Or, Why People Were Willing to Risk Their Lives to Get Spices
During the late 1400’s and early 1500’s, there was an explosion of exploration by Europeans. It would be fair to say that Marco Polo instigated this flurry of exploration, based on his success and the treasures that he found in Asia. Many of the early explorers were simply looking for a better, faster, safer way to get to Asia: Dias, de Gama, Columbus. Each explorer went a little bit further than his predecessors, and as a result, entire continents were discovered.
What was so important about getting to Asia? Marco Polo brought many things back from his travels, including silk, gold, and spices. Spices became incredibly valuable, which may be hard for us to understand. Imagine eating every meal lacking the flavors that we now take for granted.
The purpose of this activity is to give the students a better understanding of the reason that spices were such a big deal. Also, this activity works well to help the students remember what Columbus was really after. He was searching for spices, not for a new land. We could say we owe our country’s existence to pepper!
Give students the “Before” cookies first, without showing them the second batch. You may want to provide napkins, as many students may want to spit out the cookie once they’ve tasted it. (You’ll likely have some left over; they’re not so bad dunked in coffee!)
Ask the students what they think. (The fun part is watching the polite kids try to think of something nice to say!)
Then give kids each one “After” cookie. Ask them to describe the difference.
Ask students to imagine if every meal tasted like that first cookie. You think it’s normal, the best that it gets. But then, one day, you get your first taste of the second cookie.
How would that change your opinion of your regular food? Would you be willing to go back to what you had before?
What would you be willing to do to get spices for your food, like the second cookie?
Would you pay a lot of money? Would you travel somewhere to get it? How far would you be willing to go?
Basically, this is what Columbus was doing. His goal was to get to Asia so that he could have food more like the second cookie and so that he could make a lot of money selling those spices in Europe to others. He didn’t find the spices he was looking for, though he made four trips trying.
Later, others realized Columbus had found a brand new land, and the focus on exploration shifted. Instead of heading to Asia, explorers after Columbus were looking for new riches and places.