You Can Credit (Blame?) Taste Buds for Europe’s First Large-Scale Economic Network

Mendes Pinto left Portugal in 1537 in a fleet commanded by Vasco da Gama’s son, journeying for two decades before returning home. A rare first English edition of his journal, The Voyages and Adventures of Fernand Mendez Pinto, went to auction in March 2009.

By Jim O’Neal

After Columbus’ failed attempt(s) to find a new route to the Spice Islands, Vasco da Gama in 1497 (sailing for Portugal) decided to try a route around the bottom of Africa, despite winds and currents that prevented ships from simply following the coast line.

This route forced da Gama far out into the Atlantic Ocean and his ships were out of sight of land for as long as three months. Europeans had never sailed this far before and their first discovery was scurvy!

Two other bad side effects were the spread of syphilis to Asia (five years after Columbus’ crew apparently introduced it to Europe) and Gama’s infliction of extreme violence. Everywhere he sailed, he abused or slaughtered the people he encountered to the point where the whole Age of Discovery was marred by brutish violence.

Vasco da Gama never got to the Spice Islands. Like others, he thought the East Indies were just a little east of India, when in fact they were way beyond India. However, he was the first European to reach India by sea, thereby linking Europe and Asia for the first time by an ocean route.

Da Gama’s discovery was significant and paved the way for the Portuguese to establish a long-lasting colonial empire in Asia. It would take another century before England, France and the Netherlands could break this monopoly, but when they did, it opened an entirely new era of European imperialism in the East.

Spices never had the allure of gold and silver or the commercial potential of tobacco, indigo or sugar. The English and Dutch both struggled for control of the Spice Islands, but spices gradually faded from European cuisine because of changing tastes and the plethora of new foods introduced from Mesoamerica.

However, their decline should not obscure their role as the primary basis for the first large-scale economic network and the driving force behind the first expansion of Europe.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

When George Washington Told a Lie

The U.S. Capitol first appeared in its entirety on Series 1869 $2 Legal Tenders.

By Jim O’Neal

George Washington died in December 1799 at age 67 and numerous writers sensed an opportunity to record the details of his life. One of the first to get a publisher’s approval was an itinerant book peddler and Episcopal priest by the name of Mason L. Weems.

He rushed out The Life of Washington in pamphlet form in mid-January 1800. In that and succeeding volumes, he began manufacturing enduring myths regarding Washington, including the famous “chopping down the cherry tree.” In Weems’ version, 6-year-old George told his father “I cannot tell a lie, I used my little hatchet to cut it down.”

Generations of schoolboys (including me) were taught about the virtues of truth using this delightful little parable. However, there was one man who caught President Washington in an embarrassing lie.

The story begins with a dinner hosted by Thomas Jefferson for Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to resolve two thorny issues being debated. The first was the permanent site for the capital. The second was Hamilton’s insistence on the federal government assuming all the states’ debts from the Revolutionary War.

Jefferson and Madison finally agreed to passage of the debt assumption bill. In return, Hamilton promised to lobby the Pennsylvania delegation to endorse Philadelphia as the temporary capital and a site on the Potomac as the final.

Congress passed the Residence Act, which approved Philly as the capital for 10 years and then a permanent home on a 10-mile-square federal district on the Potomac near Mount Vernon.

When the capital moved to Philadelphia, Washington decided to bring his favorite chef from Mount Vernon, the slave Hercules, who ran an immaculate kitchen. The handsome and talented Hercules had a lot of freedom in Philly and plenty of cash from selling the food left over from presidential dinners.

However, Attorney General Edmund Randolph startled Washington when he told him that under Pennsylvania law, any adult slave residing for six consecutive months was automatically a free person.

So George sent Martha back to Mount Vernon before six months lapsed and told Hercules he wanted him to accompany her to be sure she was well cared for. Hercules became enraged since he was well aware of the law. He was also angered because he was so loyal to the family and this ploy questioned his integrity and fidelity.

He was so sincere that he was allowed to stay in Philadelphia and thus became the only man known to be lied to by George Washington!

P.S. Hercules took advantage of the law and secured his freedom, permanently.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Highly Hunted Sperm Whales Brought Wealth to Eastern Ports

A true first edition of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (The Whale, in three volumes, London: Richard Bentley, 1851), preceding the New York edition by about four weeks, realized $53,775 at a June 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In November 1851, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was published in the United States. It was based on a true story of a sperm whale that attacked and sank the whale ship Essex.

It was not successful until long after Melville died and even the eight or nine movies that followed were box office disappointments. My favorite movie, Moby Dick (1956), directed by John Huston and starring Gregory Peck, has yet to turn a profit.

Until the 18th century, the quality of lighting had remained relatively unchanged for 3,000 years. People had devised many low-tech, ingenious solutions to combat darkness without much success. But in 1783, Swiss physicist Aimé Argand invented a lamp that dramatically improved its use by feeding more oxygen to the flame. It even featured a knob to easily adjust the light output.

Thomas Jefferson was so impressed he brought several back from Paris in 1790.

However, the best light of all came from burning whale oil and the best whale oil was spermaceti from the head of sperm whales. Sperm whales even now are mysterious and elusive animals, but they produce and store great reserves of spermaceti – up to 3 tons – in a cavernous chamber in their skulls.

The sperm whale is also the largest of the toothed whales and the largest of any toothed predator. It has the largest brain of any animal – modern or extinct – on Earth. This combination produced a legendary battle between man and a highly hunted creature of the sea.

Whale oil became an American specialty and it was primarily whaling that brought so much wealth to New England and the key eastern ports. In 1846, America had more than 650 whaling ships, three times the rest of the world, combined.

Let there be light.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].


Here’s Why Shakespeare Might Be a Part of You

William Shakespeare’s The Poems of Shakespeare [Cosway-Style Binding], London: William Pickering, 1837, realized $2,868 at an October 2009 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman on the atom from his “Six Easy Pieces” lecture series:

“If, in some cataclysm, all scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?

“I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.”

Personally, I would have a bit of a problem rebuilding if that was the extent of all knowledge! And, although I can use more than one sentence, the following may not add enough for you to do it either.

To begin, atoms are simply everywhere and constitute every single thing. Not only stuff like a wall or your refer, but the air in between.

They combine to make molecules and molecules combine to make elements. Chemists think of molecules rather than elements just as writers think in terms of words and not letters.

Molecules are numerous, beyond comprehension. A cubic centimeter of air (the size of a sugar cube) contains 45 billion-billion molecules. Now think about how many sugar cubes it would take to replace all the matter in the universe. Multiply that number by 45 billion, then multiply that by another billion. Well, you get the idea. And, of course, atoms are by definition more abundant than molecules.

Atoms are also very durable and have been around sooo long that every atom in your body has passed thru several stars and been a part of millions of organisms. They are so anatomically numerous and vigorously recycled at our death that it has been suggested 1 billion of my atoms (and yours) were once part of Shakespeare … and of Ghengis Kahn. An odd thought, but statistically probable (not just possible).

Atoms are also tiny … very, very tiny. It is hard to describe just how tiny, but here is a crude attempt:

A millimeter thickness is like comparing a single sheet of paper to the height of the Empire State Building. Got it?

Well, atoms are only one-ten millionth as thick as a millimeter. That is tiny.

When we die, our atoms will simply disassemble and move on to become other things like a rock, another human being, or a Doritos tortilla chip. It is somehow comforting to know that someday, I will be a Doritos chip rather than a Pringles.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].