A Bird’s Eye (chilli) view of the Columbian Exchange.

Just how far have modern chillies come?

Everyone seems agreed that a passion for eating chillies originated in the heart of South America. Mexico initially but the news spread like wildfire, notably to the Bolivians (gatherers of wild chillies) and the Peruvians (the great chilli domesticators). Evidence of human chilli consumption can be traced back to 7,500 BC. Cultivation of chillies as a crop has been verified up to 6,000 years ago. That is a serious amount of history right there.

After thousands of years of South Americans quietly consuming, gently taming and trading chillies, how did their hot secret get out?

Let us discuss that oft mentioned historical phenomenon: The Columbian Exchange: a two way process named after Christopher Columbus, Italian explorer extraordinaire.

Previously Europe had traded with China and India via well established land routes. Silk, spices and opiates were all very much part of the European highlife. However, as politics changed and the Turkish Ottoman Empire came into power, land travel to Asia became arduous, unpredictable and dangerous. And yet the Europeans still had a desire for the exotic goods they had become accustomed to. Black peppercorns (Piper nigrum) were one such luxury. As well as a condiment, the popular hot spice was often used as payment and referred to as ‘black gold’. Christopher Columbus saw this demand and put together a proposal to find a new route to Asia. The Spanish Catholic Monarchs, Queen Isabella of Castille and King Ferdinand of Aragon, decided to employ Columbus and fund his sea voyages.

Most people were now convinced the world was a sphere. Columbus thought one could set off from Spain, sail west, across what was then called Ocean Sea and approach the other side of Asia from this new direction. Although he was a bit off in his calculations (mostly because he underestimated the size of the earth) he still managed to find land and come back with goods that impressed the Spanish court.

He first landed in the Americas in 1492. He thought he was in India and so called the islands ‘The Indies’. He succeeded in bringing back a wealth of new ideas, foods, slaves and indulgences like tobacco. He did not find the desired peppercorns but on his second trip he stumbled across local ‘aji’ hot peppers.

Unfortunately, in addition, Columbus and his crew had transferred devastating diseases like measles to the New World. It is estimated that the population of some islands was reduced by 90% as a direct result of contact with Columbus and his crew. In return, his crew contracted a number of previously unknown diseases and transported them around Europe. An exchange indeed.

European explorer map routes
European explorer voyage routes

But what happened to the chillies?

Ah yes, for a while the chillies were grown as ornamental and medicinal plants in monasteries in Spain and Portugal. After a while the monks noticed the heat of the pods and they began being used in cooking in place of black pepper.

Portuguese sailors were busy solving the Asian trade route situation another way. They too took to the sea but sailed south, along the West African coast and around the Cape of Good Hope to access the Asian goodies once more. They opened up new trade routes and the supply of spices resumed, albeit a little slower. Chillies were transported and traded along these routes.

Were there honestly no chillies in the Old World until Christopher Columbus’ voyages?

As a result of his voyages and the consequent global trade routes to the New World, a widespread exchange of plants, animals, diseases, humans, culture, technology and ideas between the New and Old Worlds occurred. Agriculture changed, populations were altered and an increased understanding of global geography ensued. And yes, you guessed it, chillies were unleashed on the rest of the world. Capsicum Chinense varieties can be traced back to the ‘aji’ that Columbus presented to the Spanish Royal court.

Of course there would have been individual overseas travellers who reached the Americas before Christopher Columbus. Saint Brendan and Leif Erikson to name a couple. They probably brought back a few souvenirs for the family, just like the rest of us when we travel abroad. Why not chillies?

Chillies have been noted and referenced across the world far earlier than the Columbus’ daring travels. For example, clear depictions of chillies in stone carving from thirteenth century Myanmar, South East Asia, mean there must have been some chilli present there before 1492.

So Columbus may not have been the first but he certainly did start a global trend.

Within 30 years of Columbus travelling to and from the New World, chillies had spread far and wide. The Portuguese took them wherever they went; Goa, Japan, West Africa, Thailand and mainland India. Chillies are relatively easy to grow and cultivate and so they were adopted by people wherever the conditions were good.

And so, in conclusion, whilst Christopher Columbus most certainly did not bring back the single Mother chilli from which all chillies have spawned. He was definitely a catalyst in sending chillies to every corner of the world. Not a bad legacy really.