Buying black pepper, cinnamon, cloves and other spices is so inexpensive now that it seems hard to believe that once, they were valued as highly as gold and silver.
Archaeologists estimate that from as far back as 50,000 B.C. humans had used the special qualities of aromatic plants to help flavor their food. The primitive human would have utilized the sweet-smelling spices in order to make food taste better. They would have offered all sorts of aromatic herbs to their primitive gods and used the spices for healing properties. From that moment on, spices played an important role in human existence.
Spice Trade in the Ancient World
Trade in the ancient world included the use of caravans with as many as 4,000 camels carrying the treasures from the east, namely, spices. We can imagine the caravans trudging along from Calicut, Goa and the Orient to the spice markets in Babylon, Carthage, Alexandria, and Rome. For hundreds of years, traders also used ships which sailed along the Indian coast, past the Persian Gulf, along the coast of South Arabia, and finally through the Red Sea into Egypt. Trade in antiquity was subject to constant robberies, storms and shipwrecks, and piracy. Despite the setbacks, however, spices were in such great demand (especially during the highly developed Greek and Roman eras) that the profits outweighed the risks.
The most lucrative of the spice traders during this time were the Arabians. South Arabia was the great spice emporium in antiquity. In The Story of Spices, there is an anecdote as told by Herodotus about the “method” the Arabians had used to gather cinnamon:
Great birds, they say, bring the sticks which we Greeks call cinnamon, and carry them up into the air to make their nests. The Arabians, to get the cinnamon, use the following artifice. They cut all the oxen and beasts of burden that die in their land into large pieces and place them 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. Hereupon the Arabians return and collect the cinnamon, which is afterwards carried from Arabia to other countries. (Parry 38)
By taking advantage of the fact that people during this time believed in witchcraft, charms, omens, and magic, the Arabians had convinced the rest of the Ancient world that the only way they could obtain the valuable spices was by trading with the Arabians. The Arabians used mythological stories to hide the true sources of the spices and therefore succeeded in acquiring the first monopoly on the spice trade.
The Portuguese in India
In 1498 during the Age of Discovery, Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut, India and changed the course of history. Da Gama’s discovery of an alternate route to India marked the beginning of the short-lived dominion the Portuguese had on the spice trade (See Salman Rushdie). Under the impetus of the spice trade, Portugal expanded territorially and commercially. By the year 1511, the Portuguese were in control of the spice trade of the Malabar coast of India and Ceylon. Until the end of the 16th century, their monopoly on the spice trade to India was exceptionally profitable for the Portuguese.
The main product brought back to Lisbon was black pepper. Pipernigrum was as valuable as gold in the age of discovery. In the 16th century, over half of Portugal’s state revenue came from West African gold and Indian pepper and other spices. The proportion of the spices greatly outweighed the gold.
The Portuguese monopoly on the pepper trade was not a long one, however, because they faced many problems from competition and from the pepper growers. By the 1580s the imports of pepper into Venice had increased, and that into Portugal had declined. Portugal had little to no control over the areas where pepper was grown. There were many instances of “illegal” trading. Cargoes were hijacked inland and taken to the Red Sea by coolies or bullocks over the mainland. When the 1590s rolled around, the Dutch attacked and successfully put an end to the Portuguese monopoly.
Spice Consumption in Europe during the Renaissance
People in the Renaissance found many uses for spices and the spice trade was basic to the Renaissance economy. Pepper was used to preserve and to flavor spoiled meat. Cloves and cinnamon were used as substitutes for cleanliness and ventilation. They were strewn across the floor to prevent foot odor from permeating the room. People carried around pieces of nutmeg fitted with a tiny grater, ready to season unsavory, unpalatable food. Around many a Renaissance throat there hung spicy pomander to ward off suffocation, illness, and odor. The spice supplier for most of the countries in Europe was India. Pepper originated out off Cochin and the Malabar Coast, cinnamon and cardamom were native to Ceylon, and cloves were grown in the coast of the Bay of Bengal.(See Kerala and The God of Small Things)
The Dutch and English in India
With the waning power of the Portuguese apparent, the Dutch and the English saw their opportunity to gain power in the spice trade world in India.
The Dutch entered the competition in earnest at the end of the 16th century. Dutch explorers Van Houtman and Van Neck made friends with native sultans and organized trading posts which eventually gave Holland the monopoly in the early 17th century. In 1658, the cinnamon trade in Ceylon was under their control, and in 1663, the best pepper ports on the Malabar Coast were theirs. When prices for cinnamon or other spices fell too low in Amsterdam, they would burn the spices.
England was an immense threat to the Portuguese and later, the Dutch, because they were a power at sea. In 1600, the British East India Company was chartered by Queen Elizabeth I, and its major objective was obtaining spice cargoes. The British worked slowly in their attempt to gain the power away from the Dutch, and finally in 1780, England and Holland started a war which severely weakened Dutch power in India. By the 1800s everything that once belonged to Portugal and Holland was controlled by the British.
Spice growers now export their products through their own organizations or through exporting houses. Spices are now distributed by food manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers. With the advances in technology and science, too, spices are now able to flourish in other parts of the world with similar climates as India.
- Baker, J.N.L. A History of Geographical Discovery and Exploration. London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1931.
- Boxer, C.R. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire. London: Hutchinson, 1969, 1415-1825
- Disney, A. R. Twilight of the Pepper Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.
- King, Leonard W. Babylonian Magic and Sorcery. London: Luzac & Co., 1896.
- Parry, John W. The Story of Spices. New York: Chemical Publishing Co., Inc., 1953.
- Pearson, M.N. The Portuguese in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
- Sykes, Brigadier General Sir Percy. A History of Exploration. London: George Routledge & Sons Ltd., 1934.
Author: Louise Marie M. Cornillez, Spring 1999
Last edited: October 2017