Everything You Wanted To Know About Chilli
History - How They
Circumnavigated The World

On this page we'll take a look at the history of the chilli after Columbus arrived in the Caribbean and Central America.

What we find fascinating is that the chilli was adopted around the world in a period of approximately 50 years. This was achieved in a period when horse-drawn and wind-driven were the primary means of transport. It's almost as if the world was waiting for the chilli to arrive.

  • Despite Spain's apparent early claim to the chilli, the Portuguese appear to be the first traders to have spread the them globally. Portugal's maritime power - rounding the Cape of Good Hope and reaching India in 1498 - set a course for the chilli to leave South America.
  • The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 had effectively split the world in half between Spain and Portugal, and the Portuguese were eager to exploit their half, especially Brazil. By the 1500's they were regularly exporting chillies from Brazil, the only part of South America which Portugal could claim under the Treaty.
  • During their trips to India, the Portuguese traders stopped in various African ports along the way. The Africans' fondness for “Grains of Paradise”, or “Guinea Pepper” (Aframomum melegueta), which have a gingery, peppery taste, prepared them to absorb the pungent chilli into their cuisine with ease. In only a few years, chillies had traveled as far east as Mozambique. But trade was only one agent of the chilli’s spread: Portuguese slave gathering in Africa also played a large part.
  • While it is possible to trace the chilli’s move from South America across the Atlantic Ocean, its crossing of the Pacific is more difficult to pin down. The 1529 Treaty of Zaragosa defined Spanish and Portuguese jurisdiction in the Asia-Pacific region: the Spanish received the Philippines, and Portugal received the Spice Islands, or Moluccas (part of Indonesia around the island of Sulawesi).
  • By 1540, the Portuguese were trading in Indonesia; soon after, chillies made their way to China. However, it is unclear if the Portuguese were the first to bring the chilli to China. Indians and Arabs were actively trading with the Chinese long before the Europeans arrived in asia. Furthermore, Hunan and Szechuan provinces, whose cuisines use chillies most frequently, were connected to the non-Chinese world by the Silk Road trade route rather than by coastal ports. Moreover, at the time, there were no direct overland routes from Chinese ports to those two provinces.
  • In 1549, the Portuguese reached Japan, but again it is unclear if they introduced the chilli there, because the Japanese had already ventured to Mexico in Spanish-designed ships.
  • While Africa, India, and Asia quickly absorbed the chilli, Europe seemed reluctant to use it as anything more than a curiosity or an ornamental. From Spain, the chilli moved to Antwerp, then to Italy in 1526, and on to England in 1548. Curiously, the chilli did not reach Eastern Europe through trade with other Europeans.

There are a number of similar but competing theories as to how the chilli did reach Eastern Europe;

  • Muslim merchants may have brought chilli from India through the Persian Gulf, on Alexandria, and then north into Eastern Europe.
  • Alternatively, the Turks could have brought chillies from Asia and then transported them through the Persian Gulf, Asia Minor, and the Black Sea in to Hungary, which they conquered in 1526. From Hungary, the chilli then probably moved into Germany.
  • A third possibility has the Portuguese exporting chillies from Hormuz, one of their colonies in the Persian Gulf, to Eastern Europe as a cheaper alternative to black pepper.
  • Interestingly, it was not until 1868 that Europeans learned that chillies were not originally from India.
  • Most surprising is the length of time it took for the chilli to arrive in North America. Despite being grown in Mexico for thousands of years, it was not until the slave trade was in full swing that the chilli appeared. By 1600, the British and Dutch had broken the Spanish and Portuguese naval domination, opening up the spice trade. However there does not appear to have been any demand for chillies from the Americans as a result of this.  Instead, it was the use of chillies in the African cuisine that is the reason behind their spread. Chillies had become such a integral part of the African diet that slave traders had to bring large quantities with them on their trans-Atlantic voyages. Also, to maintain the African slaves' eating habits once in North America (and consequently their performance), the plantation owners had to grow chillies. As a result, it was not until the 17th century that the chillies had become a staple in North America.

All the above is a fair bit to try and track in your head so I've put together this diagram to try and make it easier to absorb.

I do have a page that follows on from this one. It's not a history as such, it's more a discussion of chillies in relation to Australian cuisine and developments on that subject. See this at chillies & Australian cuisine.

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