THE INDIAN SPICE TRADE

 

From the times of Neolithic man, spices have been used for enhancing the natural flavours of meat, roots, leaves and pulses. During the 1400’s, there was an apt expression: “No man should die who can afford cinnamon.” This referred to the lucrative spice trade that existed between India and the rest of the world. Cassia, ginger, turmeric, pepper and cardamom as well as the coveted cinnamon established this land on the global market, even centuries ago. The origin of the spices was kept a strict secret by those bringing these spices into different parts of the world, which caused the merchants and consumers to come up with intriguing tales and legends, lending the spice trade a sense of deep mystery. This industry played a key role in various events and developments, one of which was the very discovery of America. This discovery was as a result of the European determination to establish their own spice trade, so that the Arab merchants no longer had the monopoly.

At first, trade was conducted over the land. The Incense Route referred to a network of ancient routes from Mediterranean ports, across the Levant and Egypt in North Africa, to India and Arabia. Merchants used this route for the trade of a number of valuable items in addition to spices, including opium, silk, ebony, textiles, drugs, incense and herbs. Soon,
Image of King Ezana's Stele is the central obelisk standing in the Northern Stelae Park in the ancient city of Axum (Aksum), it is 70 feet (21 m) tall.
King Ezana's Stele is the central obelisk
standing in the Northern Stelae Park in the
ancient city of Axum (Aksum), it is
70 feet (21 m) tall.
maritime routes were discovered and used, which opened up entirely new opportunities and reaches for this trade. The Kingdom of Axum pioneered the Red Sea Route before the beginning of our Common Era (CE). This kingdom also established certain maritime techniques, which proved instrumental in the establishment and success of the routes between India and Rome.

Rome was a land of wealth and power. Its people valued the rare and expensive commodities in life. As such, spices and other valuables from India were in great demand. When Indian traders first encountered Rome (between 30 Before our Common Era (BCE) and 10 CE), they maintained a friendly working relationship. They told the Roman salesmen secrets to ride the monsoons of the Arabian Sea in order to facilitate easier access from both directions. Then, in the 600’s CE, Islam had begun its domination, cutting off routes through Egypt and effectively isolating India. It was for this reason that maritime routes were to become so necessary and successful.

During the Crusades, which took place between 1095 and 1291 CE, spice remained a popular commodity. In 1099, knights massacred Jerusalem and returned home with treasure chests full of peppercorns and other spices. These riches began to infiltrate the homes of the wealthy, and filtered down to the common people, being used in their everyday cooking. The Eastern influence began to affect the European flavours as well as their personal styles (of fabrics, ornaments, and so on).

In 1497, the Portuguese explorer, Vasco Da Gama, pioneered the route between Europe and India via the South African coastline. This new trading route led to a massive growth in the spice industry, driving the economy of the entire world to a large extent. However, there were problems with the Portuguese route, mainly due to the use of old ports and routes. The Dutch responded by finding a direct path between South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope (the area today known as Cape Town in the Western Cape) and the Sunda Strait in Indonesia. Europe slowly began to dominate India during a time that many countries were trying to gain control of the trade between Europe and India.

Then, in 1580, Spain conquered Portugal after decades of battle. As a result, it dominated European spice trade, even cutting the Dutch off. The Spanish rulers made spices very expensive. This led to countries like England and France establishing private contacts with captains and pirating Spanish vessels, looting their ships and stealing their spices.

By the beginning of the 1800’s, spice trees had been sent all over the world, and trading routes and stations were everywhere. Europe could no longer try to maintain its dominance over this international industry.


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