Chili peppers—why do we call them that? Chili comes from the Nahuatl word for the fruit, but the Spanish word for “pepper”—pimienta—existed in the pre-Columbian world. It referred, as it still does, to the fruit of a southern Indian vine (Piper nigrum) that had been economically important for millennia. This fruit, the black peppercorn, bears no resemblance to the New World nightshade that Columbus encountered in the Caribbean. Why did he use the word pimienta?
There are two other sources of black pepper that have been largely forgotten in our time. They are the long pepper, Piper longum, and the Javanese long pepper, Piper retrofractum. Both are close relatives of Piper nigrum, but they are different in one fundamental way: instead of small berries, they produce tightly packed structures full of much smaller fruits. They resemble baby corn, which means that their shape is not entirely unlike some chili peppers. Since their color can range from green to red and they have a spicy flavor, it makes sense that Columbus might have mistaken them for the Old World spice. And if that Old World spice wasn’t familiar to him—if he’d only heard about long peppers, which seems possible—then the mistake is easier to credit.
Columbus seems to have made other mistakes: He called agave aloe, and continually identified an American tree (possibly the sapodilla) as mastic. He made suspicious claims about the birds and other creatures he saw on his first voyage, exclaiming that such animals never stray far from land and interpreting their presence as a sign that the voyage was almost at an end. Most famously, of course, he referred to the islands of the Caribbean as the Indies.
But were these really mistakes? Columbus pays little attention to the natural world in his writing, but the writing of the other conquistadors is also maddeningly vague in this respect. It may be a rhetorical convention; it doesn’t mean that these men were as inattentive as their writing suggests. The truth is that we don’t know what he was thinking. Very little of what is said to be known about him is really known. We don’t really know where he was born, for instance. We don’t know what he called himself (although he did not call himself “Christopher Columbus”). He used various names at various times, as the occasion and the language warranted, and sometimes he signed his name like this:
So the man who set sail in 1492 is a cipher, and the only thing we really do know about him is that he was a navigator of tremendous brilliance. We know that, and we know or can guess one other thing: He was able to convince Ferdinand and Isabella to finance a dangerous journey over the edge of the world, so he must have been persuasive in some way. Since the expense of that voyage was very great—comparable to modern spaceflight—he must have made some kind of economic appeal.
Even though Columbus would have expected to find pepper in the Indies, it is by no means certain that he ever believed he had reached the Indies. Nor is it certain that he ever thought he would reach the Indies, although that’s how he pitched the voyage to Ferdinand and Isabella. To me it seems likely that he never did mistake chili peppers for long pepper, never confused agave with aloe, never meant it when he said that frigate birds—pelagic birds that may be able to sleep while they fly—never stray far from land. Instead he saw a reasonable alternative to pepper, something that could plausibly be marketed as pepper. He would have been interested in this kind of deception (if indeed it was even a deception, since he might actually have represented this fruit as a new source of pepper). He needed to show his sovereigns some return on their investment, or at least some reasonable development possibility. He needed to justify the expense of the first voyage and raise the money for a second. From this perspective it was better to have arrived in “the Indies,” where the commercial possibilities were easy to appreciate, than in a new and unknown place.
We’ll never know what he meant, but we still say “West Indies,” and peppers are still peppers. To me this is very satisfying: it is a deep uncertainty, right at the beginning of modern Euro-American history, about whether we’re talking about an honest mistake or a willful deception or just a squirrelly half-deception intended to mislead investors.
Aaron Thier is the author of The Ghost Apple. His new novel, Mr. Eternity, will be published in 2016