A Brief History of Foods: Spice
Updated: Jan 5
The spice trade has a long and lucrative ancestry. As early as 2,000 BC cinnamon and cassia (or Chinese cinnamon) were being imported into Egypt. From the 3rd millennium BC onwards, the Egyptians were trading with the Land of Punt for gold, ivory, ebony, incense, aromatic resins, animal skins, live animals, eye-makeup cosmetics, fragrant woods, and cinnamon. Moreover, just across the Red Sea, southern Arabia (Arabia Felix of antiquity) had been a trading centre for frankincense, myrrh, and other fragrant resins and gums. The Arab traders, however, artfully withheld the true sources of the spices they sold by telling fantastical and frightening stories intended to satisfy the curious, protect their market, and discourage competitors.
Whatever part the overland trade routes across Asia played, it was mainly by sea that the spice trade grew. Arab traders were sailing directly to spice-producing lands long before the Christian era. Further afield, in East Asia, the Chinese crossed the waters of the Malay Archipelago to trade in the Spice Islands (the Moluccas or the East Indies). Sri Lanka (Ceylon) was another important trading point.
In 80 BC, when Ptolemy XI bequeathed Alexandria to the Romans, the revenues from taxes levied on the spice trade in this major Mediterranean port were enormous. The Romans themselves soon initiated voyages from Egypt to India, and under their rule Alexandria became the greatest commercial centre of the world. It was also the leading emporium for the aromatic spices of India, all of which found their way to the markets of Greece and the Roman Empire. Roman trade with India was extensive for more than three hundred years. Trade was such that it allowed exotic spices, for example black pepper, to be far more commonplace than in later centuries.
As Roman influence waned, the trade in spices also began to decline. A short-lived resurgence in the 5th-century AD did not prevent trade declining once more in the 6th-century. Although much weakened, the Arabs kept their hold on the spice trade in the post-Roman period and through the Middle Ages.
By the tenth century both Venice and Genoa had begun to prosper through trade with the Levant. The bitter rivalry that developed between the two culminated in the naval battle of Chioggia (June 24th, 1380). With Genoa defeated, Venice secured a monopoly of trade in the Middle east for the next century making exorbitant profits by trading spices with buyer-distributors from northern and western Europe.
Although the origin of spices were known throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, no ruler proved capable of breaking the Venetian hold on the trade routes. Toward the end of the 15th-century explorers ventured out to discover new ways of obtaining valuable spices. The voyages of discovery in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, under the flag of Spain, and in 1497 by John Cabot on behalf of England both failed to find the spice-producing regions. Columbus did, however, make landfall in the Bahamas and other islands in the Caribbean, including Cuba and Hispaniola, and did return with many new fruits and vegetables, including chilli peppers.
A Portuguese expedition was the first to bring spices back from India to Europe by way of the Cape of Good Hope in 1501. Portugal went on to dominate the naval trading routes through much of the 16th-century.
In 1595, and again in 1598, two Dutch fleets set sail for the Spice Islands. Both returned home with rich cargoes of cloves, mace, nutmeg, and black pepper. Their success laid the foundation for the prosperous Dutch East India Company, an amalgamation of several Dutch companies, in 1602. Two years earlier in England, Queen Elizabeth I issued a Royal Charter to the East India Company on December 31st, 1600 to exploit the profitable trade to be had with the Indies. The Portuguese, British and Dutch were joined in 1664 by the French East India Company, but not all of these ventures chartered by European nations would prove successful. In subsequent struggles to control the trade, Portugal eventually would be eclipsed after more than a century as the dominant power. By the 19th-century, British interests were firmly rooted in India and Ceylon, while the Dutch were in control of the greater part of the East Indies. Global trade as we know it was firmly established.