Spices were not only used as flavorings or food preservatives, but they were also used in religious ceremonies, cosmetics and embalming fluids, and even medicines and alternative remedies since ages (for example, cinnamon was once thought to cure the plague). This made spices highly sought after by people all over the world, and many wanted to get their hands on them at any cost. The result? The Spice Trade was born!
Brief History of the Spice Route
The history of trade is a bit complex, and it’s not something that you can simply explain with a single example. Still, it is important to understand how important spices were to trade in ancient times. A vital part of early commerce, spice trading helped shape our modern world by introducing new forms of government and diplomacy. In fact, many of our current forms of government came out of their efforts to control land and find new means for increasing revenue.
Spices in Greece and Rome
The western world’s trade and use of spices in ancient Greece and Rome was very different from that of other civilizations in which they mainly imported spices as opposed to producing them locally. Because of their focus on importing, bulk spices (such as pepper) were more important to Greek and Roman traders than precious or rare spices (such as cinnamon), while they often had only scant knowledge about their origins. The Greeks, for example, seemed not to have known precisely where pepper came from, referring to it simply as India-rubber or land-pepper. In fact, there is evidence that much of what we know about spice trade in ancient Greece comes from later writers such as Pliny and Dioscorides.
Spices in the Byzantine Empire
Spices were an important source of income for Byzantium. As a result, overland trade routes would often be altered to pass through Byzantine territory. This led to improvements in transportation and shipping, which in turn made goods cheaper for everyone involved. The Silk Road, for example, took on new importance as trade with Byzantium increased – after all, what merchant wouldn’t want to get access to those much-desired bulk spices?
Revival of Spice Trade Under Islam
By 622 A.D., Arabian traders had already established a trade route that connected East Africa to India via Egypt, Syria and Turkey. This involved shipping bulk spices in exchange for gold. One of these spices was black pepper, which has long been used for seasoning food and medicine. As part of their cultural preservation efforts, Muslims outlawed alcohol consumption during their rule in India from 1206-1526 A.D. In order to flavor food without using wine or beer, people started using black pepper as an alternative seasoning. The spice’s popularity soared as a result and exports from Kerala –the main source of black pepper– peaked at over 150 tons in 1513 A.D., accounting for about 75% of world trade at that time!
Fall of Constantinople – Rediscovery of Routes by Europe
In 1453, Constantinople fell to Mehmet II after a five-week siege. The capture of the great city by a Turkish sultan was deeply shocking to Christendom, and was viewed as both a cataclysmic event in itself and also one that presaged further advances against Christendom’s eastern flank.
Age of Discovery – Diffusion in Europe
These discoveries in India and East Asia were crucial to European merchants, who were now able to supply and stock their own colonies in Asia with a fresh supply of goods, such as spices. The new Age of Discovery began when Portuguese and Spanish explorers sailed along West Africa’s coast (1400s) and rounded Africa on its southern tip (1500s). Portuguese explorers reached Asia by sea in 1498; Vasco da Gama travelled along the Cape of Good Hope to Calicut (India), which was under Ottoman Empire control. In 1500, Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan journeyed across oceans from Spain to South America and back again, proving that it was possible for ships to cross oceans.
Colonialism – New Way to Export Spices
Before we can discuss how colonialism changed India’s spice trade, we have to first understand why spices are so important. In essence, it was cheaper for Europe to buy their spices from India than it was to produce them domestically. For example, in France it would cost about 50 livres for a pound of cinnamon; however, in India at that time, one could purchase three pounds of cinnamon for only 2 livres.
Modern Use of Spices
With the vast presence of Indian spices online, almost anyone can cook like a professional. The usage of spices to liven up otherwise boring dishes is as old as mankind itself. From Asia and Africa to Europe and America, every culture has some sort of spice tradition that brings added flavour to our meals. And while professionals still use many exotic flavours in their cooking, they’re not quite as hard to come by as they once were.
Final Thoughts on the Spice Trade
The impact of globalized spice trade was truly revolutionary. While spices may seem like a small thing, they had lasting impacts on world history. For example, before Columbus’ voyage to India and China, Venice was already one of Europe’s largest markets for spices and in particular pepper. On their return from Asia after bringing back large cargoes of pepper, Portuguese merchants flooded Venice with cheap Indian pepper so that even local Italian production couldn’t compete. This directly led to Venetian manufacturers moving away from silk and into spices as a way to build their wealth. In short, you can’t properly understand Europe’s Renaissance without looking at its spice trade with Asia.
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