The history of the spice trade goes back many years. For millennia, only a very select handful of goods were transported great distances across the world in trade – among the most widespread were the spices cinnamon, pepper, clove, nutmeg and mace. The rise and fall of nations was tied closely to the acquisition and distribution of these spices.

Sacks of dried goods at market
Sacks of dried goods at market. Image: © iStock

The long-range spice trade began in around 1000 BCE with the movement of cinnamon, and perhaps pepper, from India and Indonesia to Egypt. For the next 1000 years, the Arabs served as the sole middlemen of the spice trade, picking them up in Southeast Asia and delivering them to Red Sea ports. It wasn’t until about 120 BCE that this stranglehold on the spice trade came crashing down. A shipwrecked Indian sailor washed up on the Red Sea coast of Egypt and taught the Egyptian Greeks how to ride the monsoon winds across the Arabian Sea to India. Few Greek ships actually made this trip, but when the Romans took over Egypt in 30 BCE it was not long before about 120 ships were leaving Red Sea ports annually to load their holds with spices in India.

The development of a trade network

By 1 CE, a full-blown trading network was operating across the seas of the Far East, with India at the centre. Indian dhows sailed south through the Indian Ocean to Indonesia, where they traded pepper for cloves and nutmeg. Chinese junks plied the South China Sea and reached as far as the Spice Islands, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. A maritime trading route of 9000 miles had evolved that stretched all the way from Rome, across the Mediterranean to northern Africa, through the Indian Ocean to Indonesia and on to China, with India at its centre.

After Rome’s collapse in 250 CE, the epicentre of world trade shifted first to the Byzantine Empire and then to Europe as it emerged from the Dark Ages. Venice became a worldwide trading powerhouse. Muslims gained control of the Spice Routes as they took over the Middle East and a large part of Southeast Asia. Europeans fought the Crusades in large part to maintain a portal to the spice trade.

Ultimately, Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese found the route around Africa to the spices of Southeast Asia in the 15th century. They began a period of conquests in India and Indonesia to control that trade. They built a spice empire centered in Goa, India that radiated out across the Indian Ocean from eastern Africa to Indonesia.

The arrival of the East India Companies

The Dutch and English East India Companies were next to burst into the Indian Ocean scene, taking most of the lucrative spice trade from the Portuguese and then battling each other for dominance. The spice trade from Southeast Asia ran strong for a century and a half, until the 17th century, when “a whole new group of beverages, stimulants and flavors had arrived in Europe including tea, coffee, chocolate and tobacco. These offered new taste sensations and produced psychological effects that were mildly, or in the case of tobacco, quite seriously addictive.

With the opening of new trade routes, spices became cheaper and more accessible to the masses. Perhaps most importantly there “was a seismic shift in tastes. A culinary revolution had sprouted in France in the mid-1600s that took the rest of Europe by storm. Gone were the huge helpings of sugar and exotic spice, replaced by local herbs and mushrooms”.

The globalisation of spice culture

Spice market in Vietnam
Peppercorn sales in Vietnam. Image: © Binh Dnag

In response to the decline in the spice market and shifting political atmospheres, the Dutch and English East India companies collapsed in the 18th and 19th centuries and with them went the centralization of the spice trade. No longer would the spices be grown solely in restricted geographical regions under the control of a specific trading company. Spice culture became scattered all over the world, far from their Southeast Asian origins. In today’s world, these spices are more or less routine commodities open to many international entrepreneurs.

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James Hancock is the author of Spices, Scents and Silk, available now from the CABI Bookshop

You may also be interested in:

Around the world in 80 spices, by P N Ravindran

Getting spices to market

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