Europeans had found their routes to Asia. But back and forth spice traffic remained incredibly arduous and risky. Rival powers like the English and Dutch were poised to soon beat the Portuguese and Spanish at their own game.
Spain, however, had bargained for control — duly “granted” to them in 1494 by Pope Alexander VI — of most of the Americas. (Much of modern Brazil was an exception, which is why it remains the only country out of South America’s twelve independent nations has Portuguese as a national language).
Not a small amount of this territory boasted similar, tropical climates to Southeast Asian spots like the Spice Islands. Although the islands were quickly cleared of forests to cash in on valuable mahogany and cedar wood, when the Spanish got their hands on them the lands of the Caribbean were places of staggering biodiversity. So the Spanish concluded, why not try to grow our own valuable spices here?
Subsequently, the Spanish began growing ginger in Mexico by 1547. Cultivation of the plant also took root in modern Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, the island now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Smaller ginger-growing operations in the Philippines and even in Spain itself were constituted. But nothing beat the fecundity of the New World.
The Caribbean Islands were also ripe for growing sugar. Vast sugar plantations soon covered the sunny spots of conquest. A long, harsh period of the genocide of indigenous peoples and the importation of African slave labor set in.
But ginger — whose production, I’m sorry to say, also depended on slave labor — proved to be a far easier crop to manage, harvest, and process. Ginger had a longer shelf life. It was easier to export than sugar. By 1587, 2 million pounds of ginger — worth the dizzying sum of 250,000 ducats — reached Seville every year. Because ginger was valuable, stable, and easy to hide, it became an article of contraband. Seafaring captains could easily hide it in dark places on their ships and avoid paying taxes on it.
But it was the ginger that the Spanish planted in Jamaica as early as 1525 that was destined to become the most sought-after for ginger beer and ginger ale.