Indulge me for a little while as I lay out for you a few threads of history. They will seem to have nothing to do with one another – for how can it be possible that little-known Istria, and the glamorous and lovely Venice, and ruthlessly cold-blooded Dalmatian pirates, and just-as-equally ruthless and cold-blooded merchants, and pepper, cloves, ginger and cinnamon, and South India, be connected in any way? Restrain your impatience, hold your sharp comments, and allow me to assure you that they are, as I pick up the threads and weave my story. I have to confess that since my own knowledge of the facts is a bit shaky I will avoid too many details which might maroon me in treacherous waters, and merely skim the surface to present to you – tada!! – the Istria-South India connection, as a preamble to my account of my time in Istria - Groznjan in particular - which will follow.
The Most Serene Republic of Venice
The city of Venice has many sobriquets – Queen of the Adriatic, City of Bridges, City of Light, City of Water, are but a few. But one in particular made me laugh aloud – La Serenissima, the Most Serene – which makes one imagine a peace-loving city, existing harmoniously and lovingly with its neighbors, unruffled by the winds of history, a stately ship sailing tranquilly through placid waters. The reality is much more interesting, and makes a mockery of this particular appellation.
Situated on over a hundred little islands in a marshy saltwater lagoon off the Adriatic Sea, Venice came into being sometime in the 7th century AD, as its earliest inhabitants fled the savage Huns and Lombards and sought refuge in the isolated islands. The early Venetians made their living from fishing and from making salt from the sea. Very quickly they turned to trading as their main source of livelihood, and over the centuries, made eminent use of their position at the head of the Adriatic Sea to become the most important trading middleman between the eastern and western worlds, the vital link between the Islamic kingdoms to the east, and the Christian ones to the west. Venice was one of the first cities in Western Europe to live almost exclusively by trade.
By the 9th century AD, Venice was recognized as being part of Byzantine territory, and had managed to secure for itself exclusive trading rights with the Byzantine rulers, in return for helping them fight rival invaders. With this started Venice’s rapid rise as a commercial center and trading powerhouse. The first three Crusades of the 10th century only consolidated Venice’s position, as with clever maneuvering and scheming, it obtained trading rights in a number of ports in the Levant.
Istria and the Dalmatian Pirates
In the early years of the 11th century,Venice embarked upon an aggressive expansion campaign in the Adriatic. Istria was one of the first territories annexed by Venice – in return, the beleaguered Istrians were promised protection from the Dalmatian pirates who plied the Adriatic waters, plundering and looting in the manner of all self-respecting pirates. The Dalmatian coast, with its narrow inlets and wild, mountainous terrain, was a perfect haven from where these pirates preyed on the Venetian trading galleys and terrorized the Istrians. Eventually, the Dalmatian region was captured as well, and the pirates were told to behave themselves in return for a handsome sum of money, regularly paid, and the Doge (ruler, or Duke) of Venice now boasted the additional titles of Doge of Istria and Doge of Dalmatia.
Now, Venetian galleys, loaded with riches from Constantinople, could navigate the Adriatic waters without fear of the Dalmatian pirates. They sailed past the Istrian coast carrying their precious cargo, and when needed, stopped at Istrian seaside ports which they developed as important stations for repair and maintenance of their ships.
The Republic of Venice, circa 1000 AD. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Republic of Venice was very clear about one thing: its primary business was trade – doing it, safeguarding it, extending it. It did not care whom it traded with – Muslim or Christian, heathen or believer, pagan or infidel or heretic or atheist, it made no difference to the merchants of Venice, as long as their commercial obligations were met. Their cold-blooded demands and counter-demands during the Fourth Crusade, the shameless double-dealings and shifting of sides, showed that principles and moral scruples simply did not figure in their outlook. All that mattered was how they could make more money.
These were times of high religious sentiments, hot on the heels of the Crusades, and the Christian nations of Western Europe did not care to trade with the enemies of their faith.Venice had no such scruples. And so, it developed powerful economic and diplomatic ties with the Islamic rulers of the Eastern Mediterranean – the Fatimids, the Ayyubids, the Mamluks (of Egypt and Syria) and later, the Ottomans – and became their principle European trading partner.
The India Connection
These Arab merchants had traded with India for several centuries, and luxurious items like silks, pepper and cinnamon had made their way from the Malabar Coast to the markets of Western Europe. From the early years of the second millennium,Venice stepped in as a middleman, and profited enormously in the bargain.
Trade between India and the western world of the early 1000s and the next several hundred years took place by sea from Calicut to Aden. Here Egyptian merchants bought the priceless load, which was shipped up the Red Sea and onto Cairo. Waiting eagerly here were Venetian merchants, who loaded up their ships and sailed home to Venice. From here, the goods were transshipped to galleys which distributed them – at staggeringly profitable prices – in Crimea, Armenia, Cyprus, Barbary, Spain, Portugal, France, England, and Flanders. By land, some of the haul made its way across the Alps to Germany and Romania.
The Merchants and their Ways
Venice controlled this spice trade with an iron hand. In turn, the Arab merchants kept their sources – the bazaars of Calicut and other places further east – a mysterious secret. As early as in the 5th century BC, Herodotus wrote of the dangers and difficulties of harvesting cinnamon (which he believed came from Arabia, a fiction no doubt encouraged by the Arab merchants of the time):
Still more wonderful is the mode in which they collect the cinnamon. Where the wood grows, and what country produces it, they cannot tell, only some, following probability, relate that it comes from the country in which Bacchus was brought up. Great birds, they say, bring the sticks which we Greeks, taking the word from the Phoenicians, call cinnamon, and carry them up into the air to make their nests. These are fastened with a sort of mud to a sheer face of rock, where no foot of man is able to climb. So the Arabians, to get the cinnamon, use the following artifice. They cut all the oxen and asses and beasts of burden that die in their land into large pieces, which they carry with them into those regions, and place near the nests: then they withdraw to a distance, and the old birds, swooping down, seize the pieces of meat and fly with them up to their nests; which not being able to support the weight, break off and fall to the ground. Whereupon the Arabians return and collect the cinnamon which is afterwards carried from Arabia into other countries.
(Source: Herodotus: The History)
Human nature has not changed, and never will! Today, of course, it is difficult to pull off such a tale, but if we could, we would!
So here you have it: the tapestry of history that weaves together Istria, Venice, the Dalmatian pirates, and South India.
Venice remained at its height as a trading power until the early 1400s. In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, and while Venice still retained trading privileges, things were never quite the same. Around the same time, the nations of Spain and Portugal, followed by Britain, the Netherlands and other countries hungry for the riches of the spice trade, started looking for sea routes to the spice bazaars of the East, so that they could lay their hands directly upon the enormous wealth and riches of those lands of milk and honey, rather than pay extortionist rates to the merchants of Venice.
Venice began a slow decline, and has never regained the heady heights it enjoyed in its heyday.
Istria, in the meanwhile, was buffeted like a straw puppet in a storm, and switched hands between Venice and Hungary and Austria and the Slavs and the Italians and the Yugoslavians, before finally becoming a part of the newly formed nations of Slovenia and Croatia. Today, there is so much there that bears witness to its days under Venetian rule, and it is a land of breathtaking beauty. In the days to come, I will share with you some of my experiences there.