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History of the Spice Trade

© Kat Morgenstern, December 2009, all rights reserved.

Spice marketAs Christmas is nearing once again, and warming scents of cinnamon, vanilla and cloves waft from many a kitchen throughout the land, I find myself pondering the by no means insignificant role that spices have played in shaping world history. We normally do not consider humble, everyday spice rack items as instigators of world events with massive, global consequences. But that is precisely the story of spices - or rather, the story of the spice trade. Shrouded in legends and tall tales with regard to their obscure origins, spices apparently always carried a certain allure, an air of the exotic, a whiff of mystique...

The first documented use of spices dates back to 3000 BC, to Sumerian clay tablet inscriptions, but it is likely that spices have played a significant role in our cultural history since mankind first learnt to control fire and began to evolve a culinary culture. By 1500 BC there was already a thriving trade network spanning the orient to the Far East, from whence the exotic spices came. For 1500 years or so the spice trade was entirely controlled by the Arab world, since Arabs had penetrated the East early on. It is hard to fathom, but back then the spice trade played a similar role in world economics as the oil industry does today. Spices were highly sought after, not only for culinary purposes, but also for the manufacture of cosmetics and perfumes, incense, anointing oils and as gifts to the gods, as ingredients of medicines and ointments and for embalming the bodies of the Pharaohs, a task that required very large quantities of gums, resins and spices. Cities which lay on the crossroads of the major trade routes benefited greatly from the passing caravans of merchants, as each levied taxes on the goods that passed through its gates. During this period the Arab world flourished.

network of ancient trade routesBut this changed around the time of Christ, when a Greek trader by the name of Hippalus utilized the monsoon winds to ship spices from the Orient, instead of traveling the traditional land route. This journey was to change history, for it broke the monopoly of the Arabs and henceforth Greeks and Romans energetically joined in the race to control spice trade. The Romans in particular have been largely responsible for expanding the trading network north and introducing northern palates to exotic tastes. Spices became quite the rave (thanks to the usual marketing of 'wonder drugs' and aphrodisiac properties) and phenomenal sums were paid for even the smallest quantities. Fortunes have been built on these tantalizing epicurean thrills. Considering how conservative many people are when it comes to food and flavours, it is quite astounding that spices earned such triumphant glory. No doubt clever marketing increased their allure. The very fact that they were expensive and difficult to get classified them as a desirable status symbol. But just as today, marketers of old sold these new foods as 'miracle substances', deemed to improve many and varied health conditions, and not least of all, to improve sexual stamina. Practically all spices were said to act as aphrodisiacs - a claim which many still hold to this day.

Once the Greeks and Romans introduced the northerners to these exotic miracle substances, it was not surprising that other nations also wanted a cut of the deal and thus was born the age of imperialism. Great forests were slain for the sake of merchant ship fleets to transport the precious haul back home. And, where there is money to be made, war soon follows. In this the Portuguese and the Spanish at first became the strongest players, thanks to the 'moral' support of the Pope, who took it upon himself to divide the known world among his favorite sheep. But, as fate would have it, northern countries such as Holland, Germany, Scandinavia or Britain flatly refused to accept papal authority on this matter and defiantly built their own merchant fleets to battle it out over the spices of the East. A bloody history unfolded - strategic trading outposts were built, and later besieged by one or another of the rivalling forces, changing 'crowns' as frequently as some countries today change their government. Of course the native people had not much say in any of these matters. Their natural resources, their land and labour were ruthlessly exploited by all parties involved. And thus the age of colonialism rose, with its devastating legacy, the repercussions of which can still be felt to this day.

Columbus claims the East Indies for the Spanish CrownColumbus went west for the sake of spices and was disappointed when he did not find any in the Americas, except for capsicum and vanilla. But his journey set in motion a wheel of fate that soon decimated the local populations and displaced hundreds and thousands of people from the old world to the new to be used as slaves and cheap laborers. Despite Columbus' earlier disappointment, the 'nuevo mundo' eventually revealed innumerable riches that have enhanced our lives, and in particular, our cuisines in countless ways that we now take for granted such as maize, potatoes, cocoa, or tomatoes, to name but a few.

Meanwhile, wars were raging in the Indian Ocean, where the different imperial powers were battling over the control of certain regions and islands rich with valuable spices such as pepper, nutmeg or cinnamon. Despite innumerable risks and very real dangers such voyages and ensuing trade wars entailed, there was no shortage of adventurers willing to sign up as crew on the many ships that sailed east. What lured them was not only the promise of adventure, for it was by no means certain that they would live to tell the tale, nor the prospect of employment, for the pay was less than miserly considering the hard work and risks of diseases, piracy and war. However, the value of spices was so great that a single nutmeg could set you up for life - if you could smuggle it safely home without the captain's notice. But, mercy on those who were found out! Punishment was severe! Black market spices threatened to undermine the merchant's business, which was not only bad news for him, but also for his financial backers, who were looking to make a juicy return on their investments. Those unfortunate enough to be caught in the smuggling act were sentenced to death on the spot.

It is due to this history of danger and allure that spices have gained a special place in our festive cooking at this time of the year. Ordinary folks could not afford cinnamon or star anise and cloves at any other time of the year. Only at Christmas were they added to sweetbreads (and later cookies), as a special treat.

pepper harvest in the spice plantationsBiopiracy eventually broke the monopoly. Certain individuals risked their lives by smuggling small plants or seeds out of their country of origin and to another tropical country that was under one's own 'royal protection', so instead of paying heavy sums to others pepper and cinnamon and what not, could be cultivated in one's 'own' backyard (even if that backyard actually belonged to someone else). Soon exotic spices were cultivated in many different tropical countries, thus increasing competition and bringing down prices. What once was precious became common place. Yet, we hang on to the tradition of baking spice-rich Christmas cookies only at Christmas.

So, when you enjoy your Christmas treats this year, spare a thought for the spices that went into them and reflect on their turbulent history, which has shaped the political and economic structures that still come to bear on the world today.

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