Spice Trade


Spices and Western Civilisation

The Spice Trade was the prototype for modern western capitalism. (11) Spices and herbs played a dramatic role in its development. (1) Today spices cost so little that (2) they are plentiful and are used mostly as flavourings. (1) We can all enjoy a little nip of black pepper, or the delicious aroma of cinnamon, ginger or cloves (2) It seems unbelievable that these fragrant bits of bark, leaves and seeds were once so costly, so hard to track down and transport, that men were willing to risk their lives going to the antipodes, if need be, for a few quintals of nutmegs or piculs of cassia. (2)

The term ‘spice’

Our word, ‘aroma’ was the ancient Greek word for ‘spice’. (2) Though the word ‘spice’ didn’t appear until the end of the 12th Century (a derivative of the Latin word ‘species,’ which denoted a wide variety of products), the use of herbs dates back to early humans. (6)

Where did spices come from?

The Moluccas, also known as the Spice Islands or ‘Maluku’ , were the main source of cloves, nutmeg, mace, (8) other common spices were cinnamon, pepper and ginger (11) and cassia. (2) The Moluccas are a chain of islands which are little more than submerged mountains poking out of the sea at the far end of Indonesia. (9) The Moluccans have from the beginning of recorded history welcomed junks and boats from China and Southeast Asia ready to collect their spices and to pay for them with all the other refinements of society that the islanders were unable to produce for themselves. (9) Nutmeg came from the Banda Islands. (7) Cloves came from only two islands: Ternate and Tidore in the Moluccas (south of Indonesia) – sometimes known as the Spice Islands. (7) Pepper was grown exclusively in India, although there were inferior substitutes to be found in other places. (7)

Spices in the Ancient World

Archaeologists estimate that by 50,000 B.C. (2) primitive man had discovered that parts of certain aromatic plants help make food taste better. (2) They wrapped meat in the leaves of bushes, accidentally discovering that this enhanced the taste of the meat, as did certain nuts, seeds, berries–and even bark. (6) We can imagine that a man was about to cook a piece of meat in an ember lined pit. (2) He saw some leaves and it occurred to him that if he wrapped the meat he could keep it free of grit and ashes. (2) He covered the meat with the leaves and left it buried in the hot pit. (2) Later, to his surprise and delight, he found that the leaves had given a new flavour to his meal. (2) At that moment mankind discovered the art of seasoning. (2) Spices soon became rare and precious products, used for medicine, perfume, incense, and flavouring. (1) They were used for magical rites and spells, purification ceremonies, embalming (by the Egyptians, for example (8)), cosmetics and even poison as well. (7) Fragrant, exclusive, fiery and with perhaps monstrous sexual benefits, spices were the preserve of the rich, sophisticated and complex or the vulgar rich, in any case. (9) Cinnamon came from China and Burma (it was used not only for flavour but also for cosmetics, drugs, balms, oils, and perfume). (7) The Egyptians used spices for body ointment and to fumigate their homes. (8) If we can believe a favourite myth of the Assyrians, whose chiselled stone tablets represent the earliest written records yet discovered, at least one spice was known before our world was created! These early peoples, who lived thousands of years before Christ, claimed that their gods were drinking sesame seed wine at a gathering held just before they made the Earth. (2) From the hieroglyphics on the walls of the pyramids, to the scriptures of the Bible, we find constant mention of the important part spices played in the lives of the ancients. (2) Some of the spices, herbs and seeds we know today, were cultivated by the early peoples of the western world. (2) So costly that only the wealthy could afford them, spices nevertheless were used in every conceivable way. (2) The Roman Empire, whose boundaries progressively extended from one side of the Mediterranean to the other, couldn’t ignore these bewitching spices. (6) Pliny, the Roman author, described cloves not long after 200 B.C. (7) Many and varied were the aromatics, which seasoned the delicacies served at Roman banquets. (2) The pepper trade reached its first peak under the Roman Empire. (7) Cleopatra herself used a ‘stimulating’ food to seduce Caesar. (6) Huge quantities of saffron were strewn on the streets of Rome to celebrate Nero’s entrance into the city. (6) The reputed excesses of ancient Roman food consumption were apparent in the wide variety of seasonings used in the meals of the rich. (6) Pepper, the Roman spice of choice, was as omnipresent as garum (a fish-based sauce) on the Roman tables. (6) Without a doubt, spices had become status symbols. (6) In the last remaining cookbook from Latin antiquity, the De re coquinaria of Apicius, pepper appears in 349 of the 468 recipes, including dormice stuffed with pepper and nuts. (7) Medicines required great quantities of spices and herbs, as witness the writings of Hippocrates, Theophrastus, Dioscorides and Pliny. (2) Bay leaves (or laurel) were woven into crowns for Olympic heroes; spice-scented balms were used after baths; spice-flavoured wines were popular; incense made of spice was burned in temples and even along the roads. (2) The demand for spices spread like a wave over Europe – even beyond the fringes of civilization. (2) As ransom, when he lay siege to Rome, Alaric the Visigoth demanded 3,000 pounds of pepper and later, an additional tribute of 300 pounds annually. (2) The barbarians from the north were quick to learn that spices kept their meat fresher and thus lessened the supply problem during their constant forays. (2)

The Spice Trade in Ancient Times by land

The traffic in spices started before recorded history. (2) The first spice expeditions were organized in ancient times to ensure that these coveted commodities would always be in supply. (6) Legend has it that around 1000 B. C. the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon in Jerusalem to offer him ‘120 measures of gold, many spices, and precious stones’. (6) The caravan trail (8) to China, the silk road (7) or route (8), had been explored since 3000 B.C. (1) OR ‘in the 900s B.C.’ (7) OR according to Egyptian records, since 2600 B.C. (11) Caravans (1) with as many as 4,000 camels (2) risked dangers in carrying spices (1) and the rich merchandise of the East, plodding along from Goa, Calicut and the Orient to spice markets in Nineveh and Babylon; Carthage, Alexandria and Rome. (2) Joseph, of the coat of many colours, was sold to spice traders by his envious older brothers: ‘And behold, a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt.’ (2) The route from Gilead to Egypt was part of the ‘golden road to Samarkand’ travelled for hundreds, almost thousands of years, bringing pepper and cloves from India, cinnamon and nutmeg from the Spice Islands (or Moluccas), ginger from China. (2) By 2600 B.C. tropical Asian spices had already reached the north of Africa – labourers building the great pyramid of Cheops were fed spices to enhance their production capability. (11) Mainly Chinese travellers reaching as far west as Persia. (7) OR Generally at the centre of the trade (11) from before 200 B.C. (1) OR, since 950 B.C. (or earlier) (2), were Arab merchants, who exercised powerful control over supply. (11) For centuries they were the masters of this dangerous but lucrative trade. (2) At the crossroads of land trade from India and sea trade from the Mediterranean, spices played a huge role in Phoenician trade. (6) The Phoenicians were expert merchants and smooth navigators; so much so that at the end of the 14thCentury B.C., spices were called ‘Phoenician merchandise’. (6) These slick middlemen knew how to offer their services to kings as well as pharaohs in order to extend their supply sites and possibly pave the way to India. (6) In the Old Testament of the Bible, Ezekiel 27-22, it is recorded: ‘The traders of Sheba and Raamah traded with you; they exchanged for your wares the best of all kinds of spices, and all precious stones and gold’. (2) In the biblical poem Song of Solomon, the male speaker compares his beloved to many forms of spices. (7) In the biblical story of the Magi, three kings from the exotic reaches of the Orient give gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn Jesus Christ. (6) Frankincense and myrrh were rare, expensive spices of the time. (6)

The Spice Trade in the Ancient World by Sea

Another route was by sea (2) For hundreds of years frail ships clawed their way along the Indian coast, past the pirate-infested Persian Gulf, along the coast of South Arabia and through the Red Sea to Egypt. (2) As early as the days of Tiberius Caesar they discovered that ships scudding before the blast of the monsoon – the seasonal wind from the Indian Ocean, blowing east in summer, west in winter – could bring their spice cargoes to market in record time. (2) Shipwrecks and storms brought large losses and there were constant robberies, but the risks were outweighed by the eventual profits for, as might be expected during the highly developed Greek and Roman eras, spices were in great demand. (2) As with all trade in ancient and medieval times, the spice trade strongly influenced patterns of settlement along its routes. (7) Whether by land routes or coastal sea routes, travel occurred one day at a time, with a stop for the night, resulting in a chain of settled way stations, many of which became towns or cities. (7) Realizing that they controlled a commodity in great demand, the traders kept their sources of supply secret and made up fantastic tales of the dangers involved in obtaining spices. (6) They kept Europe completely in the dark as to the source of many of the Oriental spices. (2) Actually, they bought their spices from the Indians and from Chinese and Javanese merchants who put into Indian ports. (2) But when questioned by would-be rivals from Europe, they would tell frightening tales of the dangers they faced in gathering the spices in mysterious far-off lands. (2) In the 4thCentury B. C., the great conqueror Alexander the Great lifted a part of the veil of this mysterious, magical India where, as Herodotus wrote, ‘cinnamon grows in deep lakes, near the homes of flying animals’. (6)

The Spice Trade in the Dark Ages

The spice trade survived the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and, when it was revived, carried associations of ancient luxury and civility. (7) In the Middle Ages (roughly 700-1000 AD), the spice trade was largely controlled by Muslim or Gujarati merchants, according to Abu’l Qasim Ubaid’Allah ibn Khordadbeh, with European merchants confined to trading mostly within Europe. (7) Islam gave great impetus to the Arabs’ activities in the spice trade. (2) Mohammed, born about 570 A.D., married a wealthy spice-trading widow. (8) Mohammed was from the merchant tribe of the Quoraïchites, and he took advantage of the spice trade to spread his messages. (6) People were more inclined to listen to what he had to say, given that he was selling irresistible spices. (6) As his Islamic missionaries made their way throughout Asia they spread their faith at the same time that they gathered up spices. (2) But between 700 and 1100 few spices reached Europe. (8) There was little direct trade between Muslim Arabs and Christian Europe. (8) Jewish merchants known as the Radhanites are reported to have enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the trade in Western Europe during the late Merovingian and early Carolingian periods. (7) OR From 200 B.C. to 1200 the Romans controlled the trade. (1) Constantinople, once the eastern capital of the Roman Empire, was the centre for spice trading between East and West. (8) OR Whether spices came by sea or by land, they had to come by way of Cairo, Egypt. (2)

The Crusades re-open the Spice Trade

After 1100 trade with the East was reopened by the Crusaders. (8) Seasonings made an obvious comeback to the tables of the great and powerful European courts. (6) Arab traders managed to maintain a near-monopoly over the sale of spices to Europe, predominantly through their Venetian agents. (11) From Cairo the spices were shipped to Alexandria and there they were bought and shipped by the Venetians, and the Genoese, who rode the crest of swelling demand for spices to fabulous wealth. (2) ‘Whoever is lord of Cairo,’said the merchant pilot, ‘may call himself lord and master of (Christendom and of all the islands and places where the spices grow), since of necessity all merchandise of spicery from whatever direction can come and be sold only in the land of the Sultan.’ (2) Venice and Genoa became principal suppliers to the Crusaders. (8) OR Venice came to monopolize the spice trade in Europe between 1200 and 1500, through its dominance over Mediterranean seaways to ports such as Alexandria, after traditional land connections were disrupted by Mongols and Turks. (7) After 1422 the trade through Alexandria was damaged by events in Egypt. (25) In that year a Mameluke named Barsbay gained power. (25) He ruled 1422-1437, and tried to restore order after a period of conflict (25) He gained wealth by monopolizing sugar and by taxing the spice trade from India passing through Alexandria. (25) He banned the use of European gold coins in his realm. (25) Karimi and European merchants protested and explored other routes, and this would be one of the factors influencing the policy of Portugal. (25) Egypt’s navy fought corsairs in the Mediterranean, and in 1425 they captured Cyprus, then ruled by king James of Lusignan, who became a vassal and promised tribute; but later attempts to conquer Rhodes failed. (25) Mamluk sultans Jaqmaq (r. 1438-1453) and Inal (r. 1453-1461) used diplomacy to fend off an invasion from the Ottoman Turks. (25) For a time Mamelukes and Ottomans united in face of the Europeans, intensifying the pressure on the spice trade, but in 1481 Sultan Qait Bay (r. 1467-1496) made the mistake of giving refuge to the Ottoman prince Jem, who was challenging his brother, Sultan Bayezid II. (25) In 1485 the Ottomans invaded Cilicia, but the Mamluks fought them off for five years. (25)

Uses for Spices in the medieval world

Spices were regarded as almost magical particles from unbelievably remote locations. (9) The spices that were most popular with Europeans at this time included cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper. (7) Pepper was used extensively in cooking but was also used as a tonic, a stimulant, even as insect repellent and an aphrodisiac. (7) At this time, spiced wines from Italy and Spain were popular. (6) A prototype of sugared almonds, some spices were covered in honey in order to disguise them as candy. (6) Their culinary and medicinal uses overlapped, and grocers and apothecaries often worked in the same companies. (6) Besides traditional black pepper, some of the other prized spices of the era were long pepper from Sumatra, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and galanga (a ginger-like spice from Southeast Asia). (6)

Spices and ‘rotten food’?

It has been claimed that (e.g. by 2 and 6) that ‘food was neither good nor palatable’ ; ‘a lack of refrigeration and poor standard of hygiene might mean that food often spoiled quickly ’ (7) ‘Salting was the way to keep food over the winter’ (9) ‘There was no cattle fodder that could be stored, so beef was killed in the autumn and salted, and a dash of pepper, a little cinnamon or ginger, mixed with even the coarsest dishes, could make them palatable.’ (2) But there is no evidence to support this claim, and historians view it as highly unlikely: in the Middle Ages, spices from the East were a luxury item, affordable only to the wealthy, who certainly had unspoiled meat available as well. (7) The actual reason for the huge demand for spices in Europe during the High Middle Ages remains a point of debate. (7) 9 agrees: ‘Although the idea that people needed spices to hide the rotten taste of food they had to eat is rather overstated, it is true that pepper helped to disguise the taste of salt.’ (9) Later spices were used to keep food fresh. (6)

The distribution network at the western end of the trade

Brought to the Mediterranean basin by Italian ships, the ‘wealth of the Orient’ was subsequently sold at market fairs to supply the Northern European countries. (6) Venice was a prime example, and from Venice spices were shipped by land over the Alps and via the Straits of Gibraltar to northern Europe. (HN)

Value of the Medieval Spice Trade

Looking at the elaborately ornate, orientally-influenced marble palaces that still characterise Venice today, we get some sense of the value of the wealth that the spice trade was able to generate. (11) They were for a time the most valuable commodities in the world. (11) The trade to supply the demands of medieval trans-Alpine cookery was great not only in volume but in value; it has been assessed as worth at least a million ducats a year. (2) A single big Venetian galleass returning from Alexandria with her holds full of spice-sacks would carry cargo to the value of 200,000 ducats. (2) A pound of ginger was worth the price of a sheep; a pound of mace would buy three sheep or half cow; cloves cost the equivalent of about ‚¬20 a pound. (2) In the 14th Century one pound of nutmeg had the value of seven fattened oxen. (11) A handful of cardamom was worth as much as a poor man’s yearly wages, and many slaves were bought and sold for a few cups of peppercorns. (6) Although the most fabulous profits were available through exotic products such as nutmeg, mace and cloves, the less expensive pepper was perhaps the most significant export of all. (9) This is because of the sheer scale of the trade. (9) Huge areas of land were taken under cultivation to meet the voracious and profitable demand for pepper, which swiftly became a staple of the aristocratic kitchen. (9) Black pepper was a more reliable currency standard than gold. (11) It was counted out peppercorn by peppercorn. (2) In court, litigants bribed judges with spices. (6) The guards on London docks, even down to Elizabethan times, had to have their pockets sewn up to make sure they didn’t steal any spices. (2) In the 11th Century, many towns kept their accounts in pepper; taxes and rents were assessed and paid in this spice and a sack of pepper was worth a man’s life. (2)

First steps in breaking the Arab monopoly, c1200-1490

That the trade was dominated in part by Muslim people became a source of constant frustration to the Christians. (9) The financial incentive to discover an alternative to Venice’s monopoly control of this lucrative business was perhaps the single most important factor precipitating Europe’s Age of Exploration. (7) Between 1200 and 1500 Europeans explored passages to the East Indies. (1) Pope Innocent IV in the 1240s sent two Franciscans to meet the Mongol Khan. (7) One of them, Friar John of Plano wrote the History of the Mongols from which later explorers took directions. (7) In the 1250s William of Rubruck set down an account of his travels as far as the Christian community of Karakorum. (7) In the year 1271, Marco Polo (2) who was obviously aware of the importance of the spice trade (7) set out with his father and uncle on a 24-year journey which was to take them all over Asia, as far as fabled Cathay, or China. (2) This was an attempt to open up a ‘spice route’ with the East. (7) The Polos became the most celebrated of the 13th Century travellers to India and Cathay. (7) Marco’s book of traveller’s tales was to lead to the downfall of Venice, the destruction of the Arabian Empire, the discovery of the New World and the opening of trade with the Orient. (2) Not only had the Polos’ wanderings taken them to the rich court of Kublai Khan, ‘Zipangu’ and the land of the Tartars, but Marco Polo was able to tell of the hot countries where he’d seen spices grown. (2) He wrote of Java, ‘from thence also is obtained the greatest part of the spices that are distributed throughout the world.’ He told of the door to India, Ormus, ‘Whose port is frequented by traders from all parts of India, who bring spices and drugs. These they dispose to a different set of traders, by whom they are dispersed throughout the world.’ (2) He described the kingdom of Dely as a place that ‘produced large quantities of pepper and ginger, with many other articles of spicery.’ (2) The insights provided by the accounts of Polo and others were among several powerful forces which, during the 15th Century, began working together to disrupt the traditional spice trading system. (11) The Arabian monopoly was tightening, and prices were starting to skyrocket. (11) At the same time European military and naval technologies were beginning to overtake those of the world’s other seafaring nations, while maritime developments were also making long-distance sea voyages a much less risky undertaking. (11) By the 1490s, all the conditions were in place for a dramatic change in the power balance of world trade. (11)

Breaking the Arab monopoly (ii) Portugal, 1511-1641

As with any great discovery, the opening of the Southern seaboard spice route was no accident. (6) Portuguese navigators and geographers had been working at it for over a half-century. (6) Controlling and supplying the spice market were key objectives for the Portuguese and Spanish powers at the time in their goal to overturn the Arab and Venetian monopoly in the Mediterranean. (6) The first steps towards the discovery of sea routes to the East were taken in 1418 when the most famous of them, (6) Prince Henry of Portugal set up a navigational school at Sagres in southwest Portugal. (8) In 1498 (8) OR 1497 (6) Vasco da Gama’s fleet (11) successfully rounded the Cape of Good Hope and reached the Indian port of (11) Calicut on the west coast of India. (8) It was then, as it is now, the most important port in the pepper trade. (11) The Arab merchants were shocked to see a Portuguese man on Indian shores. (6) ‘We are looking for Christians and spices,’stated the Portuguese navigator, and with that, the Arabs saw their monopoly crumble, (6) for spices were the primary reason for da Gama’s voyage. (8) The Portuguese began to try to establish trade with the local people but were disappointed to find not the simple natives they were accustomed to duping in Africa and the Americas but sophisticated Arab and Indian merchants demanding gold and silver and looking down their noses at the newcomers. (9) In retrospect, it seems inevitable that this would lead to the violence that did then flare. (9)

In 1501 the Mamluks elected Qansawh al-Ghawri, and he complained to the Pope about the Portuguese navy that had rounded Africa and entered the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. (25) But by this time the damage had been done. (25) Bringing home from this first voyage a modest shipment of spices, da Gama returned to Calicut in 1502 with an armada of twenty warships, destroyed the local fleet, and created a Portuguese monopoly of pepper. (11) Qansawh al-Ghawri had a fleet built that defeated a Portuguese squadron off the coast of Malabar in 1508; but the following year the Egyptian fleet was destroyed by the Portuguese navy at Diu. (25) The Mamluks built another navy and got help from the Ottomans and were able to defend Aden from a Portuguese attack in 1513. (25) Cooperation between Mamluks and Ottomans ended when Selim I became Ottoman sultan in 1512 and attacked the Mamluks in Asia Minor four years later before invading Syria. (25) The Mamluk cavalry was no match for the Turks’ use of firearms. (25) The Mamluks elected Tuman-bay sultan in 1516 at Cairo, but the governors would not let him be viceroy under the Ottoman rule. (25) In January 1517 the Ottoman army defeated the Mamluks near Cairo; Tuman-bay fled but was captured and hanged. (25) Egypt became a part of the Ottoman empire with Khayr Bey as governor. (25) The Ottomans concentrated on destroying the Europeans in their lair, and by the time they were repulsed from Vienna in 1689 the European sea borne empires were beyond their power to curb. (1)

After Diu Portuguese expanded their monopoly among the South-East Asian countries of the Malay Archipelago (now Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia). (7) Ports such as Malacca and Singapore had bloomed out of the Portuguese effort to export spice. (7) Conflicts arose between the people in the Sultanate of Malacca and the Portuguese traders. (7) The Portuguese Viceroy Alfonso d’Albuquerque ordered an invasion of Malacca in 1511; this strengthened the grip of the Portuguese by monopolizing spice trade in the Malay Archipelago. (7) The Portuguese took Sri Lanka (Ceylon), in 1536. (11) Then they took the East Indies and finally the Spice Islands themselves. (2) Nevertheless, Spain continued the spice quest only briefly, King Charles of Spain selling his rights to the Spice Islands to his brother-in-law, John III of Portugal, in 1529. (2) Such powerful control generated huge wealth for Portugal and the European powers which followed her. (11) This fuelled the cataclysmic development that would follow – the wholesale takeover of any country deemed ideal for planting other lucrative crops such as sugar, coffee, tea and tobacco. (11) Throughout history, the country that has controlled the spice trade has been the richest and most powerful in the world, and although fortunately these aromatic plants are not so costly today as they once were the traditional rule follows. (2) Massive numbers of slaves were transplanted to grow the new crops, and help to maximise the returns to Europe on their colonial investments. (11) The foundations of today’s world trading structures – wherein the Western powers still make the vast majority of profit from the commodities trade – were laid as the smoke cleared off the coast of Calicut in 1502. (11) Portugal became for a time one of the richest nations of Europe. (2) Portugal remained dominant in the Far Eastern spice lands until the end of the 16th Century. (2)

Competition among Europeans for control of the Spice Trade

As Fernand Braudel points out, the Indian Ocean basin between c.500 and 1500 was highly self-sufficient: ‘The Indian Ocean sought only luxuries from outside.. The Mediterranean region’s desire for pepper, spices, and silk, was balanced by India and China’s desire for silver’. (7) The increasing import of silver and gold from the Americas gave Europe (first the Mediterranean, later Northern Europe) increased wealth with which to buy luxuries from the East; the sea route pioneered by da Gama was tremendously more efficient than the older land route. (7) Between those two factors, the trade soon reached a level greatly exceeding even that of Roman times. (7) Thus between the 15th (1) or 16th (8) and 17th Centuries wars for control of the spice trade broke out (1) between the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English (8) the Spanish and the French. (11) The race for control of spices was well and truly on. (11) Often the country with the strongest navy was able to gain dominion over the areas where spices originated. (6) They set up factories, forts and eventually colonies all across the Indian Ocean in order to protect their control over the production of various spices. (11)


The Dutch and the Spice Trade 1641-1770

Control of the nutmeg and mace trade passed from the Portuguese to the Dutch. (8). Van Houtman and Van Neck, each in command of expeditions to the Indies, made friends with native sultans, and organized trading posts which eventually gave their country a monopoly in the early 17th Century. (2) The Dutch VOC (East Indies Company) went about enthusiastically extracting resources from Southeast Asians through the use of force. (9) With the Dutch conquest of Malacca in 1641 the Malay Peninsula and northern Sumatra came under their control. (2) In 1650 (2) OR 1658 (11) they took over the cinnamon trade in Ceylon; in 1663 the best pepper ports of the Malabar Coast were theirs. (2) Before the end of the 17th Century Macassar on the island of Celebes and Bantam (2) OR Batavia (9) in Java OR Java (which they knew as Batavia) (9) were added to make the Dutch complete masters of the immensely profitable spice trade. (2) The Dutch ruled the market with a rod of iron. (2) OR There are many reports of Dutch outposts in Java full of nervous soldiers afraid to venture out for fear of their lives. (9) If the price of cinnamon fell too low in Amsterdam, they burned the spice. (2) But the economic value of these products declined as farming sites increased, (6) so they soaked their nutmegs in milk of lime, a process which did not affect flavour, but supposedly killed the germ of the nut. (2) This was to prevent nutmegs from being planted elsewhere. (2) The Dutch jealously protected access to the Moluccas for fear of seeing their clove and nutmeg trees exported to other regions, which would have ruined their monopoly. (6) Thievery of this sort was punishable by death. (6) France’s role in spice trading was generally a minor one, not backed by its government. (2) French sea captains out of Dieppe had quietly made their way down along the coast of Africa by 1365, some 50 years before the Portuguese got there. (2) They did not manage to create a monopoly as did the Arabs, Venetians, Genoese, Portuguese and later the Dutch. (2) They did however play an important part in helping to destroy the century-old Dutch spice monopoly when, in 1770, they contrived to ‘kidnap’ enough pepper (6) cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg plants from Dutch possessions to begin spice-growing in the French islands of Reunion, Mauritius and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean and in French Guiana on the north coast of South America. (2) This eventually led to a dispersion of plant production sites across Dutch, English, and French colonial empires, which involved spices in addition to coffee, cocoa, and many other plants. (6) The tight reins on the industry were loosening (6) as the tattered mystique of the Spice Islands finally died (7) After France and Britain successfully smuggled seeds and plants to their own dominions on Mauritius, Grenada and elsewhere, spices became a more commonplace and much less expensive commodity. (7)

The British and the Spice Trade 1788-1900

Towards the end of the 18th Century, control of the trade passed to the British. (8) English exploration had begun around 1500. (1) In 1527 British merchant Robert Thorne wrote to Henry VIII suggesting a search for the ‘Northwest passage’ to India and the Indies: ‘The Spaniards hold the westward route, by the Straits of Magellan; the Portuguese the eastward, by the Cape of Good Hope. The English have left to them but one way to discover- and that is by the North.’ (2) These attempts led them to important discoveries in North America, but not to the lands of spices. (2) Yet, navigators such as Lancaster, Cabot, Cavendish, Raleigh, Drake and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, made England a power at sea. (2) William of Rubruck’s manuscript was studied by late 16thCentury English explorers, among them John Newbery and Ralph Fitch. (7) In 1600 the British East India Company was chartered by Queen Elizabeth, with spice cargoes as its big objective. (2) Where the Dutch controlled the East Indies, the English were gaining supremacy on the mainland of India itself. (2) The English East India Company landed in England with its first cargoes in 1603. (7) Yet those cargoes came from the East Indies as the name suggests, not India. (7) Nor were the Company’s men the first English traders in the region. (7) So we should not have the impression that the late Elizabethans were breaking new ground when they headed east. (7) After all, Elizabeth did not write earnest letters of introduction to the Emperor of China for John Newbery in the 1580s without knowing about him and his powers. (7) Newbery made three voyages to the east (1579, 1580-1582, 1583-1584) but died on the way back. (7) His companion for some of the way, Ralph Fitch at first was no chronicler but did eventually write descriptions of the south-east Asia he saw in the late 16th Century. (7) By the time the English East India Company’s merchants and sailing masters left England, they knew far more about their destinations than sometimes is suggested. (7) Yet it remained for most English people and investors, the great unknown. (7) Truly to the English here was the mysterious east, yet it would become the most memorable part of the British Empire. (7) In 1780, the Dutch and the English fought a war, which was to be ruinously costly to the Dutch East India Company. (2) In 1788 Americans began to make direct contacts with producers in Sumatra, breaking the Dutch monopoly there (2) In 1795 the English took Malacca and a year later all Dutch property and trading centres except Java. (2) The Dutch East India Company had to be dissolved in 1799. (2) OR The last of these great spice monopolies, the Dutch, remained in existence until the outbreak of World War II. (6) OR In the 19th Century Great Britain’s maritime prowess gradually established her as the leader of the spice trade, and London’s Mincing Lane became the spice-trading center of the world. (2)

The USA and the Spice Trade

The United States entered the spice trade in the 17th Century1 (1) OR towards the end of the 18th Century. (8) On June 23rd, 1672, the first colonial American took an active part in spice-trading: Boston-born Elihu Yale – later to give his money and name to the great university – (2) grew up in England, where he worked as a clerk for the British East India Company, which held a monopoly on all trade with India. (6) He arrived in Madras, India, as a clerk of the East India Company. (2) There he established contacts on which he built a fortune in spices. (2) Yale eventually became governor of Madras, India, and his spice fortune helped endow Yale University. (6) It was not until a century later that America entered the spice trade in a big way. (2) Father of the American spice trade was a dashing Yankee sea captain named Jonathan Carnes. (2) Sailing on one of the early American trading voyages out of Salem in 1778, he discovered places in the Orient, principally in Sumatra, where he could deal directly with the natives, thus circumventing the Dutch monopoly. (2) He convinced the Peele family of Salem to back him and in 1795 made a voyage, which yielded 700% profit in spices. (2) This sent America into the spice competition so actively that between 1784 and 1873, about a thousand vessels made the 24,000 mile-long trip to Sumatra and back. (2) In 1818, when the pepper trade was brisk indeed, 35 vessels made the long and dangerous trip. (2) It isn’t at all surprising to learn that the pepper trade furnished a great part of the import duties collected in Salem (which at one point were enough to pay five per cent of expenses of the entire U.S. government). (2) The sleek clipper ships of New England began to dominate world trade. (6) So many pepper voyages were undertaken from New England to Sumatra that the price of pepper dropped to less than three cents a pound in 1843, a disastrous slump that affected many aspects of American business. (6) The idealistic young United States government decided it would be improper to back the spice trade with naval protection in foreign waters, (2) and pirates in the Java and China Seas (6) finally put America out of the oriental trade, as their merchant ships were raided and destroyed time and again. (2) Long voyages for pepper were too dangerous. (6) Meanwhile, the American spice business, like the rest of the country, was moving west. (6) In 1835, American settlers in Texas developed chili powder by combining various ground red peppers from Mexico, thus adding new dimensions to American taste. (6) Later, once the gold rush had subsided, herbs were grown commercially in California. (6) Mustard seed was grown in North Dakota, Montana, and Canada’s prairie provinces. (6)

The impact of the spice trade on the producers of spices

For the locals the presence of spices, like the presence of oil or other valuable natural resources, tended to be of ambivalent value. (9) While they were able to control the trade under equitable terms, the spices were important parts of the local economy. (9) However, when the spices encouraged invaders to come and colonise them, removing their freedom as well as their wealth, they were little more than a curse. (9) Two cases in point are Sri Lanka and Zanzibar. (HN)

Case 1: Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka was not spared in the rush for spices. (11) Famed as the traditional home of the world’s best cinnamon, Sri Lanka was occupied by Portugal by 1536. (11) The Portuguese, delighted to find on their arrival an abundance of cinnamon forest along the western coast of the island, established a fort and ordered the local king to pay a massive tribute – 110 tonnes annually – to the Portuguese crown. (11) As time went on Portugal’s demand for cinnamon tributes grew, and the cinnamon fleets that arrived in Sri Lanka’s ports on the trade winds from Goa each October were loaded with ever-growing quantities of spice for shipment to the markets of Lisbon. (11) In 1658, the Dutch wrested control of Sri Lanka’s cinnamon harvest from the Portuguese and made their own huge profits from its trade. (11) Already experienced traders, they established a more effective monopoly and developed a more efficient method of cultivation. (11) They also ordered the construction of an extensive system of canals for inland transport, and exercised harsh control over the workers on their plantations. (11) Burning stockpiles of cinnamon in Holland at times of excess supply also helped them to maintain high prices on the world market. (11) By 1796, the British in turn seized control of much of Sri Lanka. (11) Not such astute traders as the Dutch, they soon flooded the European market with cinnamon. (11) Eventually, under pressure to relax their monopoly and facing competition in Europe from cassia, Britain relented and allowed private traders to re-enter the market – but not without slapping a hefty export tax of up to 500% of the value of any cinnamon leaving the island. (11) Cinnamon sales continued to decline, and the British turned first to coffee, and later to tea, in search of better profit on their Sri Lankan investment. (11) This proved troublesome – finding the local population unwilling to work on land which had been taken from them, Tamils from southern India were eventually brought in to provide the cheap labour required on the extensive tea plantations. (11) Working in conditions tantamount to slavery, these pickers and their descendants still make up the backbone of the Sri Lankan tea workforce. (11) Perhaps the biggest losers of all from the arrival of Europeans in Sri Lanka were the salagama, the island’s traditional cinnamon peeling caste. (11) As cinnamon consumption grew, so too did the demands on the salagama, who were charged with providing for no return an annual tribute which grew sixfold during the period of Portuguese control alone. (11) Dutch demand for cinnamon was more intense than that of the Portuguese, and by the era of British control mortality rates among salagama had sharply increased. (11) It became common practice for cinnamon peelers’ children to be registered under the names of other castes in order to spare them a life of ever-growing misery. (11)

Case 2: Zanzibar

Cloves were introduced in Zanzibar in 1818, and flourished in the tropical climate and fertile soil of the western areas of both Zanzibar and Pemba. (10) By the middle of the century, the Zanzibar archipelago was the world’s largest producer of cloves, and the largest slave trading centre on the East African coast. (10) Slaves were used for the cultivation and harvesting of cloves, and the Sultan occupied so many plots that by his death in 1856, he had 45 plantations. (10) Plots were also acquired by his children, and many concubines and eunuchs from the royal harem. (10) Over time, several other spices such as cinnamon, cumin, ginger, pepper and cardamom were introduced. (10) Their rich fragrance became synonymous with Zanzibar, which became known as the ‘Spice Islands’. (10) Slaves, spices and ivory provided the basis of considerable prosperity, and Zanzibar became the most important entrepot in the Western Indian Ocean. (10) All other East African coastal centres were subject to it and almost all trade passed through it. (10)

The Modern Spice Trade:

Every year we buy more spices, so that spice consumption has risen 126 percent since 1961 when we imported 170,698,000 pounds. (2) The zooming spice use is due to several factors: high-income levels, increasing population, a growing demand for ‘convenience’ food items and changing consumer tastes. (2) Also, the rising consumption of dietary foods has added to the demand, for a pinch of one spice or another can make them more palatable for the consumer. (2) Food manufacturer and processors are learning to rely on distinctive spicing to make their products tastier than competitive brands. (2) Domestic spices include capsicum peppers, paprika; such herbs as basil, tarragon, mint, parsley, sage and marjoram and seeds such as mustard, dill, fennel and sesame. (2) Dehydrated vegetable products-onions, garlic, chives, shallots, bell peppers, parsley and mixed vegetable flakes – account for a high percentage of our domestic poundage. (2) Most of our spices are imported, but approximately 190,000,000 pounds of aromatic products are grown in the United States, with California the leader. (2) Today India is the largest exporter of spices, followed by Indonesia, the Malagassy Republic, and Malaysia. (8) The United States is now the largest importer of spices in the world (8) and the prime figure in world spice buying; (2) followed by West Germany, Japan and France. (8) New York is the centre of this activity. (2) ‘Record U.S. Spice Imports in 1983’ announces the Foreign Agriculture Circular of the USDA for 1984. (2) Some 385,000,000 pounds of 36 to 40 different spices, herbs and aromatic seeds were imported. (2) Imported spices enter the U.S. through the ports of both coasts, but by far the largest volume comes through New York. (2) They usually arrive in the whole form. (2) They are first inspected for cleanliness and must pass U.S. (2) Food & Drug Administration and the American Spice Trade Association standards before they are allowed to clear the port. (2) After that, they go to spice grinding plants where they are further inspected, cleaned, processed and packaged. (2) Various types of mills are used in spice grinding because of the wide variety of materials, which must be processed; i.e. (2) leaves, seeds, bark, etc. (2) By use of mechanical sifters the miller also regulates the fineness of the grind. (2) Today, the spice industry also offers extractives of spices in which the essences are concentrated from the raw products. (2) These are available in various forms to meet specific flavouring needs. (2) Included are essential oils, oleoresins and compounds containing these plus natural spices and other ingredients. (2) Those who bring spices to the USA – from growers and shippers overseas to agents, brokers, importers, processors and dehydrators in this country, as well as many firms associated and allied with the industry – are members of the American Spice Trade Association, founded in 1907. (2) With headquarters in Washington, DC, this association, numbering over 200 firms and allied organizations, is active in research, trade relations within and outside its industry, and spice education. (2)

Efforts to make the Spice Trade Fairer

The inequities of the Spice trade are being addressed by the Fair Trade movement (11) The case of the Sri Lankan Anthony Silva illustrates how it works. (11) He is a cinnamon peeler who sells his cinnamon not to a typical trader but to PODIE, a Negombo-based organisation which has found customers – fair trade organisations, including one based in the Netherlands – who will pay up to 40% above the market rate for his sweetly-perfumed harvest. (11) The extra income provided through the fair trade system is vital for a cinnamon grower; it helps, for example, to educate children, it improves sanitation and housing, and provides basic healthCare for the family. (11) Today, there is no need for Anthony to change his children’s surnames. (11) Fair traders have found a number of people who recognise that if they will only pay a little more for their cinnamon, or for an ever-growing range of other fairly traded products, that they can make a significant difference in the lives of the people who grew them. (11) They can, in effect, help to redress the effects of hardships that have been endured by growers for up to 500 years. (11) What could be fairer than that?

Endnote: Columbus, Spain and the Spice Trade

The Spanish had less success in searching for Spices. (11) First off the blocks’, Spain despatched Christopher Columbus (11) a Genoese mapmaker and day-dreamer, (2) westward in search of the spice regions of India.’ (11) Columbus made landfall on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (1492), looking for the riches of the East Indies. (8) His voyage, although ultimately highly profitable for Spain, did not turn up any spice. (11) The only aromatic plants he found in the Western World, however were capsicums, “plenty of aji, which is their pepper, which is more valuable than pepper, and ‘allspice or pimenta,’ a tree whose leaf had the finest smell of cloves that I ever met with.” (2) (although Columbus OR Dr. Chanca of Columbus’s expedition’s (2) use of the words ‘Indians’ to describe the people he met and ‘peppers’ as a name for chilli and capsicums, which he did find, survive to this day). (11) He found vanilla, and allspice. (6) The chilli pepper, unfortunately for him, proved too easy to grow, so he gained little by them. (9) Columbus himself felt that the lack of spices made his voyages little more than failures. (9) ) Following the false dawn of Columbus’ voyage, a Spanish fleet, led by Ferdinand Magellan, even circumnavigated the world in an attempt to corner the trade of cloves. (11) Although Magellan himself was killed in the Philippines two years later and four of the five ships of the expedition lost, the remaining ship, the Victoria, returned to Spain with enough spices to pay for the entire expedition. (2) Nevertheless, Spain continued the spice quest only briefly, King Charles of Spain selling his rights to the Spice Islands to his brother-in-law, John III of Portugal. (2) The gold of the Incas proved a stronger attraction to the Spaniards. (2)

1 Since it did not exist in the 17thC this can be discounted!

[bibliography of sources available upon request]




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