorts of thing you needed to know if you were concerned with culinary or medical plants were where to find them, how or whether you could cultivate them, whether you could transplant them to environments other than those in which they naturally grew, and what their powers were.
Among the valued productions of 16th and 17th-century Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch science were lavishly printed herbals documenting the plant life of the East, books which belonged as much to the worlds of commerce as they did to natural history and medicine. On his return to the Netherlands, with the assistance of a stay-at-home Dutch naturalist, he published not only accounts of the Portuguese trade routes to Africa, India and the Spice Islands, but also descriptions of their flora and fauna, including highly detailed observations on the cultivation and virtues of nutmeg.
The books of exotic botany generated, in turn, an increased interest back in the Netherlands in botanic gardens, where exotic plants might be tested for their adaptability to local conditions and where they could be used for making commercially and medically useful products. As late as the 19th century, European botanic gardens were a power-centre of empire. The new University of Leiden, founded in , made it a priority to establish an anatomical theatre and a botanic garden.
After he arrived in Leiden in , Clusius made advances in tulip-breeding and formed a collaboration with the artist Jacques de Gheyn II, whose minutely accurate watercolours of plants in the Leiden Hortus Academicus had a role in the emergence of the Dutch flower-painting tradition.
Clusius also urged merchants travelling to the East Indies to bring back botanical specimens, thus forging links between four of the great modes of Dutch Golden Age culture — gardening, painting, medicine and business. Sivin: The Way and the Word.
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