One thing we all tend to forget about the explorations of Christopher Columbus is that they were first and foremost business ventures. Sure, conquest and the greater glory of Spain were part and parcel of the whole exploration dealio, but no one was under any illusions when the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria left dry dock on August 3rd, 1492: priority number one was to make bank.
That year the Spanish monarchy was blowing through most of its savings account conducting a military mop-up operation, expelling the last of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula after more than 700 years of occupation (see below). As a result they were paying precious little attention to economic matters, the upshot being that trade-wise, the Venetians and Portuguese were kicking Spanish can. The plan was to send Chris Columbus off in late summer, then hope that by sometime, oh say March-ish, he’d be back with assorted valuables that could be converted to liquid cash.
So imagine the reaction at court when Columbus showed up not with hoards of pepper, cloves, ginger, gold, jewels or lucrative trade deals, but rather with baskets of tubers, a few bunches of tobacco leaves, pineapples, some turkeys and a handful of barefoot natives dressed in costumes that left nothing to the imagination. What is it about the word “loot” that you seem not to understand, Mr. Columbus?
Which is when Columbus went into sales mode. Barely missing a beat, he began to paint a picture of lush, verdant New World vistas, all of them there for the taking, each one waiting to be planted with the two biggest cash crops of the era: sugar cane and oranges. Spices, schmices Your Majesties, this is the biggest real estate coup of the millennium!
Ferdinand and Isabella’s tight half-smiles started to melt as they considered the possibilities of global agricultural domination. Which is how oranges became one of the first handful of crops from the Old World to be transported to the New. Indeed it wasn’t a year before the very first orange groves were being planted on Hispaniola in the Caribbean. Did Spain get rich on the orange in the end? Well no, not really. However it was the lure of cornering the global orange market which — in part — led to the founding of an empire. And that ain’t no small potatoes.