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The unimaginable impact of the spice trade and the Age of Discoveries

Surprisingly those innocent looking little spice jars sitting idly in your pantry are quite possibly one of the reasons you may be reading this right here and now. Difficult as it may be to imagine their existence could have any relationship to you, as often as not facts can be stranger than fiction.  

Did you know that nutmeg was once worth more by weight than gold or in 410 AD, when the Visigoths captured Rome they demanded 3,000 pounds of peppercorns as ransom, or that in the 16th century, London dockworkers were paid their bonuses in cloves? 

The history of the spice trade is almost as old as human civilization, a story of unimaginably long journeys to far flung lands, the rise and fall of empires, wars won and lost, treaties signed and flouted.  Spices were among the most valuable items of trade in ancient and medieval times.  As long ago as 3500BC Egyptians were using various spices for flavouring foods, in cosmetics and embalming. Over time, spices spread through the Middle East onwards to the eastern Mediterranean and beyond to Europe.

The trade in spices from China, Indonesia, India and Ceylon were originally transported over land by donkey or camel caravans across what is commonly known as the Silk Road. For almost 5000 years, Arab middlemen had controlled the spice trade until European explorers discovered a sea route to India and other spice producing countries in the east. Trade on the Silk Road was a very significant factor in the development of the great civilizations of China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia and Rome.

The mighty Roman Empire had set up a powerful trading centre in Alexandria, in the first century BC controlling all the spices entering the Greco-Roman world at that point in time. Roman soldiers were frequently paid in salt, a practice that led to the word ‘salary’ and the phrase ‘worth his salt’, still with us to this day.

Difficult as it is to imagine with spices now so widely available and inexpensive, back in time they were very tightly guarded, generating immense wealth and power for those who controlled them. Arabic spice merchants created a sense of mystery, withholding the origins, thereby ensuring high prices by relating fantastic tales of fighting off fierce winged creatures to reach spices growing high on cliff walls. 

Over the following centuries, countless groups battled for control of the spice trade. Eventually, by the mid-13th c, Venice emerged as the primary trading port for spices bound for western and northern Europe becoming in the process extremely prosperous, charging huge tariffs on their monopoly. Without direct access to Middle Eastern sources, Europeans had little choice but to pay the exorbitant prices charged. Even the wealthy struggled until finally something had to be done about it. 

Things were about to change, the impact and ramifications can hardly be exaggerated. The search for a more economical means of obtaining spices from the East precipitated the great Age of Discoveries, with explorations opening up the new worlds and subsequently laying the very foundations for the modern world.

Portuguese explorers Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama and Bartholomeu Diaz among others began their long sea voyages in the hopes of discovering a sea route to India and source other spice producing countries to the East. Christopher Columbus went westwards from Europe in 1492 also in search of a sea route but instead found the Americas, bringing back to Spain fruits and vegetables, including chilies (he called them 'peppers') perhaps to soothe his disappointment at not finding peppercorns, the term “chili pepper” persists to this day.  Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama returned to Lisbon in 1499 having successfully discovered the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope, eventually reaching the southwest coast of India, returning with a cargo of nutmegs, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and peppercorns. This coup marked the beginning of the rise of the Portuguese Empire.

By the 15th century, the spice trade was irrevocably transformed by the European Age of Discovery. Navigational equipment had improved and long-haul sailing became possible. Rich entrepreneurs began outfitting explorers in hopes of circumventing Venice, following the new seafaring routes to reach the lands where spices were grown. Many voyages missed their targets but several ended up discovering new lands and new treasures.

Spanish, English and Dutch expeditions soon followed resulting in growing competition, sparking bloody conflicts over control of the spice trade. As the middle classes grew during the Renaissance, the popularity of spices also rose. Wars over the Indonesian Spice Islands broke out between expanding European nations, continuing for roughly 200 years, during the 15th - 17th centuries.

Inevitably as spices became more common, their value began to fall. The newly established trade routes were wide open and successful plantings of some spices reduced the need for transportation from other parts of the world and the wealthy monopolies began to crumble.

Pepper and cinnamon are no longer considered luxuries for the majority and spices have lost their once lofty status and the allure that had previously placed them alongside jewels and precious metals as the world’s most valuable and exotic items. However the legacy and incredible history of the spice race remains, as does the wonderful variety of exotic flavours, colours and smells we routinely take for granted that made spices so valuable in the first place.