The Spice Trade and the Age of Exploration (2023)

The Spice Trade and the Age of Exploration (2)
Some members of the European elite began thinking about how they could get direct access to the spices of the East without paying Eastern and Arab traders.
The Spice Trade and the Age of Exploration (3)

Von Mark Cartwright


One of the most important motivating factors in the European age of exploration was the search for direct access to the extremely lucrative eastern spice trade. In the 15th century, spices made their way to Europe via land and sea routes from the Middle East, and spices were in high demand for both food and medicinal uses. The problem was how to enter this market by sea. Accordingly, explorers such as Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and Vasco da Gama (c. 1469-1524) were sent out to find a sea route from Europe to Asia. To the west, Columbus discovered a new continent on his way, but to the south, da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, sailed up the coast of East Africa, and crossed the Indian Ocean to reach India. From 1500, first Portugal and then other European powers tried to control the spice trade, the ports that marketed spices and finally the areas where they were grown.

The spice of life

In medieval and early modern times, "spice" was a term used liberally for all manner of exotic natural products, from pepper to sugar, herbs to animal secretions. Spices had been imported to Europe from the Orient since ancient times, and Europeans had developed a distinct fondness for them. Part of the appeal was the flavor they imparted to dishes, although the long-held notion that they were primarily used to disguise the taste of bad meat is wrong. Another attraction was their rarity, which made them a fashionable addition to any table and a real status symbol for the wealthy. Spices were used to add flavor not only to sauces but also to wines; They have even been crystallized and eaten as sweets.

Valuable spices used throughout Europe in the preparation of food were pepper, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, saffron, anise, zedoar, cumin and cloves. Although most of these were reserved for the tables of the rich, even the poorer classes used pepper whenever they could get hold of it. Spices, despite their price, were used in large quantities. Sacks of spices were needed for royal banquets and weddings, and we know, for example, that in the 15th century the household of the Duke of Buckingham in England consumed two pounds (900 grams) of spices each day, mainly pepper and ginger.

Spices had other uses besides their taste. In the Middle Ages and early modern times, many spices were believed to have medicinal value. First, they could be used to cleanse the body. Second, the notion that a healthy body required a balance of its four core elements, or humors, was still widespread. A healthy diet should therefore also balance these juices, that is, the food should not be too hot or cold, dry or moist. Spices helped balance certain foods. Fish, for example, was a cold and wet food, so adding certain spices to fish dishes more balanced these two qualities.

Spices were burned like incense for their fragrance, or sprinkled on the ground, or even applied directly to the skin. Everywhere from churches to brothels, spices were used to improve the generally bad smell of medieval interiors. The most coveted and expensive perfumes were frankincense, myrrh, balsam, sandalwood and mastic. There was another group of scents that came from animals that were equally valued. These included secretions from wild cats (civet), beavers (castoreum), and deer (musk). A third category of aromatic spices were those substances scraped off ancient mummies and other strange exotics.

The Spice Trade and the Age of Exploration (4)

Spices could also be taken as medicines in their own right and so were crushed and made into pills, creams and syrups. Black pepper was considered a good remedy for coughs and asthma, chemists claimed it could heal superficial skin wounds, and even act as an antidote to some poisons. Cinnamon is said to help against fever, nutmeg helps with flatulence and warmed ginger is considered an aphrodisiac. Several strongly scented spices were believed to be able to combat foul odors, which were themselves thought to cause disease. For this reason, during the many waves of Black Death Plague that swept across Europe, people burned ambergris to ward off the often fatal disease. Ambergris was a fatty substance that came from inside the forest arm. Precious and semi-precious stones, which are also rare and difficult to obtain, have often been categorized as spices. Certain stones like topaz were said to relieve hemorrhoids, lapis lazuli was good for malaria, and pearl powder mixed with as many expensive spices as possible was ingested to prevent aging.

The search for spices

Some medical professionals protested against these beliefs, and some members of the Church were often open about their belief that all that money spent on spices could be better used elsewhere. However, with all these uses and its status as a must-have luxury item, it's no wonder that some of Europe's elite began thinking about how they could gain direct access to the spices of the East without smelling the East pay and Arab merchants. It was not certain where these traders got their spices from. Many great stories developed about the origins of spices, but by the 13th century travelers like Marco Polo (AD 1254-1324) and missionaries were beginning to improve Europe's geographical knowledge of the whole world. India seemed to be swamped with black pepper. Sri Lanka was rich in cinnamon. Sandalwood came from Timor. China and Japan imported spices such as cloves, nutmeg and mace from India, Southeast Asia, the Moluccas or the Moluccas in present-day Indonesia - they were not nicknamed the Spice Islands for nothing.

Then, in 1453, Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, fell and was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, and one of the most important land routes for spices to Europe was lost. One more reason for European merchants to find their own access to the spice trade routes and, if possible, to gain control over their production at the source. European powers such as Spain and Portugal could also deal a severe blow to their rivals in Europe, particularly Italian maritime states such as Venice and Genoa. There was also the added benefit that by bypassing the Islamic traders who dominated trade in the spice markets of Aden and Alexandria, Christianity did not have to surrender its gold to its number one ideological enemy. Perhaps there were even Christian allies in Asia who were still unknown to Europe.

In practical terms, the discovery of new agricultural land for growing crops would help reduce trade deficits. There was also the real prospect of gaining prestige and wealth for the European elite and those navigators who dared to sail into the unknown. Eventually, the feudal system in Europe degenerated as land was distributed in smaller and smaller chunks to generation after generation of sons. Many lords simply did not know what to do with their third or fourth son, and sending them off to foreign lands to make their fortunes was a happy solution for both parties.

At that time there were economic, political and religious motives for finding a sea route from Europe to Asia. With the support of the Crown and the Church, as well as private investors dreaming of huge returns, explorers set sail for unknown horizons.

A sea route to Asia

The Spice Trade and the Age of Exploration (5)

The eastern spice trade has existed since ancient times. Before the 16th century, spices traveled by land and sea from the East, up the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, through Egypt and Arabia to the Mediterranean. The silk routes from China through Eurasia were another route by which spices entered European markets. As the historian M.N. Pearson summarizes that the costs required to bring spices to Europe via the traditional Middle East routes were indeed very high:

... the price of a kilo of pepper when it changed hands was enormous - costing 1 or 2 grams of silver at the place of production, costing 10 to 14 in Alexandria, 14 to 18 in Venice and 20 to 30 in the consuming countries of Europe. (41)

So riches could be gained if Europeans could bypass the established routes and meet the ever-increasing demand for spices in Europe. To do this, a sea route to Asia had to be found.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus thought he could find it by sailing west across the Atlantic, but he only managed to find one other landmass on his way: America. The Portuguese believed they could find Asia by sailing around the African continent. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias sailed the coast of West Africa and made the first voyage around the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of the African continent (now South Africa). He was followed by Vasco da Gama, who also rounded the Cape in 1497-99 but then continued up the coast of East Africa and crossed the Indian Ocean to reach Calicut (now Kozhikode) on southern India's Malabar Coast. At last the Europeans had found a direct sea route to the riches of the East. From India's Malabar Coast, European ships could then sail further east to the Spice Islands and Southeast Asia. A route was opened by Francisco Serrão sailing to the Spice Islands in 1512 and Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) when he made the first circumnavigation of the world in 1519-22 in the service of Spain.

Portuguese colonization

The Spice Trade and the Age of Exploration (6)

Getting geographic access to the spice trade was one thing, getting involved in the trade itself was quite another. The first and biggest problem for the Portuguese in their trade ambitions in the East was that they did not really have the goods that Indian or Muslim traders coveted. Many rulers were already immensely wealthy and were reluctant to change anything in a regional trade network that worked very well and, above all, peacefully. The Portuguese opted for the only thing they had in their favor: superiority in arms and ships. Indian rulers and some Arab traders had some guns, but these were not of the same quality as the European ones, and more importantly, Indian Ocean merchant ships were built for cargo and speed, not naval warfare. The Europeans, on the other hand, had been engaged in naval battles for some time.

So the solution was simple: take over the trade network by force and establish a monopoly on the spice trade not only in relation to Asia with Europe, but also within Asia. Spices could be purchased from spice farmers as cheaply as possible for relatively low-value goods such as cotton cloth, dried fodder and copper, and then sold as expensively as possible in Europe. Within Asia, spices could be traded from one port to another and exchanged for valuable commodities such as gold, silver, gems, pearls, and fine textiles.

Accordingly, more and more warships were sent around the Cape of Good Hope and forts were built everywhere, starting with the Portuguese Cochin (Kochi) in India in 1503 and ending in Japan. Rival ships were blown out of the water and uncooperative cities received a barrage from broadsides. Goods were confiscated and traders pushed to cheap deals. Unfazed by the vastness of the geographical area the Portuguese would have to patrol, King Manuel I of Portugal (r. 1495-1521) declared a royal monopoly on the spice trade. A viceroy of India was appointed in 1505, although the Portuguese had no real territorial aims beyond control of coastal trading centers. Portuguese Goawa was founded on the west coast of India in 1510 and within 20 years became the capital of Portuguese India. In 1511, Malacca was taken over by Malaysia. Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf followed in 1515, and in 1518 a fort was built at Colombo in Sri Lanka.

The Royal Monopoly

Imposing a monopoly on the spice trade in a third of the world was virtually impossible, but the Portuguese had a very good stab at it. In addition to the use of guns already mentioned, administrative controls were introduced. First, every private trader - whether European or otherwise - was arrested with a load of spices, and his goods and his ship were confiscated. Muslim traders fared the worst and were often executed. After realizing that this policy could not be enforced everywhere, some local traders were allowed to trade spices in limited quantities, but often only one, most commonly pepper. Crews of European ships were allowed to take quantities of spices with them as wages (a small sack full could buy them a house at home).

Another way to control the trade in spices and other goods was to only allow ships to visit certain ports if they had a royal license. In short, the seas were no longer free. Even ships trading goods other than spices were required to travel with a passport issued by Portugal orPoster,and if they did not, the cargo and ship were confiscated and the crew imprisoned, or worse. In addition toPoster, ships had to pay customs duties in their port of call. Another method of levying duties was to oblige all ships to travel in Portuguese-protected convoysCafés. Pirates were a threat in the Indian Ocean and beyond, but the real purpose was to ensure that all merchant ships were stopped in a Portuguese-controlled port, where they had to pay customs duties (and post a cash deposit guaranteeing their return to make a second payment). .

In this way, the customs accounted for about 60% of the total Portuguese revenue in the East. Also, as hoped, profits were made on the spices themselves. The Portuguese could now buy the spices at the source. For example, a quintal (100 kg/220 lbs) of pepper could be purchased for 6Crusaders(a gold coin of the time) and sold in Europe for at least 20Crusaders. There were transport costs and the cost of maintaining patrol ships and forts, but all in all the Portuguese were able to reap a very handsome 90% return on their investment. The more spices were imported, the lower the overall cost. The Portuguese desire to buy and control spices became insatiable.

The attempt to control the spice trade had consequences other than those already mentioned. The trade network was shifted to new areas, causing some established centers like Cochin to perish and others like Goa to rise. Missionaries spread the Christian faith. Plants and animals were brought to new places, often with unforeseen impacts on habitat and upsetting the balance of local ecosystems. Diseases spread in all directions to find new victims.

The opening of Asia

The Spice Trade and the Age of Exploration (7)

The Portuguese had more or less established a monopoly on the spice trade in Europe, but their dominance in Asia was short-lived. Asian merchants avoided Europeans whenever possible and continued their duty-free trade. It is important to note that Europe accounts for only about a quarter of the world trade in spices. Many Portuguese officials were themselves corrupt and acted without paying their earnings to the Crown. The land and sea routes in the Middle East for transporting spices, which were never fully replaced by the Cape of Good Hope route, began to flourish again in the second half of the 16th century thanks to the ever-increasing demand for spices in Europe.

Other European nations soon got wind of the riches available to those who had direct access to the spices. Between 1577 and 1580, the Englishman Francis Drake (c. 1540-1596 AD) made his circumnavigation of the world, which included a stop at the Spice Islands to pick up a cargo of cloves. However, the first to really challenge the Portuguese were the Dutch, who from 1596 had no qualms about attacking forts in Portuguese centers that were poorly garrisoned and often suffered from lack of maintenance. The areas affected were so large that the Portuguese could not patrol even a small part of it. The Dutch took direct control of the Spice Islands and conquered Malacca (1641), Colombo (1656), and Cochin (1663). By controlling the source of the spices, the Dutch were now able to impose their own terms on the global spice trade, importing into Europe three times as many spices as the Portuguese could transport. Meanwhile, the Persians, with English support, conquered Hormuz in 1622. The Hindu Marathas won great victories in southern India and threatened the Portuguese centers there. The Gujarati traders dominated trade in the Bay of Bengal. In short, everyone loved spices and the wealth they brought.

More importantly, European nations now adjusted their foreign policies. It was no longer a matter of exploration and discovery to establish a handful of trading centers along the coast. Colonization was now about holding territories, conquering indigenous peoples and relocating Europeans. Trading companies were founded by the Dutch and English, which allowed for much more efficient procurement and distribution of goods. Sugar cane, cotton, tea, opium, gold, diamonds and slaves would take the place of spices in the world economy while European powers rushed to carve up the world and build empire. So the drive to control the spice trade had opened up the world, but it was to become much more violent and unstable in the centuries that followed.


OriginallypublisheduntilEncyclopedia of World History, 06.09.2021, unter aCreative Commons: Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unportedlicense.



tags:Age of Exploration Handel Story Act

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Trent Wehner

Last Updated: 03/18/2023

Views: 6223

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (56 voted)

Reviews: 95% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Trent Wehner

Birthday: 1993-03-14

Address: 872 Kevin Squares, New Codyville, AK 01785-0416

Phone: +18698800304764

Job: Senior Farming Developer

Hobby: Paintball, Calligraphy, Hunting, Flying disc, Lapidary, Rafting, Inline skating

Introduction: My name is Trent Wehner, I am a talented, brainy, zealous, light, funny, gleaming, attractive person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.