History of The Spice Trade

History of the Spice Trade

History of the Spice Trade — The Ancient World
History of the Spice Trade — The Middle Ages
History of the Spice Trade — The European Ages of Discovery and Conquest

History Of the Spice Trade — The Ancient World

What is a Spice?

Before it's possible to begin a history of the spice trade we need to define what precisely is meant by a spice. In terms of a modern definition, a spice obtained from the dried fruiting body of a plant. Thus it can be the whole fruit (as in cubeb pepper or allspice berries or cumin) or it is the kernel or seed of the fruit (as in nutmeg and fenugreek seeds or nigella seeds). In contrast, herbs are the vegetative parts of a plant (the stems and leaves) and include lemongrass (stems), thyme (leaves), oregano (leaves). One exception to this rule is the Methi curry leaves (which are the dried leaves of fenugreek) which is generally considered as a spice.

Other spices can be a plant's sap (such as asafoetida) or an extract from the plant, such as sugar. Indeed, until sugar became plentiful in the 17th Century, sugar was considered either as a sweet spice (in cooking) or as a medicine (a restorative). I mention sugar especially here as it, probably more than any spice drove agricluture, expansion and the slave trade.

In addition the roots and bark of plants in their dried form are also considered as spices. Thus turmeric and wasabi are spices (both derived from roots), as is cinnamon (a bark).

In ancient times a spice seems to have been defined more as anything that bore a strong aroma. Thus herbs, spices and incense could all come under the label 'spice'. Perhaps the most important aspect of an ancient 'spice' was that it should not be perishable and could be tarnsported for many months with little loss of pungency.

However, during the early spice trade, nothing drove the quest for spices more than black pepper, which was the 'perfect' spice as it provided heat with no bitterness. Later, along with black pepper, cloves and nutmeg became the other two spices that could make a trader rich.

 The Spice Trade

 Humans have probably employed spices since we first began to cook with fire. After all, spices are just the seeds of naturally-occurring trees and plants. In Europe we know of juniper berries and mustard seeds from neolithic burials. However, most of the best-known spices derive either from the East (India and South-east Asia) or from the New World (Mexico and the Caribbean). Many of these spices (think of pepper and chillies) have become so ubiquitous that it's difficult to reconcile the fact that until very recently they were rare and expensive commodities.

Indeed, the history of commerce and trade is the history of spices and it's no exaggeration to say that America would not have been discovered were it not for the European desire to break the Arab traders' monopoly on spices. But to understand the spice trade we need to go back to its origins, which can actually be traced back five thousand years in the historical records (and probably represents a trade that's thousands of years older than that).

Origins of the Spice Trade

The first record of spices being used comes from the Assyrians (circa 3000 BCE). What is recorded is a myth that claims that the gods drank sesame wine on the night before they created the earth. Use of sesame as a flavouring is so ancient and widespread that it is difficult now to know the true origin of this spice. Though recent genetic evidence suggests that the plant originated near the Indian subcontinent. Thus the Assyrian myth represents our first historical evidence for an ancient spice trade.

Further evidence is provided by Egyptian records where, as far back as 2600 BCE, the labourers building Cheops' great pyramid were fed Asiatic spices to give them strength. Archaeological evidence from Sumeria (circa 2400 BCE) also suggests that cloves were popular in Syria (cloves could only be attained from the Indonesian Spice Islands, the Moluccas). Strong evidence that trade with the spice islands themselves is truly ancient.

Almost a millennium later, the remarkable Egyptian Ebers papyrus (dating to 1550 BCE) lists spices used for both medicinal and embalming procedures. Cassia and cinnamon, named in the papyrus, were essential for embalming; as were anise, marjoram and cumin — all used to rinse-out the body cavities of the worthy dead. Of these spices, cassia and cinnamon are both native to south-east Asia.

Hammurabi (1792–1750 BCE) in his legal codes introduced severe penalties for sloppy or unsuccessful surgeons. This led to the use of medicinal spices in Sumaria and engendered a major spice trade there.

Egyptian records reveal that one of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut's (1473–1458 BCE) most famous exploits was her expedition to  Punt (modern Somalia) where aromatic herbs and spices were gained and brought back to Egypt. Examination of the mummy of her descendant, Rameses II (died 1213 BCE) revealed that he had peppercorns (originating in India) inserted into each nostril.

All these separate pieces of evidence point towards the ancientness of the trade between the Middle East and India, China, South-east Asia and the Spice Islands of Indonesia. We also gain an indication of the economic importance of spices. Certainly they were worth legalizing, saving for royal burials and mounting large and expensive expeditions to  go in search of them.

During these ancient times spices were probably traded from local merchant to local merchant and made their way slowly from east to west (with the volume of each spice decreasing and its economic importance increasing with each trade).

Start of the Arabian Spice Trade

the ancient spice route

Fig 1: Map showing the ancient spice route from China to the spice islands of Indonesia and from Arabia to India and then to the Spice Islands. As well as the Mediterranean routes to Europe the old route across North Africa is shown. Also included on the map (blue lines) is the silk road extending from the Middle East to China.

By about 950 BCE Nabataean (northern Arabian) traders began caravanning through India and China using strings of camels and donkeys. They established the first of the great caravan routes — the Incense Route. However, unlike the great Silk Road from Arabia to China the Incense Route was not fixed and by 24 BCE it had largely become a sea trading route (the Spice Route). Much of the focus of the early Incense Route was on gaining incense and spices that could then be sold to the Greeks (and which could bypass the Persians, the Greeks' implacable enemies).

As the spice trade moved more into a maritime rather than an overland trade the Southern Arabic traders became more involved in the trade. In some respects the domination of the spice trade by both the Nabataeans and the Southern Arabians is a direct consequence of the Arabian Peninsula's location at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia. Factor into this the ancient over-land trade links between the Arab traders and the lands of India and China and it is hardly surprising that a Spice Route evolved to link Arabia with Baghdad, India, Guangzhou in China and the straits of Molucca (the Spice Islands).        

Certainly by the fifth century BCE the Arabic peoples had cornered the entire spice marked with the Mediterranean. To protect their very lucrative trade they created very elaborate tales as regards the origins of the spices they traded, as related by the Greek author, Herodotus (484–425 BCE). One of the most famous tales related by Herodotus tells of how cinnamon was obtained:
Their manner of collecting the cassia is the following: They cover all their body and their face with the hides of oxen and other skins, leaving only holes for the eyes, and thus protected go in search of the cassia, which grows in a lake of no great depth. All round the shores and in the lake itself there dwell a number of winged animals much resembling bats, which screech horribly, and are very valiant. These creatures they must keep from their eyes all the while that they gather the cassia. Still more wonderful is the mode in which they collect the cinnamon. Where the wood grows, and what country produces it, they cannot tell only some, following probability, relate that it comes from the country in which Bacchus was brought up. Great birds, they say, bring the sticks which we Greeks, taking the word from the Phoenicians, call cinnamon, and carry them up into the air to make their nests. These are fastened with a sort of mud to a sheer face of rock, where no foot of man is able to climb. So the Arabians, to get the cinnamon, use the following artifice. They cut all the oxen and asses and beasts of burden that die in their land into large pieces, which they carry with them into those regions, and place near the nests: then they withdraw to a distance, and the old birds, swooping down, seize the pieces of meat and fly with them up to their nests; which not being able to support the weight, break off and fall to the ground. Whereupon the Arabians return and collect the cinnamon which is afterwards carried from Arabia into other countries.
These tales were originally taken at face value, after all spices were known to be difficult and challenging to attain. Originating, as they did, in lands beyond the ken of man. But by the first century BCE Theophratus, whilst repeating the above tale, mentions known trade between Arabia and India in 'other spices'. By the time of the writing of his 'Natural Histories' (circa 30 CE) Pliny the Elder entirely discounts the tale (though he wrongly attributes the source of cassis as Ethiopia).

Certainly, by the second century BCE (as attested by both linguistic and archaeological evidence) the inhabitants of the Moluccas were trading in a circuit that extended from China in the east as far as India and even Arabia in the west. By the first century BCE the Arab traders were making direct voyages to India and the Chinese were making voyages throughout the entirety of the Malay archipelago to trade in the Moluccas. In effect the Spice Route had become an almost entirely maritime trading route.

Much of the trade was centred around Kerala in India (the heartlands of pepper production). From there the route either went northwards via the western Arabian peninsula before taking the over-land route to Baghdad (Figure 1) where it joined with the Silk Road. Alternatively trade went southwards towards the western Arabian peninsula and the coast of Egypt.  Recent excavations indicate that Quaseir-al-Quadim (ancient Myos Hormos, just north-east of Luxor) was a very important port in the spice trade as a whole. From there the spices either moved over-land to Libya, Spain and Europe or traversed the Mediterranean — first to destinations in Greece and then to Rome.

So lucrative was the spice trade that after his conquest of Egypt in 332–331 BCE Alexander the Great founded Alexandria as a port for the extension of the spice trade into the Mediterranean. Even though the Arab traders still effectively controlled the spice trade Alexandria grew wealthy simply on the duties levied on these exports — a fact that provides us with a good indication of how lucrative this trade actually was.

The Roman Age

As Alexandria was steadily growing wealthy on the back of the spice trade a new power was slowly raising to prominence in the Mediterranean. What had once been the rather backwards city state of Rome had grown into a giant naval and military power — so much so that by the mid second century BCE they referred to the Mediterranean sea as Mare Nostrum (Our Sea).

After the razing of Corinth in 146 BCE and the suppression of democracy in Greece the Greeks effectively became client peoples of Rome. This led to the adoption of Greek cooking methods by the Romans as more and more Greek cooks were brought as slaves to Rome. As a result Romans became huge consumers of spices.       

In 80 BCE Ptolemy XI bequeathed Alexandria to the Romans and under their leadership Alexandria became the world's greatest centre of commerce and the primary marketplace for the Arab-controlled spice trade. Much of this trade was with the Nabataeans — who were allies of Rome. Yet, during the first century CE the Roman demand for spices was causing concern for many notable Romans (amongst them Pliny the Elder) who rued the way that the Empire's gold seemed to flow steadily to the East. Pliny's aim was to expose the truth of the spice trade (rather than the fanciful legends proffered by Arab merchants).       

From an historical perspective this seems rather odd, as we know that during the reign of Ptolemy VII (circa 116 BCE) a Greek sailor did manage to sail with the trade winds to reach Kerala in India. This led to a nascent Egyptian spice trade (though it was dwarfed by the Arabian trade) where the Egyptian Greeks were careful to avoid long voyages close to the Arab-controlled shoreline of India. Despite the Romans having taken-over Alexandria it does seem that knowledge of this trade route was effectively lost.       

Resentment of he Arab stranglehold on the spice trade eventually led Rome — as was their want — to launch an invasion of Arabia in 24 BCE. This invasion, however, led to complete humiliation for the Roman legions. However, the defeat only made the Romans more determined to break the Arab monopoly. Intelligence on the spice trade was slowly gathered and in 40CE Hippalus, a Greek merchant, discovered the secret of the East Indian trade winds — a secret that the Arab traders had managed to keep hidden for almost a millennium. It turns out that the monsoons which act to nourish India's pepper vines actually reverse direction mid-year. Thus trips from the Red Sea coast of Egypt to India and back could be made far shorter and in greater safety than the Romans had ever imagined. Direct Roman trade with India blossomed and the Arab monopoly was broken.       

To us — who use pepper almost ubiquitously in our cooking — it is almost impossible to imagine how wonderful and miraculous this once-rare spice was in the past. For it modified the flavour of food and had the ability to preserve pickles and to mask the taste of tainted meat (crucial before refrigeration). Romans were the first major users of pepper and dishes employing pepper are described in Roman writings as early as the first century CE. By the fourth century over 85% of the recipes in Apicius' cook-book De Re Coquinaria used pepper as an ingredient.

In many ways, pepper was a valuable resource. So much so that salaries and tributes could be paid in pepper. Indeed, during the twilight of the Roman Empire when Alaric the Visigoth captured Rome in 440 CE he demanded 3000 peppercorns as part of the price for sparing Rome's inhabitants.

By the fourth century CE, however, the Roman trade with India began to weaken and decline, allowing Arab and Ethiopian merchants to re-gain control of the trade. With the move of the heart of the Roman empire to Constantinople the Roman spice trade revived during the fifth century CE but even this trade had dwindled almost to nothing by the sixth century.

The sixth century CE seems to represent a time of no real dominance over the spice trade — with Arabic, Ethiopian, Gudjrati and even Radhamite Jewish merchants plying the spice routes.       
This had a dramatic effect on Europe and led, ultimately to Europe's 'Age of Discovery' and the finding of the New World as well as the discovery of the location of the New World. You can read about this period in the history of the spice trade in the next section of this article: The Dark Ages and the Age of Discovery.       

History of the Spice Trade —The Middle Ages

As we shall see, the early history of Islam and the resurgence of the Arabic hold on the spice trade are inexorable intertwined. To understand why we have to go back to the very beginnings of the Muslim faith.

Indeed, Muhammad's first wife, Khadijeh was the widow of a spice trader and her wealth and prestiege were a driving force behind Muhammad himself. In 622 CE (1 AH [after Hajira in the Muslem calendar]), Muhammad made his journey from the 'pagan and wicked community' of Mekka to Yathrib (modern Medina) where the peoples 'lived in accordance with the moral teachings of Islam'. Muhammad's path on this journey was prepared by the local traders who eased his way.       

At Yathrib Muhammad obtained more converts and began building a powerful base for himself. This brought him into conflict with his Qurashi neighbours, quite probably as a result of a dominance struggle for the trade routes south. Desire for mastery of these trade routes brought the most significant expansion of the religion of Islam and saw its return to its homeland of Mekka.       

In effect Muhammad engendereda far more aggressive and expanionist form of Islam that still respected his own interest in the spice trade. Indeed, the spice routes became one of the main ways that early Islam was exported to other lands. As Islam can only be expressed in classical Arabic this meant the export of Arabic culture and language as well as belief.       

Over the next three centuries the nature of Islam solidified and crystallized so that by the tenth century CE the Qu'ran had been written and was widely distributed, the <em>hadith</em> had been codifeied (this is a collection of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad). The rights of Muslims and non-Muslims in a Muslim world had also been codified and though Jews and Christians had some protection as 'peoples of the book' they were still second-class citizens and if you were a true infidel then you had no protection under Muslim law. This distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim invariably led to the view of a dichotomous world where the Muslims lived in Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam [or Submission]) and everyone else dwelt in the Dar al-Harb (the House of War).    
Just as Islam was fortifying itself and consolidating its identity and steps were being taken to convert more followers Arabs were also becoming more and more involved in trading. Obviously Arabs had been involved in the spice trade for millennia already, but the conversion of the Arab world to the Muslim faith brought with it a characteristic Muslim attitude to improving the spice trade. Prior to Muslim conquest most trade was indirect and created by overlapping networks of local merchants who traded exclusively in their own domains. To make the spice trade exclusively Muslim the main staging posts along the spice route were conquered my Muslim forces. This way Muslims could travel the entire length of the trade routes themselves and did not have to rely on intermediaries. This also markedly increased their ability to spread the word of both Allah and Muhammad. By the end of the tenth century the entire spice route had been converted into a Muslim spice route under the exclusive control of Arab traders.         

In taking Alexandria in 641 CE and in stopping all communication with Europe by the mid eighth century the Muslim world brought down what's been termed the 'Islamic Curtain' between Europe and Asia and effectively ended the westward flow of spices with considerable consequences for Europe.

The European Dark Ages

This represents the period from about 641–1096 CE, the time of the 'Islamic Curtain' where all trade between Chirstian Europe and the Muslim East was curtailed. The westward flow of spices almost dried-up completely with only a few Jewish taders (who could dwell in both the Christian and Muslim worlds) briniging-in tiny amounts of very expensive spices. So expensive did these become that they could only be afforded by the very wealthy (we know that the Frankish Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties were able to source cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pepper). By the tenth century, however, the rise of the great city states of Venice and Genoa proved an almost irresistible source of wealth to Arab traders and spiecs began to trickle into Europe via these ports.
We know little of European diets from these times. There are no recipe books and what little information comes to us originates only from the largest courts. The reality is that spices would have been extremely expensive and by-and-large Feudal Europe was to poor to afford luxuries such as spices.

Fig 1: Map showing the ancient spice route from China to the spice islands of Indonesia and from Arabia to India and then to the Spice Islands. As well as the Mediterranean routes to Europe the old raoute across North Africa is shown. Also included on the map (blue lines) is the silk road extending from the Middle East to China.

The Crusades and After

This period in European history covers 1097 to 1490 CE. It also represents what is probably the most successful period in the Catholic Church's history, culminating in the Christianization of all of Northern Europe. This led to a large number of warrior peoples (such as the Vikings, Slavs and Magyars) being brought into the Christian fold. Christendom now had thousands of warriors within its borders with little to do. Many of these warriors were employed in the Reconquista in Spain and this is where the idea of a holy war to regain Christendom emerged. After the Byzantine emperor Alexius I called for help with defending his empire against the Seljuk Turks, in 1095 at the Council of Clermont Pope Urban II called upon all Christians to join a war against the Turks, a war which would count as full penance. Crusader armies marched to Jerusalem, sacking several cities on their way. In 1099, they took Jerusalem and massacred the population. The returning crusader knights brought with them treasure chests from the East. Chests filled not with treasures of gold and silver but rather peppercorns and rare spices.       

These rare spices were brought back to Northern Europe and they began to be used in regular cookery. Both the tastes and the modes of living of the East created a lasting impression on the Crusader knights and they had a profound effect on the cuisine and habits of Europe. Oddly enough trade with the East opened up and the ports of Genoa and Venice in the south and Antwerp and Bruges began to supply the increasing demand for spices. It is interesting in fact, when looking at recipes from this period in the Medieval age just how highly spiced some of the dishes are. However, Venice's almosot exclusive deal with the Arab traders meant that by the thirteenth century almost the entire profits from the European spice trade went to Venice. Yet the Venetian traders wanted a greater slice of the spice pie for themselves and in about 1271 Marco Polo set out overland from Venice across the Crimea in search of the fabled gems and spices of the far east.

Once again spices became an essential part of everyday European life. So much so that by 1180 a Pepperers' guild had been established in London that was rapidly transformed into a Spicers' guild. The members of these guilds were in effect the forerunners of apothecaries and spices beceame one of the most important ingredients in the medical practice of the age. This period in history also corresponds with the great Mongol expansion, beginning with the conquests of Genghis Khan (1162–1227). The Mongolian Khans effectively controlled the entirety of the Silk Road and trade with Europe redoubled. Many merchant families (especially from Venice) funded their own caravans to the east and became wealthy on the proceeds. Such a family were the Polos of Venice and in 1271 Marco Polo travelled with his father Niccólo and uncle Maffeo (who had previously journeyed to Cathay [China]) with the Pope's response to Kubulai Khan's request for educated people to come and teach Christianity and Western customs to his people. They travelled to Kubulai Khan's court where Marco became a favourite of the Khan and was employed for 17 years. In 1291 Kublai entrusted Marco with his final duty, to escort the Mongol princess Koekecin to her betrothed, the Ilkhan Arghun. They reached the Ilkhanate in 1293 and from there moved to Trabzon where they set sail for Venice. On their return from China in 1295, the family settled in Venice where they became a sensation and attracted crowds of listeners who had difficulties in believing their reports of distant China. Marco Polo was later captured in a minor clash of the war between Venice and Genoa, He spent the few months of his imprisonment, in 1298, dictating to a fellow prisoner, Rustichello da Pisa, a detailed account of his travels in the then-unknown parts of the Far East. This journey became on of the most celebrated early travelogues and became one of the inspirations for the later 'Age of Discovery'.
As well as bringing spices to Europe it is also quite possible that the Spice route brought with it the Black Death that first struck Europe in 1347–1351 CE. Indeed, the disease first seems to have struck China in the mid 1330s and spread along the overland trade routes, first to the Middle East and then Europe. The high mortality of the Black Death caused major social upheaval in the lands which it struck. This led to pressure on the overland trade routes as the Khanate of the Mongols collapsed and various factions vied for dominance across the Arab world. Raiding became rife and the overland routes to the East became unsafe. However, a small amount of spice still managed to find its way into Europe by way of Constantinople. But a resurgent Ottoman Empire was slowly closing-off all the trade routes and by 1453 with the fall of Constantinople the final overland route for spices into Europe was closed off. This effectively left Venice with a virtual monopoly on all spice reaching Europe by the sea routes. So confident were the Egyptians of the Venetian monopoly (they controlled the port of Alexandria from whence the spice reaced Venice) that in 1453 they intorduced a tarrif on all the spices leaving Alexandria that ammounted to a third of the total value of the spices.       

Obviously, the situation for the remainder of Europe was untenable and the only solution was to find the sea route to the spice lands. This was the impetus for the period in European history that later became known as 'The Age of Discovery'.

History Of the Spice Trade — The European Ages of Discovery and Conquest

The Age of Discovery

After the break-up of the Mongol Empire (which had protected European trade to the East) and the rise of the Ottoman Empire, Europe had effectively become blockaded from the spice and silk routes. To get around this the Portugese were attempting to seek an eastward sea route to the Indes and had already established trading posts along the African coastline. By the 1480s a Genoese by the name of Christopher Columbus had devised a plan to sail to the Indes (the European term for all of south and east Asia at the time) by way of the 'Ocean Sea' (The Atlantic). Columbus' plan was based on the calculations of Marinus of Tyre as regards the amount of landmass on the Earth and his own calculations that put the earth's circumference at 25 255km (rather than the actual figure of 69 800km). This made a voyage across the Atlantic from the Azores to Cipango (Japan: known from Marco Polo's writings). However, most experts did not agree with Columbus' estimates of the Earth's circumference as they considered the Earth to be considerably larger. This meant that no ship of the age could carry sufficient provisions to make the westward voyage possible. Columbus' voyage would never had been funded if, after eight centuries of struggle against the Muslims Spain had not been unified through the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella. This led to a resurgence of religious fervour is Spain and a desire to out-compete the Portugese. It took seven years of lobbying at the Spanish court (though he was retained on a salary the entire time) for Columbus' plan to be funded. But August 3rd 1492 three caravels left Palos on the dangerous voyage to the west. After 29 days out of sight of land, on 7 October 1492 as recorded in the ship's log the crew spotted shore birds flying west and changed direction to make their landfall. In fact they had reached the Bahamian Islands and Columbus called where they made landfall San Salvador. They reached Spain on the 3rd March 1493 where Columbus displayed the gold he had found along with the tobacco plant, the pineapple and the turkey. He also brought captive natives to show to the court. What Columbus failed to bring back was any of the fabled spices of the Indes. Though he did write about the aji 'which is their pepper, which is more valuable than black pepper, and all the people eat nothing else, it being very wholesome'. These, of course, were chilli peppers and along with calling the Americas the East Indes, the inhabitants Indians Columbus named chilli 'red pepper': all sources of confusion to this very day. In 1493 Columbus made his second voyage and this time he did discover an economically-important spice in the West Indes. This was the dried unripe fruit of Pimenta dioica which was claimed to combine the flavour of cloves, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg (hence the English name of 'allsipice'). This qickly gained favour in Europe and paved the way for a spice trade from the New World.       

What Columbus had realy discovered were the Americas and not the Indes and though it was a momentous event in terms of world history the Americas could not have any significant effect on the spice trade for several centuries to come. In reality, it can be argued (at least from an economic standpoint) that the Age of Discovery proper began with the voyages of Vasco da Gama who was comissioned by King Manuel I of Portugal to find Christian lands in the East (many Christians at the time that India was the legendary Christian Kingdom of Prester Jonhn) nd to gain Portuguese access to the commercial markets of the Orient. On the 18th of July 1497 da Gama's fleet of four vessels left Lisbon. They used the the route pioneered by Bartolomeu Dias in 1486 to round the Cape of Good Hope. By December 16th the fleet had passed the White River, South Africa where Dias' expedition had turned back. By January they had reached Mozambique and were in the hertlands of the Arab spice traders. At Malindi they encountered a friendly port and there they contracted the services of Ibn Majid, an Arab navigator and cartographer, whose knowledge of the monsoon winds allowed him to bring the expedition the rest of the way to Calicut (modern Kozhikode) on the southwest coast of India where they areived on 20 May 1498. da Gama had brough no real trade goods with him and effectively he returned to Portugal empty handed. Yet the voyage had been made and a route to India was possible. da Gama's voyage also made it clear that gaining a foothold on the eastern coast of Africa was essential in terms of developing a spice trade for there fresh water and provisions could be obtained for the voyage to India. On his second voyage (1502) da Gama took a fleet of twenty warships and he used this to smash a fleet of twenty-nine ships from Calicut, southern India, effectively conquering the city and securing a Portugese foothold in the lands of pepper. da Gama was, of course, a man of his time who brough monks with him to preach Christian doctrine. He could be very cruel to Muslims and would often use torture to make his point. However, from a Portugese viewpoint the da Gama's second voyage was a great success and as he and subsequent Portugese explorers returned to Lisbon with their holds full of spices the Venetians and Egyptians were stunned, especially as the price of pepper in Lisbon fell to a fifth  of that in Venice. The Egyptian and Venetian monopoly on the spice trade had been resoundingly shattered.       

Competition between Spain and Portugal grew fierce during this period and Pope Alexander IV was brought into the quarrel to keep the two expansionist powers apart. This resulted in the Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the world outside of Europe in an exclusive duopoly between the Spanish and the Portuguese along a north-south meridian 370 leagues (1770 km; 1100 miles) west of the Cape Verde islands (off the west coast of Africa), roughly 46° 37' W in the mid Atlantic. The lands to the east would belong to Portugal and the lands to the west to Spain. The treaty was ratified by Spain, July 2, and by Portugal, September 5, 1494.       

During this time the Portugese explorer Pedro Álvars Cabral sailed westwards in 1500 to discover Brazil. It was perceived that the new country lay east of the line of demarcation made by the Treaty of Tordesillas and messengers were sent to Portugal with the important tidings.

 In terms of the spice trade Portugal's greatest coup came in 1511/1512, initailly with Afonso de Albuquerque's 1510–1511 expedition to Calicut and Malacca. In the name of Portugal Albuquerque was determined to dominate the Muslim world and to control the spice trade. Though his attack against Calicut (modern Kozhikode in India) in January 1510 was unsuccessful the subsequent move against Goa was succesful and the city was captured. Though he was unable to hold the town and was forced to return in November of the same year with re-enforcements. He next directed his forces against the Sultanate of Malacca (Modern Malaysia), which he subdued on  August 24th 1511. Remaining in the town for almost a year he had all he Muslim population slaughtered to reduce religious divergence and secured this important tading port for the Protugese. Malacca was the port from which the Portugese navigator, António de Abreu was able, in 1512 to depart on an exploratory voyage to the Moluccas. He discovered the island of Timor and most importantly the Banda Islands, the world's only source of nutmeg and mace. After filling their holds with this treasuere the Portugese began to plan their return. One of their ships ran aground on a remote island. However, on hearing of the strange race of white men who had arrived in his realm the sultan of Ternate (the most important of the clove islands) sent for them and thus the Portugese uncovered the final secret of the spice trade.

Meanwhile, the Spanish, still hoping for an eastern route to the spice islands funded an expedition of five ships in 1519, led by Ferdinand Magellan. They travelled westwards and down the coast of South America, discovering the passage to the pacific (the Magellan Straits) on November 1st 1521 (indeed it was Magellan who named the sea Mare Pacifico because of the waters' apparent stillness). Setting on a north-westerly heading they eached the equator on February 13, 1521. On March 6, they reached the Marianas and on March 16, the island of Homonhon in the Philippines (by this time only 150 crewmen were left). Magellan was able to communicate with the native peoples because his Malay interpreter could understand their language. They traded gifts with Rajah Kolambu of Limasawa, who guided them to Cebu, on April 7. Rajah Humabon of Cebu was friendly to them, and even agreed to accept Christianity. However, this initial frendliy meeting with the natives of the Phillipines proved misleading and Magellan was killed in the Battle of Mactan against indigenous forces led by Lapu-Lapu on April 27, 1521. The surviving crew reached the Spice Islands on November 6 1521, however 115 crew survived so that only two ships (the Victoria and Trinidad) could be crewed.  Both ships were laden with spice and began their westwards journey. However, it was soon discovered that the Trinidad was taking-on water. The Victoria headed for Spain alone as the Trinidad sought repairs. However, the Trinidad was captured by the Portugese and she was finally destroyed whilst at anchor in a Protugese prot. But, on September 6th 1522 the Victoria arrived in Spain with a tonne of spices on board. This was one of the world's great voyages, but ultimately it was to no avail as the Portugese had already sown-up the spice trade.

The Portugese had cornered the spice market to Europe for everything apart from cloves. For Ternate, though the main clove island had a Twin, Tidore sited little more than a kilometer from it. The rulers of these islands were linked by marriage, yet as is often the case, they were riven by rivalry and internecine strife. For much of the sixteenth century Spain and Protugal sought to gain overall control of the clove trade. Both countries entangled themselves in the long-running rivalreies between the two islands. Somehow the sultans always managed to keep the upper hand and no sooner was Spain or Protugal invited in than they were kicked out again or became embroiled in endless intrigues. These machinations lasted for decates, and Portugal eventually emerged as the dominant European player in the clove market. However, this never became a Portugese monopoly and they even allowed the Dutch to become their chief distributors in North and Western Europe.

All this came to an end in 1580 when Spain conquered Portugal. As a result Spain effectively became the only player in the spice market. They cut the Dutch out of the picture entirely and began raising prices across Europe.

This left all of Europe's other major sea-faring nations (England, the Netherlands and France) out in the cold. Firstly becuase the Treaty of Tordesillas had split the world between Spain and Protugal and most importantly for the Netherlands, they were no longer the agents for the conquered Portugese and has lost their slice of the spice pie. For Britain and France the answer was privateering &#x2014; effectively state-sponsored piracy with great captains like Francis Drake attempting to capture as many Spanish ships and their cargoes as possible. During this time the northern territories of the Netherlands became the 'United Provinces of the Netherlands' and in 1579 effectively became independent of Spain. In 1577 Sir Francis Drake began his famous circumnavigation of the globe and in 1580 he brought his Golden Hind, fully-laden with treasures and spices into Plymouth. The Netherlands, gearing-up to be a maritime power funded a fleet under the command of Cornelis de Houtman that sailed to the Spice islands in 1595. de Houtman was no ambassador and he voyage was an unmitigated disaster in terms of establishing Dutch relations with the east Indes. However, the voyage can be seen as a symbolic victory and represents the start of the Dutch colonisation of Indonesia. In 1588 the Spanish Armada sailed against England and due to a combination of bad weather and Drake's use of fire ships the armada was defeated and scattered. This went some way to ending Spain's dominance as a maritime power. On December 31st 1600 Elizabeth I created the 'East India Company' by charter. The Netherlands formed their own Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie generally known as the VOC) in 1602. Several other contries such as Portugal, France, Sweden and Austria also created their own East India Companies during this time but none were ever as succesful as the VOC. 

Fig 1: Map showing the voyages of the Portuguese navigators between 1494 and 1549 (green) overlaid on the ancient spice trade routes (red) and the silk road route (blue) as well as the ancient over-land route between Africa and Europe (purple). From their first voyage to Brazil in 1494 the Portugese traversed Cape Horn in the 1500s, travelled to India by 1511 and to Malacca (Phillipines) by 1512. In 1542 they voyaged to China and by 1549 had reached Japan and circumnavigated the globe.

The Age of Conquest

By 1670 the VOC was the world's richest corporation and managed to py their shareholders an annual dividend of 40% on their investments &2014; all this whilst employing their own standing army and navy. Of course, the military muscle that the VOC could command was a significant prt of their sucess, for when it came to bolstering their spice trade they had absolutely no scruples whatsoever. So desparate were the VOC for a foothold on the spice islands (especially the nutmeg islands of the Banda archipelago) that they exchanged one of their early colonies in the Americas, the swamp of New Amsterdam, for the British Island of Run. Of course, New Amsterdam eventually became Manhattan in New York. It just so happened that the nutmeg islands of Banda were under Muslim control and were fiercely independent, and traded with any Eurpean nation that wished to trade with them. This did not suit the VOC's mode of operation at all. Under the auspices of the VOC's most successful head, Jan Pieterszoon Coen convinced the 'reluctant' Bandanese to relent to his company's god-given right to monopolize the nutmeg trade. To do this he gathered together all the males over 15 that he could find the had them butchered. He then brought in Japanese mercenaries to torture, quarter and then decapitate village leaders before displaying the severed heads on poles. Witin fifteen years of the VOC arriving on the Bandu islands their population had collapsed by seventeen-fold to just 600. But they had their monopoly on the nutmeg trade.        

Turning its attentions to the clove trade the VOC secured a monopoly by simply uprooting all the clove trees on Ternate and Tidore so that they could concentrate production on the island of Ambon, which it controlled. The death penalty was imposed on anyone caught growing, or posessing nutmeg or clove trees without authorization. They would even soak nutmegs in lime to prevent them from being viable. Yet, despite all this on Ternate's inacessible volcanic slopes there survives a 400-year-old clove tree, named Afo planted in defiance of the Dutch ban. Indeed, it was from this tree that a Frenchman (named Poivre) attained seedlings in 1770 that were transported to flourish in the Seychelles, Réunion and Zanzibar. In 1641 the VOC captured the city of Malacca which brought them control of the Malay peninsula and in 1658 they gained control of the cinnamon trade in Sri Lanka. When in 1663 they established exclusive trading rights to the pepper exports of the Malabar coast of western India so that by the end of the seventeenth century the Netherlands had essentially conrnered the marked in Asian spices. However, but this time culinary fashions in Europe were changing and a simpler, much less heavily-spiced form of cookery as exemplified by de la Varenne. By the mid eighteenth century, tastes had changed completely and the heavily-spiced recipes of the middle ages were seen as faintly ridiculous. The VOC found itself faced with tumbling spice prices. Indeed, by the end of the seventeenth century the VOC's profits had been tumbling steadily year on year and by the 1730s textiles had replaced spices as the VOC's main income earner. The situation had become so bad in the spice trade that the VOC was burning its own produce to artificially inflate spice prices.

Matters came to a head in 1780 with the fourth Anglo-Dutch war. The previous two decades had seen Britain surpass the Netherlands in terms of income and naval power and this led to Dutch jealousies and they began to support the North American rebels. Britain retaliated with its navy which attacked the Dutch ships of the line and also blockaded the Dutch ports on the Indian Malabar coast. These then passed into British hands and lead to almost 50 years of conflict over the Asiatic ports. However in 1824 a treaty was signed that distributed the East Indes between Britain and the Netherlands. The Dutch monopoly was effectively broken and by 1799 the VOC itself went bankrupt. During the British interregnum of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) British forces temporary control of the Banda Islands from the Dutch and transplanted nutmeg trees to their own colonial holdings elsewhere, notably Zanzibar and Grenada. Between British and French efforts the major spice-producing plants had been transplanted to British and French-controlled interests all over the world. All spice monopolies had been broken and could never occur again.

By the start of the nineteenth century the spice trade had been transformed forever. No longer was a single company or a single nation dominatinig the trade nor coulda single island dominate the trade for a single spice as the spice trees had been transported across the globe. Where there had once been secrecy and a 3000 year quest for domination and control of various spices there was now a truly global international spice market.

The quest for spices transformed the world and drove much of European expansion for the profits from these rare commodities could make individuals and entire countries vastly wealthy.