The spice trade refers to the trade between historical civilizations in Asia, Northeast Africa and Europe. Spices such as cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, pepper, and turmeric were known and used in antiquity for commerce in the Eastern World. These spices found their way into the Middle East before the beginning of the Christian era, where the true sources of these spices were withheld by the traders and associated with fantastic tales.
The maritime aspect of the trade was dominated by the Austronesian peoples in Island Southeast Asia who established the precursor trade routes from Southeast Asia (and later China) to Sri Lanka and India by at least 1500 BC. These goods were then transported by land further on towards the Mediterranean and the Greco-Roman world via the Incense route and the Roman-India routes by Indian and Persian traders. The Austronesian maritime trade lanes later expanded into the Middle East and eastern Africa by the 1st millennium AD, resulting in the Austronesian colonization of Madagascar.
Within specific regions, Kingdom of Axum (c. 5th-century BC–AD 11th century) had pioneered the Red Sea route before the 1st century AD. During the first millennium, Ethiopians became the maritime trading power of the Red Sea. By this period, trade routes from Sri Lanka (the Roman Taprobane) and India were also largely controlled by Tamils who had acquired maritime technology from early Austronesian contact. By mid-7th century AD after the rise of Islam, Arab traders started plying these maritime routes and dominated the western Indian Ocean maritime routes.
Arab traders eventually took over conveying goods via the Levant and Venetian merchants to Europe until the rise of the Seljuk Turks and later the Ottoman Turks cut the route again by 1090 and 1453 respectively. 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 East Asia and shipping spices from trading emporiums in India westward to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, from which overland routes led to Europe.
The trade was changed by the Crusades and later the European Age of Discovery, during which the spice trade, particularly in black pepper, became an influential activity for European traders. The Cape Route from Europe to the Indian Ocean via the Cape of Good Hope was pioneered by the Portuguese explorer navigator Vasco da Gama in 1498, resulting in new maritime routes for trade.
This trade, which drove the world economy from the end of the Middle Ages well into the Renaissance, ushered in an age of European domination in the East. Channels, such as the Bay of Bengal, 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 many of these problems by pioneering a direct ocean route from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sunda Strait in Indonesia.
The Egyptians had traded in the Red Sea, spices from the "Land of Punt" and from Arabia. Luxury goods traded along the Incense Route included Indian 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 the trade grow. The Ptolemaic dynasty had developed trade with India using the Red Sea ports.
People from the Neolithic period traded in spices, obsidian, sea shells, precious stones and other high-value materials as early as the 10th millennium BC. The first to mention the trade in historical periods are the Egyptians. In the 3rd millennium BC, they traded with the Land of Punt, which is believed to have been situated in an area encompassing northern Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea and the Red Sea coast of Sudan.
The first true maritime trade network in the Indian Ocean was by the Austronesian peoples of Island Southeast Asia, who built the first ocean-going ships. They established trade routes with Southern India and Sri Lanka as early as 1500 BC, ushering an exchange of material culture (like catamarans, outrigger boats, lashed-lug and sewn-plank boats, and paan) and cultigens (like coconuts, sandalwood, bananas, and sugarcane); as well as connecting the material cultures of India and China. Indonesians, in particular were trading in spices (mainly cinnamon and cassia) with East Africa using catamaran and outrigger boats and sailing with the help of the Westerlies in the Indian Ocean. This trade network expanded to reach as far as Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, resulting in the Austronesian colonization of Madagascar by the first half of the first millennium AD. It continued up to historic times, later becoming the Maritime Silk Road.
In the first millennium BC the Arabs, Phoenicians, and Indians were engaged in sea and land trade in luxury goods such as spices, gold, precious stones, leather of rare animals, ebony and pearls. The sea trade was in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The sea route in the Red Sea was from Bab-el-Mandeb to Berenike and from there by land to the Nile and then by boats to Alexandria. The land trade was in deserts of Western Arabia using camels.
In the second half of the first millennium BC the Arab tribes of South and West Arabia took control over the land trade of spices from South Arabia to the Mediterranean Sea. The tribes were the M'ain, Qataban, Hadhramaut, Saba and Himyarite. In the north the Nabateans took control of the trade route that crossed the Negev from Petra to Gaza. The trade made the Arab tribes very rich. The South Arabia region was called Eudaemon Arabia (the elated Arabia) by the Greeks and was on the agenda of conquests of Alexander of Macedonia before he died. The Indians and the Arabs had control over the sea trade with India. In the late second century BC, the Greeks from Egypt learned from the Indians how to sail directly from Aden to the West coast of India using the monsoon winds (Hippalus) and took control over the sea trade.
Arab trade and medieval Europe
Rome played a part in the spice trade during the 5th century, but this role, unlike the Arabian one, did not last through the Middle Ages. The rise of Islam brought a significant change to the trade as Radhanite Jewish and Arab merchants particularly from Egypt eventually took over conveying goods via the Levant to Europe.
The Spice trade had brought great riches to the Abbasid Caliphate, and even inspired famous legends such as that of Sinbad the Sailor. These early sailors and merchants would often set sail from the port city of Basra and eventually after many voyages they would return to sell their goods including spices in Baghdad. The fame of many spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon are attributed to these early Spice merchants.
The Indian commercial connection with South East Asia proved vital to the merchants of Arabia and Persia during the 7th and 8th centuries. Arab traders – mainly descendants of sailors from Yemen and Oman – dominated maritime routes throughout the Indian Ocean, tapping source regions in the Far East – linking to the secret "spice islands" (Maluku Islands and Banda Islands). The islands of Molucca also find mention in several records: a Javanese chronicle (1365) mentions the Moluccas and Maloko; and navigational works of the 14th and 15th centuries contain the first unequivocal Arab reference to Moluccas. Sulaima al-Mahr writes: "East of Timor [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 ....."
Moluccan products were then shipped to trading emporiums in India, passing through ports like Kozhikode, and through Sri Lanka. from there they were shipped westward across the ports of Arabia to the Near East, to Ormus in the Persian Gulf and Jeddah in the Red Sea and sometimes shipped to East Africa, where they would be used for many purposes, including burial rites. The Abbasids used Alexandria, Damietta, Aden and Siraf 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 Yemen.
Indian spice exports find mention in the works of Ibn Khurdadhbeh (850), al-Ghafiqi (1150), Ishak bin Imaran (907) and Al Kalkashandi (14th century). Chinese traveler Xuanzang mentions the town of Puri where "merchants depart for distant countries."
From there, overland routes led to the Mediterranean coasts. From the 8th until the 15th century, the Republic of Venice and neighboring maritime republics held the monopoly of European trade with the Middle East. The silk and spice trade, involving spices, incense, herbs, drugs and opium, made these Mediterranean city-states phenomenally rich. Spices were among the most expensive and in-demand products of the Middle Ages, used in medicine. They were all imported from Asia and Africa. Venetian merchants distributed then the goods through Europe until the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which eventually led to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, barring Europeans from important combined land-sea routes.
Age of European Discovery: finding a new route and a New World
The Republic of Venice had become 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. 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 Venice and Genoa acting as a middle man.
In 1453, however, the Ottomans took Constantinople 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 out 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 Hope 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 Hope, continuing to the eastern coast of Africa to Malindi to sail across the Indian Ocean to Calicut, on the Malabar Coast. in south India – the capital of the local Zamorin rulers. The wealth of the Indies was now open for the Europeans to explore; the Portuguese Empire was the earliest European seaborne empire to grow from the spice trade.
It was during this time that Italian, Spanish and Portuguese explorers first set foot on the New World. Christopher Columbus was the first to do so in 1492 while sailing westward across the Atlantic Ocean on an expedition to the indies. Instead of reaching Asia, Columbus reached the Americas, landing on an island in what is now the Bahamas. Believing to have in fact reached India, the crew named the natives "Indians", a name which has continued in use to this day, to describe the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Just eight years later in 1500, the Portuguese navigator, Pedro Álvares Cabral while attempting to reproduce Vasco da Gama's Atlantic route to the Cape and India was blown westwards to what is today Brazil. After taking possession of the new land, Cabral resumed his voyage across the Atlantic to the southern tip of Africa and India, finally arriving there in September 1500 – opening for the first time a route from the New World to Asia – and returning to Portugal by 1501.
In 1511, Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Malacca for Portugal, then the center of Asian trade. East of Malacca, Albuquerque sent several diplomatic and exploratory missions, including to the Moluccas. Getting to know the secret location of the Spice Islands, mainly the Banda Islands, then the world source of nutmeg and cloves, he sent an expedition led by António de Abreu to Banda, where they were the first Europeans to arrive in early 1512. Abreu's expedition reached Buru, Ambon and Seram Islands, and then Banda. Later, after a forced separation and a shipwreck, his vice-captain, Francisco Serrão went again to the north, to Ambon, and reached Ternate, where he obtained a license to build a Portuguese fortress-factory: the Forte de São João Baptista de Ternate.
From 1507–1515 Albuquerque tried to completely block Arab and other traditional routes that stretched from the shores of Western Pacific to the Mediterranean sea, through the conquest of strategic bases in the Persian Gulf and at the entry of the Red Sea. By the early 16th century the Portuguese had complete control of the African sea route, which since 1512, through a long network of routes that linked three oceans, extended from the Moluccas (the Spice Islands), in the Pacific Ocean limits, through Malacca, India and Sri Lanka (linked years later to China and Japan), to Lisbon in Portugal (Europe), via the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans.
The Crown of Castile organized the expedition of Christopher Columbus to compete with Portugal for the spice trade with Asia, but instead, landed in a New World. The search for a route to Asia was resumed a few years later, after explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1513 and became the first European to sight the Pacific Ocean from the New World, confirming that the Americas were separate continents. The Spanish crown then prepared a great westward voyage with Ferdinand Magellan, in order to reach Asia from Spain across the Atlantic, and then Pacific Oceans. On October 21, 1520, his expedition crossed the strait that bears his name in the southern tip of South America, opening the Pacific to European exploration. On March 16, 1521, the ships reached the Philippines and soon after the Spice Islands, ultimately resulting in the Manila Galleon trade, the first westward spice trade route to Asia.
After Magellan's death in the Philippines, navigator Juan Sebastian Elcano took command of the expedition and drove it across the Indian Ocean and back to Spain, where they arrived in 1522 aboard the last remaining ship: the Victoria. These explorers became the first men to circumnavigate the globe. For the next two and half centuries, Spain controlled a vast trade network that linked three continents: Asia, the Americas and Europe. A global spice route had been created: from Manila in the Philippines (Asia) to Seville in Spain (Europe), via Acapulco in Mexico (North America).
One of the most important technological exchanges of the spice trade network was the early introduction of maritime technologies to India, the Middle East, east Africa, and China by the Austronesian peoples. These technologies include the plank-sewn hulls, catamarans, outrigger boats, and possibly the lateen sail. This is still evident in Sri Lankan and South Indian languages. For example, Tamil paṭavu, Telugu paḍava, and Kannada paḍahu, all meaning "ship", are all derived from Proto‑Hesperonesian *padaw, "sailboat", with Austronesian cognates like Javanese perahu, Kadazan padau, Maranao padaw, Cebuano paráw, Samoan folau, Hawaiian halau, and Maori wharau.
Austronesians also introduced a large number of Austronesian cultigens to southern India, Sri Lanka, and eastern Africa, which figured prominently in the spice trade. They include bananas, Pacific domesticated coconuts, Dioscorea yams, wetland rice, sandalwood, giant taro, Polynesian arrowroot, ginger, lengkuas, tailed pepper, betel, areca nut, and sugarcane.
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 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. Christian 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 religions easily.
The Portuguese colonial settlements saw traders such as the Gujarati banias, South Indian Chettis, Syrian Christians, Chinese from Fujian province, and Arabs from Aden 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. Colonial pepper trade drastically changed the experience of modernity in Europe and in Kerala and it brought, along with colonialism, early capitalism to India's Malabar Coast, changing cultures of work and caste.
Indian merchants involved in spice trade took Indian cuisine to Southeast Asia, notably present day Malaysia and Indonesia, where spice mixtures and black pepper became popular. Conversely, Southeast Asian cuisine and crops was also introduced to India and Sri Lanka, where rice cakes and coconut milk-based dishes are still dominant.
European people intermarried with the Indians, and popularized valuable culinary skills, such as baking, in India. Indian food, adapted to the 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. Opium was a part of the spice trade and some people involved in the spice trade were driven by opium addiction.
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