I am feeling delighted that I have been selected for the “Nautical Perspectives” exhibition to be held at Commodities House, St Katherine’s Dock, between 1st and 15th of May. I will be showing 3 works which are concerned with the following three narratives, found when researching the story of international food trade: These are all narratives of deceit:
1. Phoenix Egg
In the 1300s, before the establishment of the sea routes, spice and fabrics were traded by Middle Eastern and North African traders who went along the silk road, taking goods back and forth. Spices were an incredibly luxurious commodity, prized highly by the elites of Europe and commanding very high prices. Most of this trade came across the Mediterranean and into Venice. The traders were aware of the treasure they had, and for a very long time they made up stories: Stories to defend their trade. But also I like to think of them making up stories as a way to make the long hazardous journeys bearable, to make themselves feel brave and less vulnerable to being robbed. At this time nutmeg was literally worth more than its weight in gold, it is often stated that a pound of nutmeg was worth the same as seven fattened oxen in 1393.(*1a) The price of my piece in this show is determined by the current price of 7 fattened cattle at market (*1b).
They told of dragons and phoenix who guarded the spices in the East and the adventures they had in trying to release the spices from their protection, of winning battles with these monsters and defeating dangers in the pursuit of spice. They told these stories to the traders in Europe, and for a long time the traders in Europe stayed away, but with so much wealth to be made….
2. Chilli on Gold Square
Sea routes to Asia were established going East but they were long and dangerous. The second narrative behind my work is the reason the chilli pepper got its name. So the sailors had been trying, as we all know from school, to find a quicker way to India and the Spice Islands, so jealously fought over by the British and Dutch. But instead of reaching India they reached America, and there was a desperation to find pepper. Pepper was so valuable it was sometimes used as currency, and certainly plenty of piratical raids went on across the seas to attain possession of this spice.
Columbus craved peppercorns, had built his voyage on the promise of bringing back pepper. But peppercorns did not grow in South America. Rather than accept defeat, the hot chillis which did grow in South America were rebranded peppers.
3. South Sea Bubble
The third narrative is from the South Sea Bubble Company directors. The British and Spanish were at war over who could control trade with South America, the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714). Due to this war the British Government was in debt. In 1711 the South Sea Company was set up and in opposition to the Bank of England took over a large share of Government debt in exchange for monopoly rights to trade with South America, modelled on the monopoly trade enjoyed profitably by the East India Company. However this promise only had any meaning if the British won the war, and then they didn’t.
The treaty of Utrecht ended the war in 1713, only two years later, so the South Sea Company now held British Government debt and only very limited trading rights with the remaining British South American colonies; select Islands in the Caribbean and British Guyana. It was 1717 before any South Sea Trading ships even set sale. South Sea Company ships were limited and the company profits were based on slave trade and interest on loans to the British government, but when has that stopped a good story? Certainly the slave trade was not an appealing one, so…
In an effort to increase investment the South Sea Company Directors told stories, exaggerated stories of the profits they were making, and of the treasures to be found in South Sea trading. Bubble stories with no substance except a shiny surface.
Which through 1720 first lead to rapid rises in stock valuations, but by Autumn in the same year, price crashes and prosecutions happened, Company and Government Officials were accused and found guilty.
And this bubble, in the way of bubbles, created more bubbles, more crazy investment companies on the same model, and investment frenzy, with share prices in all sorts of dubious companies bubbling up. In January 1720 shares in the South Sea Company were £128 by May £550, by June, after receiving a Royal Charter £1050, but in July……in July the investors lost confidence, in August stock was valued at £800, and September £175, and across Britain people had lost their fortunes, there was a massive economic crash. *2
I invite you to come to the “Nautical Perspectives” exhibition at Commodity Quay, St Katherine’s Dock, just next door to the Tower of London. It will be open from 1st to 15th May 2016.
And thank you to a_nblogs who are promoting the a_n edition of this blog this week.