Spice trade

Spice trade

Spice trade is a commercial activity of ancient origin which involves the merchandising of spices and herbs. Civilizations of Asia were involved in spice trade from the ancient times, and the Greco-Roman world soon followed by trading along the Incense routecite web
title = Traders of the Gold and Incense Road
publisher = Message of the Republic of Yemen, Berlin
url = http://www.botschaft-jemen.de/Geschichte.htm
format = HTML
] and the Roman-India routes. [Fage 1975: 164] The Roman-Indian routes were dependent upon techniques developed by the maritime trading power, Kingdom of Axum (ca 400s BC–AD 1000s) which had pioneered the Red Sea route before the 1st century. When they encountered Rome (circa 30 BCE– 10 CE) they shared knowledge of riding the Monsoons of the route on to Rome, keeping a cordial relationship with one another until the mid-seventh century, when the rise of Islam closed off the overland caravan routes through Egypt and the Suez, and sundered the European trade community from Axum and India. Arab traders eventually took over conveying goods via the Levant and Venetian merchants to Europe until the rise of the Ottoman Turks cut the route again by 1453.

Overland routes helped the spice trade initially, but maritime trade routes led to tremendous growth in commercial activities. During the high and late medieval periods Muslim traders dominated maritime spice trading routes throughout the Indian Ocean, tapping source regions in the Far East and shipping spices from trading emporiums in India westward to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, from which overland routes led to Europe.

The trade was transformed by the European Age of Discovery, during which spice trade became an influential activity for European traders.Corn & Glasserman 1999: Prologue] The route from Europe to the Indian Ocean via the Cape of Good Hope was pioneered by European navigators, such as Vasco Da Gama, resulting in new maritime routes for trade.

This trade - driving the world economy from the end of the middle ages well into the modern times - ushered an age of European domination in the East. Channels, such as the Bay of Bengal, served as bridges for cultural and commercial exchanges between diverse cultures as nations struggled to gain control of the trade along the many spice routes. European dominance was slow to develop. The Portuguese trade routes were mainly restricted and limited by the use of ancient and difficult to dominate routes, ports, and nations. The Dutch were later able to bypass much of these problems by pioneering a direct ocean route from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sunda Strait in Indonesia.


Spices such as cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, and turmeric were known, and used for commerce, in the Eastern World well into antiquity.spice trade (Encyclopedia Britannica 2002)] These spices found their way into the Middle East before the beginning of the Common Era, where the true sources of these spices was withheld by the traders, and associated with fantastic tales. The Egyptians had traded in the Red Sea, importing spices from the "Land of Punt" and from Arabia. [Rawlinson 2001: 11-12] Luxury goods traded along the Incense Route included Indian spices, ebony, silk and fine textiles.cite web| title = Traders of the Gold and Incense Road | publisher = Message of the Republic of Yemen, Berlin| url = http://www.botschaft-jemen.de/Geschichte.htm| format = HTML ]

The spice trade was associated with overland routes early on but maritime routes proved to be the factor which helped this trade grow. The Ptolemaic dynasty had developed trade with India using the Red Sea ports.Shaw 2003: 426] With the establishment of Roman Egypt, the Romans further developed the already existing trade. As early as 80 BC, Alexandria became the dominant trading center for Indian spices entering the Greco-Roman world. Indian ships sailed to Egypt. The thriving maritime routes of Southern Asia were not under the control of a single power,Lach 1994: 13] but through various systems eastern spices were brought to the major spice trading port of Calicut in India.

According to the "The Cambridge History of Africa (1975)": [Fage 1975: 164]

The trade between India and the Greco-Roman world kept on increasing; [At any rate, when Gallus was prefect of Egypt, I accompanied him and ascended the Nile as far as Syene and the frontiers of Ethiopia, and I learned that as many as one hundred and twenty vessels were sailing from Myos Hormos to India, whereas formerly, under the Ptolemies, only a very few ventured to undertake the voyage and to carry on traffic in Indian merchandise. - Strabo (II.5.12.); [http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Strabo/2E1*.html The Geography of Strabo. Vol. I of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1917.] .] within this trade spices were the main import from India to the Western world, [Ball 2000: 131] bypassing silk and other commodities. [Ball 2000: 137]

In Java and Borneo, the introduction of Indian culture created a demand for aromatics. These trading outposts later served the Chinese and Arab markets as well.Donkin 2003: 59] The Greek document Periplus Maris Erythraei names several Indian ports from where large ships sailed towards east to "Khruse". [Donkin 2003: 64]

Pre-Islamic Meccans continued to use the old Incense Route to benefit from the heavy Roman demand for luxury goods.Crone 2004: 10] The Meccan involvement saw the export of the same goods: Arabian frankincense, East African ivory and gold, Indian spices, Chinese silk etc.

Middle ages

The Indian commercial connection with South East Asia proved vital to the merchants of Arabia and Persia during the seventh century and the eighth century. The Abbasids used Alexandria, Damietta, Aden and Siraf as entry ports to India and China.Donkin 2003: 91-92] Merchants arriving from India in the port city of Aden paid tribute in form of musk, camphor, ambergris and sandalwood to Ibn Ziyad, the sultan of Yemen.

Moluccan products shipped across the ports of Arabia to the Near East passed through the ports of India and Sri Lanka.Donkin 2003: 92] After reaching either the Indian or the Sri Lankan ports were sometimes shipped to East Africa, where they would be used for many purposes, including burial rites.

Indian spice exports find mention in the works of Ibn Khurdadhbeh (850), al-Ghafiqi (1150), Ishak bin Imaran (907) and Al Kalkashandi (fourteenth century). Chinese traveler Hsuan Tsang mentions the town of Puri where "merchants depart for distant countries."Donkin 2003: 65]

The islands of Molucca also find mention in several records: "Meluza" or "Melucha" is mentioned by a member of the Brazil-India expedition under Cabral;Donkin 2003: 87] Amerigo Vespucci mentions "Maluche" in a letter to Lorenzo de Medici (1501); a Javanese chronicles (1365) mentions the Moluccas and "Maloko";Donkin 2003: 88] and navigational works of the fourteenth century and the fifteenth century contain the first unequivocal Arab reference to Moluccas. Sulaima al-Mahr writes: "East of Timor [where sandalwood is found] are the islands of "Bandam" and they are the islands where nutmeg and mace are found. The islands of cloves are called "Maluku" ....."

Rome briefly played a part in the spice trade during the 5th century, but this role, unlike the Arabian one, could not last through the Middle Ages. The Republic of Venice became a formidable power, and a key player in the Eastern spice trade. Other powers, in an attempt to break the Venetian hold on spice trade, began to build up maritime capability.

The New World

One of the major consequences of the spice trade was the discovery of the American continent by European explorers. Until the mid 15th century, trade with the east was achieved through the Silk Road, with the Byzantine Empire and the Italian city-states of Venice and Genoa acting as a middle man. In 1453, however, the Ottomans took Constantinople and so the Byzantine Empire was no more. Now in control of the sole spice trade route that existed at the time, the Ottoman Empire was in a favorable position to charge hefty taxes on merchandise bound for the west. The Western Europeans, not wanting to be dependent on a non-Christian power for the lucrative commerce with the east, set about to find an alternate sea route around Africa.

The first country to attempt to circumnavigate Africa was Portugal, which had, since the early 15th century, begun to explore northern Africa under Henry the Navigator. Emboldened by these early successes and eyeing a lucrative monopoly on a possible sea route to the Indies the Portuguese first crossed the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 on an expedition led by Bartolomeu Dias. [ [http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04775b.htm Catholic Encyclopedia: Bartolomeu Dias] Retrieved November 29, 2007 ] Just nine years later in 1497 on the orders of Manuel I of Portugal, four vessels under the command of navigator Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, continuing to the eastern coast of Africa to Malindi to sail across the Indian Ocean to Calicut.Gama, Vasco da. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press.] The wealth of the Indies was now open for the Europeans to explore; the Portuguese Empire was one of the early European empires to grow from spice trade.

It was during this time of discovery that explorers working for the Spanish and Portuguese Crowns first set foot on the New World. Christopher Columbus was the first when, in 1492, in an attempt to reach the Indies by sailing westward, he made landfall on an island in what is now The Bahamas. Believing to have in fact reached India, he named the natives "Indians". [ [http://www.columbusnavigation.com/v1.shtml The First Voyage of Columbus] Retrieved November 29, 2007 ] Just eight years later in 1500, the Portuguese navigator, Pedro Álvares Cabral while attempting to reproduce Vasco da Gama’s route to India was blown westwards to what is today Brazil. After taking possession of the new land, Cabral resumed his voyage to India, finally arriving there in September 1500 and returning to Portugal by 1501. [ [http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03128a.htm Catholic Encyclopedia: Pedralvarez Cabral] Retrieved November 29, 2007 ]

By now the Portuguese had complete control of the African sea route and as such, the Spanish, if they were to have any hope of competing with Portugal for the lucrative trade, had to find an alternate route. Their first, early, attempt was with Christopher Columbus, but he ended up finding a continent in between Europe and Asia. The Spanish finally succeeded with the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan . On October 21, 1520 his expedition crossed what is now known as the Strait of Magellan, opening the west coast of the Americas for exploration. On March 16, 1521 the ships reached the Philippines and soon after the Spice Islands, effectively establishing the first westward spice trade route to Asia. Upon returning to Spain in 1522 aboard the last remaining ship of the expedition, the survivors of the expedition became the first humans to circumnavigate the globe.

Trade under colonialism

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica 2002: "Ferdinand Magellan took up the quest for Spain in 1519. Of the five vessels under his command, only one, the Victoria, returned to Spain, but triumphantly, laden with cloves."

The first Dutch expedition left from Amsterdam (April 1595) for South East Asia.Donkin 2003: 169] Another Dutch convoy sailed in 1598 and returned one year later with 600, 000 pounds of spices and other East Indian products. The United East India Company forged alliance with the principal producers of cloves and nutmeg. The British East India Company shipped substantial quantities of spices during the early seventeenth century.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica 2002:

The growing competition led to rival nations resorting to military means for control of the spice trade. In 1641, Portuguese Molucca was captured by the Dutch. The capture saw concentrated plantation on cloves and nutmegs and then - using the Treaty of Batavia (1652) - an attempt to destroy trees on all other islands in order to keep the supply in check and control the important markets of spices. This attempt disrupted the ancient patterns of trade and even led to depopulation of entire islands, notably Banda.

The Moluccas became the principal entry ports for the spice trade, and according to Robin A. Donkin (2003): [Donkin 2003: 170]

Penang, a British colony, was established as a pepper port in 1786.Corn & Glasserman 1999: 217] During the Eighteenth century, French possessions in India were seized by the British, who then moved on to aggressively check Holland in the Far East. The status the Dutch East India Company weakened as a result of the growing British influence.Corn & Glasserman 1999: 214]

In 1585, ships from the West Indies arrived in Europe with a cargo of "Jamaican ginger", a root originating in India and South China, which became the first Asian spice to grow successfully in the New World. Notions of plants and trees not growing successfully outside of their native lands, however, were harbored until the mid eighteenth century, championed by eminent botanists of the day, such as Georg Eberhard Rumpf (1627-1702).Corn & Glasserman 1999: 214] Rumpf's theory was discredited by a series of successful transplantation experiments carried out in Europe and the Malay Peninsula during the early Eighteenth century.Corn & Glasserman 1999: 214]

By 1815, the first shipment of nutmegs from Sumatra had arrived in Europe. Furthermore, islands of the West Indies, like Grenada, also became involved in spice trade.

Sandalwood from Timor and Tibetan incense gained status as prized commodities in China during the early eighteenth century.Donkin 2003: 162-163] East Asia displayed a general interest in sandalwood products, which were used to make images of the Buddha and other valuable artifacts.

Merchants from Salem, Massachusetts traded profitably with Sumatra during the early half of the nineteenth century. [Corn & Glasserman 1999: 265] The kingdom of Aceh became a powerful entity in the South Eastern spice trade, with the Acehnese resisted Dutch invasions and forged trading relationships with the traders from Salem. [Corn & Glasserman 1999: 252] In 1818, a number of uneventful voyages were made to Sumatra from Salem.Corn & Glasserman 1999: 279] This trend continued until a series of pirate attacks caused widespread alarm throughout the trading community, further spread by stories of Indian and European sailors meeting terrible fate at the hands of the pirates. The United States of America resorted to punitive measures following piracy and other hostilities upon the New Englanders, especially after the murder of five crewmen of the trading ship "Friendship," regarded as the worst act of hostility in the trade between Sumatra and Salem.

The mid nineteenth century saw the advent of artificial refrigeration, which resulted in a decline in the overall status of spice consumption, and trade.Corn & Glasserman 1999]

Cultural exchanges

Hindu and Buddhist religious establishments of Southeast Asia came to be associated with economic activity and commerce as patrons entrusted large funds which would later be used to benefit local economy by estate management, craftsmanship and promotion of trading activities.Donkin 2003: 67] Buddhism, in particular, traveled alongside the maritime trade, promoting coinage, art and literacy.Donkin 2003: 69] Islam spread throughout the East, reaching the Malay Archipelago in the 10th century; Muslim merchants played a crucial part in the trade.Corn & Glasserman 1999] Christians missionaries, such as, Saint Francis Xavier, were instrumental in the spread of Christianity in the East. Christianity competed with Islam to become the dominant religion of the Moluccas. However, the natives of the Spice Islands accommodated aspects of both the religions easily. [Corn & Glasserman 1999: 105]

The Portuguese colonial settlements saw traders such as the Gujarati banias, South Indian Chettis, Syrian Christians, Chinese from Fujian province, and Arabs from Aden involved in the spice trade.Collingham 56: 2006] Epics, languages, and cultural customs were borrowed by Southeast Asia from India, and later China.Donkin 2003] Knowledge of Portuguese language became essential for merchants involved in the trade. [Corn & Glasserman 1999: 203]

Indian merchants involved in spice trade took Indian cuisine to Southeast Asia, notable present day Malaysia and Indonesia, where spice mixtures and curries became popular.Collingham 245: 2006] European people intermarried with the Indians, and popularized valuable culinary skills, such as baking, in India.Collingham 61: 2006] The Portuguese also introduced vinegar to India, and Franciscan priests manufactured it from coconut toddy.Collingham 69: 2006] Indian food, adapted to European palate, became visible in England by 1811 as exclusive establishments began catering to the tastes of both the curious and those returning from India.Collingham 129: 2006]

Recent Trends

The table below shows total global spice production in 2004 (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations statistics):

ee also




*cite book
last = Donkin
first = Robin A.
title = Between East and West: The Moluccas and the Traffic in Spices Up to the Arrival of Europeans
publisher = Diane Publishing Company
month = August | year = 2003
isbn = 0871692481

*cite book
last = Corn
first = Charles
coauthors = Glasserman, Debbie
title = The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade
publisher = Kodansha America
month = March | year = 1999
isbn = 1568362498

* cite book
last = Collingham
first = Lizzie
title = Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors
publisher = Oxford University Press
month = December | year = 2005
isbn = 0195172418

*cite book
last = Rawlinson
first = Hugh George
title = Intercourse Between India and the Western World: From the Earliest Times of the Fall of Rome
publisher = Asian Educational Services
year = 2001
isbn = 8120615492

*cite book
last = Fage
first = John Donnelly
authorlink = John Donnelly Fage
coauthors = "et al."
title = The Cambridge History of Africa
publisher = Cambridge University Press
year = 1975
isbn = 0521215927

*cite book
last = Ray
first = Himanshu Prabha
title = The Archaeology of Seafaring in Ancient South Asia
publisher = Cambridge University Press
year = 2003
isbn = 0521011094

*cite book
last = Crone
first = Patricia
authorlink = Patricia Crone
title = Meccan Trade And The Rise Of Islam
publisher = Gorgias Press LLC
year = 2004
isbn = 1593331029

*cite book
last = Shaw
first = Ian
authorlink = Ian Shaw (Egyptologist)
title = The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt
publisher = Oxford University Press
year = 2003
isbn = 0192804588

*cite book
last = Ball
first = Warwick
authorlink = Warwick Ball
title = Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire
publisher = Routledge
year = 2000
isbn = 0415113768

*cite book
last = Lach
first = Donald Frederick
title = Asia in the Making of Europe: The Century of Discovery. Book 1.
publisher = University of Chicago Press
year = 1994
isbn = 0226467317

External links

* [http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/silk/hd_silk.htm Trade between the Romans and the Empires of Asia. Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art]

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