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Trade in spices—especially peppercorns, cinnamon, and cloves—brought together diverse cultures of the western, southern, and eastern parts of the world. This exchange of spices stimulated the first global age (c. 1400–1800), and the beginnings of economic globalization, wherein actions in one area of the world greatly affected people and events on another, far-off continent.
What are spices? A spice is usually defined as an aromatic part of a tropical plant, be it root, bark, flower, or seed. All spices, with the exception of vanilla, chili pepper, and allspice, are of Asian origin. Many people group herbs and spices together as one set of plants. Herbs are quite different. An herb is a plant that does not have a woody stem and dies at the end of each growing season. Most herbs derive their flavoring or medicinal uses from their leaves.
All spices played a role in world history, but the spices that had the most effect on global trade and cultural interactions were chili peppers, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.
Spices in the Ancient World
In the ancient world spice trading across the Indian Ocean and east to present day Indonesia and north to China was a daily occurrence. The Western world knew little of spices, and what they did know was filled with imaginative tall tales of birds building nests with cinnamon, and inhabitants of “clove island,” (Ternate, Tidore, Moti, Makian, and Bacan islands of Indonesia, the ancient capitals of clove cultivation) never growing old. The Asian trade was driven by the monsoon winds that blew ships south and west in the winter, and north and east in the summer. For centuries the West knew little of the spices that flowed east and west through Asia.
For China, records from the Han dynasty in the second century BCE indicate knowledge of a plant called Piper nigrum, which was supposed to be from the west of China, but more likely came from India, where black pepper originated in the southwest on the Malabar Coast. Also in the Han dynasty cinnamon first entered Chinese records as coming from present-day Vietnam. Cloves came out of the Moluccas and both the Chinese and Indians were active in the clove trade. Cloves appeared in India in the Ramayana literary classic somewhere around the beginning of the common era. Cloves—considered to be a breath freshener to be used in China before meeting with the Han emperor—were named “chicken-tongue fragrance.”
In the West the Romans were the first to use the spices of the East. Traders and middlemen carried black pepper from India up through the Red Sea and into Egypt and then across the Mediterranean Sea. Spice also flowed into Europe from the Middle East as Rome extended its empire in that direction. The Romans favored black pepper as their mainstay cooking spice, while cloves were mostly used in incense and perfume.
Spices in the Medieval World
The medieval world and spices were shaped by several events. The first was the decline of the Roman Empire by 500 CE and the loss of their spice-trading networks. The second was the birth of Muhammad in 570 CE and the rapid rise of Islam, which had spread north to southern Spain and east to Malay Peninsula by the year 1000 CE. Finally, by the beginning of the eleventh century, the Roman Catholic Church had grown in size and power and was seeking to expand its influence. The combination of these events led to the rise of Islamic influence in controlling the trading routes of both the Arabian Peninsula and the East Indies while the Catholic Church organized the crusades to recapture the Holy Land from Islam.
While the crusades brought cohesion among some peoples in western Europe, the cross-cultural experiences of the western crusaders in the Middle East changed their views of food and how food is prepared and eaten. Spices such as pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and cardamom entered the diet of the crusaders, as did figs, dates, lemons, and oranges—causing a revolution in the staid tastes of the West.
Once the spices of the Eastern world had been experienced the Italian port cities of Venice and Genoa set themselves up as the conduit to bring the spices of the East into the West. Europe was changing its tastes but the Arab and Muslim worlds of the East controlled access to spices.
Spices in the Age of Exploration
The “Age of Exploration,” a Western/European expression, involved the nations of coastal/continental Europe and the British Isles. From the late fifteenth century Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, England, and, to a lesser degree, France and Denmark, competed for the market in spices in two areas of the world, South Asia and Southeast Asia. As these nations competed, this quest for spices led to the first “global” wars.
It all began with Portugal and Vasco da Gama in 1498 when this Portuguese navigator arrived at Calicut on the Malabar Coast of west India looking for black pepper. After miscommunications with the Hindu ruler and other difficulties, Vasco da Gama sailed home with a shipload of pepper. One of the things that he learned was that the network of Arab, Muslim, and Persian merchants who controlled the flow of spices would have to be broken. The Portuguese continued to come to India after 1500 and soon set up bases and shipbuilding facilities at places such as Goa. Between 1503 and 1540 Portugal supplied Europe with most of its pepper but was never able to break the spice trade monopolies that existed. For the rest of the sixteenth century the Portuguese moved to the east to acquire other spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. Their empire expanded but their share of the spice market was very small.
In the 1590s the Dutch entered the spice competition returning from Asia with a modest shipload of pepper. By 1601, a large fleet was assembled and the Dutch solidified their efforts by forming the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC) and focused their efforts on ousting the Portuguese. They were successful throughout the seventeenth century capturing the Spice Islands with their nutmeg and cloves, and then controlling the Straits of Malacca. Eventually Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), and its cinnamon trade, fell into Dutch hands. One Dutch ditty of the day exclaimed:
Wherever profit leads us,
To every sea and shore,
For love of gain,
The wide world’s harbors we explore.
These verses did not tell the whole story of what competition wrought, not only for the competitions between the Portuguese, Dutch, English, Spanish and French, but for cross-cultural relations with the inhabitants of the spice-producing areas. Bloody encounters, to acquire spices as well as to expand networks for profit, were often the rule. Felipe Fernandez- Armesto, in his book Pathfinders (2006, 205), sums up the European-native encounters: “They began with embraces, continued with abuse, and ended in bloodshed.”
Spices in the Age of Industrialization
By the nineteenth century the Dutch had settled into maintaining their spice empire in the East Indies. Markets were established and maintained. The British controlled this empire for a short time during the Napoleonic Wars, but gave that up to focus on South Asia. The French were able to transplant cloves successfully from the East Indies to East Africa, which led to an extensive system of slavery that persisted until late in the nineteenth century.
In the early 1800s a new area of the world entered the spice trade. It all began in the northeastern United States at the port of Salem, Massachusetts. An enterprising sea captain named Jonathan Carnes set out on a voyage to the East Indies in the 1790s. After two trips he returned to Salem with a boatload of black pepper which reaped a profit of 700 per cent. The competition was on. Other Salem ships sailed back and forth to Sumatra to acquire pepper. Historical accounts tell of their adventures in the waters south of the Straits of Malacca. There were many encounters with the Malay natives and their wavy lethal daggers, known as creese.
In the late nineteenth-century advances in technology such as steam power led to the development of ships that were able to crisscross the globe with more speed and efficiency. Entrepreneurs such as Thomas Cook established travel agencies to take citizens on global tours. Speed of travel not only got spices moving more quickly to their markets but also brought people into contact with the source of spices and how they were used in cooking. The British control of South Asia in this period and the influences of Indian cooking on British society are still strong today in curry and other dishes.
The Twentieth Century and Beyond
In our modern era the spice trade has become a very settled business. The Dutch continued to control certain aspects of the trade out of the East Indies until the Indonesian revolution, but the overland Chinese, Malay, and other ethnic groups of South and Southeast Asia continued their networks as if the Europeans had never come east. During the twentieth century many spice companies emerged in Europe and in the Americas. Each had their own network of suppliers from India or Southeast Asia.
In the late twentieth century, one U.S. spice company, McCormick, which was founded late in the nineteenth century in Baltimore, Maryland, began to emerge as a major global spice company. The secret of their success was the fact that they sent company employees to the source of the spices they needed and then set up their own bases and networks. Not only did McCormick set up networks, they established operations at various sources of global spices to both control the gathering of spices and insure their quality. Today McCormick controls many of the European spice companies, although these companies maintain their traditional names.
The use of spices has changed significantly in the last half-century. Prior to that time people bought individual spices to flavor their home-cooked meals. In recent decades the great majority of the spices that are purchased are used by large multinational food companies in the preparation of processed foods that are sold in global supermarkets.
Spices are now an integral part of many global cuisines and many of these dishes, flavored with spices such as the chili pepper, have traveled around the world and found a place in the eating habits of multiple cultures. One can now find restaurants on all continents that offer dishes that blend the spice flavors of different cultures, cuisines, and traditions in new and exciting culinary spice explorations.
- Corn, C. (1998). The scents of Eden: A narrative of the spice trade. New York: Kodansha International.
- Czarra, F. (2009). Spices: A global history. London: Reaktion Books.
- Dalby, A. (2000). Dangerous tastes: The story of spices. London: British Museum Press; Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Fernandez-Armesto, F. (2006). Pathfinders: A global history of exploration. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Keay, J. (2006). The spice route: A history. Berkeley: University of California Press..
- Milton, G. (1999). Nathaniel’s nutmeg: Or, the true and incredible adventures of the spice trader changed the course of history. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
- Turner, J. (2004). Spice: The history of a temptation. New York: Knopf.
- Welch, J. M. (Ed.). (1994). The spice trade: A bibliographic guide to sources of historical and economic information. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
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