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The spice trade is a commercial activity of ancient origin which involves the merchandising of spices, incense, herbs, drugs and opium. Civilizations of Asia were involved in spice trade from the ancient times, and the Greco-Roman world soon followed by trading along the Incense route and the Roman-India routes. 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 Seamarker route before the 1st century. When they encountered Rome (circa 30 BCE– 10 CE) they shared with Roman merchants knowledge of riding the seasonal monsoons of the Arabian Seamarker, 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 Venetianmarker 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 Gulfmarker and the Red Sea, from which overland routes led to Europe.

The trade was transformed by the European Age of Discovery, during which the spice trade, particularly in pepper, became an influential activity for European traders. The route from Europe to the Indian Ocean via the Cape of Good Hopemarker was pioneered by Portuguese 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 Bengalmarker, 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 routes, ports, and nations that were difficult to dominate. The Dutch were later able to bypass much of these problems by pioneering a direct ocean route from the Cape of Good Hopemarker to the Sunda Straitmarker in Indonesiamarker.


Spices such as cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, and turmeric were known, and used for commerce, in the Eastern World well into antiquity. 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 Seamarker, importing spices from the "Land of Punt" and from Arabia. Luxury goods traded along the Incense Route included Indianmarker spices, ebony, silk and fine textiles.

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. With the establishment of Roman Egypt, the Romans further developed the already existing trade. As early as 80 BC, Alexandriamarker 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, but through various systems eastern spices were brought to the major spice trading port of Calicutmarker in India.

According to the The Cambridge History of Africa (1975):

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 Syenemarker 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.); 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, bypassing silk and other commodities.

In Javamarker and Borneomarker, the introduction of Indian culture created a demand for aromatics. These trading outposts later served the Chinese and Arab markets as well. The Greek document Periplus Maris Erythraei names several Indian ports from where large ships sailed towards east to Khruse.

Pre-Islamic Meccans continued to use the old Incense Route to benefit from the heavy Roman demand for luxury goods. 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 Persiamarker during the seventh century and the eighth century.The Abbasids used Alexandria, Damiettamarker, Adenmarker and Sirafmarker as entry ports to India and China. 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 Yemenmarker.

Moluccanmarker products shipped across the ports of Arabia to the Near East passed through the ports of India and Sri Lankamarker. 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 Purimarker where "merchants depart for distant countries."

The islands of Moluccamarker also find mention in several records: Meluza or Melucha is mentioned by a member of the Brazilmarker-India expedition under Cabral; Amerigo Vespucci mentions Maluche in a letter to Lorenzo de Medici (1501); a Javanese chronicles (1365) mentions the Moluccas and Maloko; 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 Timormarker [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 Venicemarker 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 Venicemarker and Genoamarker acting as a middle man. In 1453, however, the Ottomans took Constantinoplemarker 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 an expansionist, 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 Hopemarker in 1488 on an expedition led by Bartolomeu Dias. 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 Hopemarker, continuing to the eastern coast of Africa to Malindimarker to sail across the Indian Oceanmarker to Calicutmarker. a south Indian city in the state of kerala. 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.

One of Magellan's ships circumnavigated the globe, finishing 16 months after the explorer's death.

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 Bahamasmarker. Believing to have in fact reached India, he named the natives "Indians". 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 Brazilmarker. 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.

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 Magellanmarker, opening the west coast of the Americas for exploration. On March 16, 1521 the ships reached the Philippinesmarker and soon after the Spice Islandsmarker, 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

European settlements in India.

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 Dutchmarker expedition left from Amsterdammarker (April 1595) for South East Asia. 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 Bataviamarker (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 Bandamarker.

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

Penangmarker, a British colony, was established as a pepper port in 1786. During the Eighteenth century, French possessions in India were seized by the British, who then moved on to aggressively check Hollandmarker in the Far East. The status the Dutch East India Company weakened as a result of the growing British influence.

In 1585, ships from the West Indies arrived in Europe with a cargo of Jamaicanmarker 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). 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.

By 1815, the first shipment of nutmegs from Sumatramarker had arrived in Europe. Furthermore, islands of the West Indiesmarker, like Grenadamarker, also became involved in spice trade.

The British constructed fortified military settlements, such as Fort Cornwallis, in Penang.

Sandalwood from Timormarker and Tibetan incense gained status as prized commodities in China during the early eighteenth century. 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, Massachusettsmarker traded profitably with Sumatra during the early half of the nineteenth century. The kingdom of Acehmarker 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. In 1818, a number of uneventful voyages were made to Sumatra from Salem. 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 Americamarker resorted to punitive measures following piracy and other hostilities upon the New Englandersmarker, 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.

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. Buddhism, in particular, traveled alongside the maritime trade, promoting coinage, art and literacy. Islam spread throughout the East, reaching Maritime Southeast Asia in the 10th century; Muslim merchants played a crucial part in the trade. 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.

The Portuguese colonial settlements saw traders such as the Gujarati bania, South Indian Chettis, Syrian Christians, Chinese from Fujianmarker province, and Arabs from Adenmarker involved in the spice trade. Epics, languages, and cultural customs were borrowed by Southeast Asia from India, and later China. Knowledge of Portuguese language became essential for merchants involved in the trade.

Indian merchants involved in spice trade took Indian cuisine to Southeast Asia, notable present day Malaysiamarker and Indonesiamarker, where spice mixtures and curries became popular. European people intermarried with the Indians, and popularized valuable culinary skills, such as baking, in India. The Portuguese also introduced vinegar to India, and Franciscan priests manufactured it from coconut toddy. 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.

Recent Trends

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

World Spice Production in tons, 2003–2004, data from FAOSTAT
Indiamarker 1 600 000 86%
Chinamarker 66 000 4%
Bangladeshmarker 48 000 3%
Pakistanmarker 45 300 2%
Turkeymarker 33 000 2%
Nepalmarker 15 500 1%
Other countries 60 900 3%
Total 1 868 700 100%

See also


  1. Fage 1975: 164
  2. Corn & Glasserman 1999: Prologue
  3. spice trade (Encyclopedia Britannica 2002)
  4. Rawlinson 2001: 11-12
  5. Shaw 2003: 426
  6. Lach 1994: 13
  7. Ball 2000: 131
  8. Ball 2000: 137
  9. Donkin 2003: 59
  10. Donkin 2003: 64
  11. Crone 2004: 10
  12. Donkin 2003: 91-92
  13. Donkin 2003: 92
  14. Donkin 2003: 65
  15. Donkin 2003: 87
  16. Donkin 2003: 88
  17. Catholic Encyclopedia: Bartolomeu Dias Retrieved November 29, 2007
  18. Gama, Vasco da. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press.
  19. The First Voyage of Columbus Retrieved November 29, 2007
  20. Catholic Encyclopedia: Pedralvarez Cabral Retrieved November 29, 2007
  21. Donkin 2003: 169
  22. Donkin 2003: 170
  23. Corn & Glasserman 1999: 217
  24. Corn & Glasserman 1999: 214
  25. Corn & Glasserman 1999: 214
  26. Corn & Glasserman 1999: 214
  27. Donkin 2003: 162-163
  28. Corn & Glasserman 1999: 265
  29. Corn & Glasserman 1999: 252
  30. Corn & Glasserman 1999: 279
  31. Corn & Glasserman 1999
  32. Donkin 2003: 67
  33. Donkin 2003: 69
  34. Corn & Glasserman 1999
  35. Corn & Glasserman 1999: 105
  36. Collingham 56: 2006
  37. Donkin 2003
  38. Corn & Glasserman 1999: 203
  39. Collingham 245: 2006
  40. Collingham 61: 2006
  41. Collingham 69: 2006
  42. Collingham 129: 2006


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