Tracing the foundations of gin back to the east
Whatever the claims to the contrary, the alcoholic beverage, gin, popular with European colonials and sailors and their modern descendants, originated it seems, in South or southeast Asia.
And it was already widely recognised by early Europeans travelling to the region as a local beverage capable, amongst other benefits, of relieving the symptoms of venereal transmitted disease. Small wonder, perhaps, that, for centuries, it has been taken with the quinine-laden tonic water, with its ability to relieve malarial disorders. It achieved widespread colonial appeal.
Gin, online sources claim, was “invented” in Holland in the 17th century.
In fact, we have clear evidence from the journal of the mid-16th century Venetian merchant, M Caesar Frederick, of his voyages around South and Southeast Asia, that the drink originates, rather, in that region.
No great surprise that it might have been the Dutch who, embattled in Europe in a fierce religious conflict with Spain and Austria, spread their maritime wings in the wake of da Gama, and the Portuguese exploration of these eastern lands, in the later part of the 16th century.
Indeed, even the famous herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, in his much treasured mid-17th century compendium, Complete Herbal, identified the medicinal properties of the Juniper “berry.”
“A remedy against dropsy … a counter poison, and resister of the pestilence, and excellent against the bites of venomous beasts”… the list of the virtues is, indeed, a long one. Little surprise perhaps, that the juice of the “berries,” even when distilled, should be so well regarded as a natural remedy for many disorders.
Frederick, who explored the lands south from the Ganges delta, which are now the heartland of Bangladesh, writes of the merchandise to be found thereabouts. “The greatest there is … nypa, which is an excellent wine, which is found in the flowers of a tree called Nyper.
“Whose liquor they distil, and so make an excellent drink, clear as crystal, good for the mouth, and better for the stomach, and it has an excellent gentle virtue, which if one were rotten with the French pox, (syphilis; believed to have originated in America, and brought to Europe by the crew of Columbus’ ships. It spread rapidly, especially amongst soldiers and sailors and their contacts) drinking a good store of this, he shall be whole again, and I have seen it proved, because when I was in Cochin, there was a friend of mine, his nose began to drop away with that disease, and was counselled of the doctors of physic that he should go to Tenassary … and that he should drink of the Nyper wines, night and day. I have seen him after with good colour and completely cured.”
He goes on to mention that “in Pegu ordinarily it is very cheap, because it is nearer to the place where they make it.”
Juniper, in fact, can be found across the world, but perhaps its original use as a medication in South Asia may be no coincidence.
The understanding that the drink now so widely consumed around the world probably originated in South Asia inevitably begins to raise questions about other “medications” originating in those parts, of which, for over 2,000 years, the lands of Bangladesh, around the delta of the Ganges, were a significant focus.
There is, of course, even in the cargoes available in the Ganges delta mentioned in the mid-first century CE/AD “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea,” extensive mention of herbs for medication. It seems, therefore, reasonable to wonder about the origins of such knowledge, which clearly predates, even, the burgeoning of medical expertise, especially in the great, early, Islamic empires of the Middle East.
The understanding that the drink now so widely consumed around the world probably originated in South Asia inevitably begins to raise questions about other ‘medications’ originating in those parts
The attribution of the origin of gin to 17th century Netherlands may well be seen as an excellent example of the arrogance of Western-centric history.
Clearly, since the properties of the Juniper “berries” were already well-established in the region of the Bay of Bengal by the time of the arrival of Europeans in that region right at the end of the 15th century, it may well be necessary to consider a re-examination of the history of many more such medications.
The apparent belief, with “evidence” cited, of the efficacy of the “juniper juice,” in effecting a cure for the potentially lethal sexually transmitted disease known as French pox, recorded by Frederick, certainly invites further consideration of the origins of such medical expertise. Could it, for example, have predated, even, Islam?
It may, perhaps, be wise to reconsider the role of Buddhists, or even, earlier, animists, and even Hindus, for the appreciation of the effects of natural medicines, including the mineral foundations of Islamic medications.
What is certain is that, since, for example, the Juniper berry was found, extensively in the region of the Himalayas — it is still found, extensively, in Nepal — that we might consider the role of trade through the Himalayan region as the origin of such appreciation.
Ayurveda, the use of natural resources for medication, is usually attributed to Hindu and Buddhist origins, but it seems reasonable to wonder whether earlier, animist groups in belief and practice, might not, in fact, have been the originators, both of such natural remedies as the product of the juice of the berry of the prolific Juniper, but even to trace the development of such treatments, through the global trade that evolved in the corner of the northeast Indian sub-continent millennia ago.
Was Caesar Frederick’s 16th century documentation merely a more recent echo of, such as “Malabathrum” and “Gangetic Spikeyard,” recorded in the first century AD/CE Periplus of the Erythraean Sea?
Malabathrum, we know to be a cinnamon-like herb, from which was prepared a fragrant oil, “with many medicinal properties.”
Similarly, Spikeyard (Spikenard) of the Valerian family, with several bio-active ingredients, was used for such important medical purposes that it acquired even religious significance.
Indeed, it is included in the coat of arms of the present pope, Francis, so rich its tradition in Roman Catholic practice with biblical origins.
As animist origins of belief and practice, for which there remains plenty of evidence in South Asia, even today, morphed into “priestly” traditions, eventuating, especially, in Hindu traditions, followed by those of Jain, Buddhist, Islamic, and Sikh, it seems that medicine proved to be one of the greatest justifications for religious practice and evangelism. And at the root, lay herbal remedies.
Great credit for medical advances has been given to Arab, Islamic civilisations that lay at the centre of early mediaeval globalisation of trade and cultural evolution, but it seems reasonable to wonder, with such elementary clues as that of the origins of the alcoholic drink that, in British society, used to be referred to as “mother’s ruin,” with roots in early south and southeast Asian civilisations, the very hub of earliest globalisation, whether the foundations for such development of medicines actually lay in these more eastern parts.
We have never really doubted the inheritance of Buddhist experimentation, which probably even includes gunpowder as a result. Nor that of the great, early, Islamic societies of the Middle East, but it seems possible that local recognition of the therapeutic properties of natural elements, especially vegetation, reaches far back in the history of civilisation.
In much the same way, perhaps, that today, the properties of the herb, hemp, seem once again to being rediscovered.
It may well be that our lack of appreciation of true origins may lie, somewhat, in the better documentation of Buddhist and Islamic history, of which the Chinese were, unquestionably the earliest … hence attribution to them of some origins.
However, circumstantial and empirical evidence also has its place in the study of history, and can serve as a very proper foundation to further consideration and investigation of history, heritage, and the cultural evolution that developed from them.
On such foundations can a better appreciation of how we reached where we are in our human civilisation, and offer, perhaps, a surer indication of how progress, rather than repetition, can be made.
Tim Steel is a communications, marketing, and tourism consultant.