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The economically important Silk Road (red) and spice trade routes (blue) blocked by the Ottoman Empire ca. 1453 with the fall of the Byzantine Empire, spurring exploration motivated initially by the finding of a sea route around Africa and triggering the Age of Discovery.

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 for commerce, in the Eastern World well into antiquity. Opium was also imported.[1] These spices found their way into the Middle East before the beginning of the Christian Era, where the true sources of these spices was withheld by the traders, and associated with fantastic tales.[1] Prehistoric writings and stone age carvings of neolithic age obtained indicates that India's South West Coast path, especially Kerala had established itself as a major spice trade centre from as early as 3000 B.C, which marks the beginning of Spice Trade (History of Kerala).

The Greco-Roman world followed by trading along the Incense route and the Roman-India routes.[2] In the middle of the first millennium, the sea routes to India and Sri Lanka (the Roman - Taprobane) were controlled by the Indians and Ethiopians that became the maritime trading power of the Red Sea. The Kingdom of Axum (ca 5th-century BC–AD 11th century) had pioneered the Red Sea route before the 1st century AD. By mid-7th century AD the rise of Islam closed off the overland caravan routes through Egypt and the Suez, and sundered the European trade community from Axum and India.

Arab traders eventually took over conveying goods via the Levant and Venetian merchants to Europe until the rise of the Ottoman Turks cut the route again by 1453. Overland routes helped the spice trade initially, but maritime trade routes led to tremendous growth in commercial activities.[1] During the high and late medieval periods Muslim traders dominated maritime spice trading routes throughout the Indian Ocean, tapping source regions in the Far East 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 transformed by the European Age of Discovery,[3] during which the spice trade, particularly in black pepper, became an influential activity for European traders.[4] The 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.[5]

This trade — driving the world economy from the end of the Middle Ages well into the modern times[4] ushered in an age of European domination in the East.[5] Channels, such as the Bay of Bengal, served as bridges for cultural and commercial exchanges between diverse cultures[3] as nations struggled to gain control of the trade along the many spice routes.[1] 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 spice trade from India attracted the attention of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and subsequently the Roman empire.
Roman trade with India according to the Periplus Maris Erythraei, (Periplus of the Erythraean Sea) 1st century CE.

The Egyptians had traded in the Red Sea, spices from the "Land of Punt" and from Arabia.[6] 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.[1] The Ptolemaic dynasty had developed trade with India using the Red Sea ports.[7]

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.[8]

In the first millennium BC the Arabs, Phoenicians, Israelites 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. The Indonesians were trading in spices (mainly Cinnamon and Cassia} with East Africa using Catamaran boats and sailing with the help of the Westerlies in the Indian Ocean.

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[edit]

Trade route in the Red Sea linking Italy to south-west India

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.[1] The rise of Islam closed off the overland caravan routes through Egypt and the Suez, and 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.[9][not in citation given]

The Indian commercial connection with South East Asia proved vital to the merchants of Arabia and Persia during the 7th and 8th centuries.[10] 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;[11] and navigational works of the 14th and 15th centuries contain the first unequivocal Arab reference to Moluccas.[11] 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 ....."[11]

Moluccan products were then shipped to trading emporiums in India, passing through ports like Kozhikode, and through Sri Lanka.[12] from there they were shipped westward across the ports of Arabia to the Near East, to Ormus in 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.[12] The Abbasids used Alexandria, Damietta, Aden and Siraf as entry ports to India and China.[13] 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.[13]

Indian spice exports find mention in the works of Ibn Khurdadhbeh (850), al-Ghafiqi (1150), Ishak bin Imaran (907) and Al Kalkashandi (14th century).[12] Chinese traveler Hsuan Tsang mentions the town of Puri where "merchants depart for distant countries."[14]

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, that eventually led to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, barring Europeans from important combined land-sea routes.[citation needed]

Age of European Discovery: finding a new route and a New World[edit]

Main article: Age of Discovery
Portuguese India Armadas trade routes (blue) since Vasco da Gama 1498 travel and its rival Manila-Acapulco galleons and Spanish treasure fleets (white) established in 1568
Image of Calicut, India from Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg's atlas Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572.

The Republic of Venice had become a formidable power, and a key player in the Eastern spice trade.[1] Other powers, in an attempt to break the Venetian hold on spice trade, began to build up maritime capability.[1] One of the major consequences of the spice trade was the discovery of the American continent by European explorers. 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 about 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.[15] 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[5] 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.[5]

Dutch ships in Table Bay docking at the Cape Colony at the Cape of Good Hope, 1762.

It was during this time that 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, Colombus discovered America, 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 native Americans.[16] Just eight years later in 1500, the Portuguese navigator, Pedro Álvares Cabral while attempting to reproduce Vasco da Gama’s route to India was blown westwards to what is today Brazil. After taking possession of the new land, Cabral resumed his voyage to India, finally arriving there in September 1500 and returning to Portugal by 1501.[17] By the early 16th century the Portuguese had complete control of the African sea route.

Spain 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 Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1513 and became the first European to sight the Pacific Ocean, confirming that America was a separate continent. 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 (America).

Cultural exchanges[edit]

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 and promotion of trading activities.[18] Buddhism, in particular, traveled alongside the maritime trade, promoting coinage, art and literacy.[19] Islam spread throughout the East, reaching Maritime Southeast Asia in the 10th century; Muslim merchants played a crucial part in the trade.[20] Christian missionaries, such as Saint Francis Xavier, were instrumental in the spread of Christianity in the East.[20] Christianity competed with Islam to become the dominant religion of the Moluccas.[20] However, the natives of the Spice Islands accommodated aspects of both religions easily.[21]

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.[22] Epics, languages, and cultural customs were borrowed by Southeast Asia from India, and later China.[3] Knowledge of Portuguese language became essential for merchants involved in the trade.[23]

Indian merchants involved in spice trade took Indian cuisine to Southeast Asia, notable present day Malaysia and Indonesia, where spice mixtures and curries became popular.[24] European people intermarried with the Indians, and popularized valuable culinary skills, such as baking, in India.[25] The Portuguese also introduced vinegar to India, and Franciscan priests manufactured it from coconut toddy.[26] Indian food, adapted to 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.[27]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h spice trade (Encyclopædia Britannica 2002)
  2. ^ Fage 1975: 164
  3. ^ a b c Donkin 2003
  4. ^ a b Corn & Glasserman 1999: Prologue
  5. ^ a b c d Gama, Vasco da. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press.
  6. ^ Rawlinson 2001: 11-12
  7. ^ Shaw 2003: 426
  8. ^ Simson Najovits, Egypt, trunk of the tree, Volume 2, (Algora Publishing: 2004), p.258.
  9. ^ "The Third Voyage of Sindbad the Seaman - The Arabian Nights - The Thousand and One Nights - Sir Richard Burton translator". Classiclit.about.com. 2009-11-02. Retrieved 2011-09-16. 
  10. ^ Donkin 2003: 59
  11. ^ a b c Donkin 2003: 88
  12. ^ a b c Donkin 2003: 92
  13. ^ a b Donkin 2003: 91-92
  14. ^ Donkin 2003: 65
  15. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: Bartolomeu Dias Retrieved November 29, 2007
  16. ^ The First Voyage of Columbus Retrieved November 29, 2007
  17. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: Pedralvarez Cabral Retrieved November 29, 2007
  18. ^ Donkin 2003: 67
  19. ^ Donkin 2003: 69
  20. ^ a b c Corn & Glasserman 1999
  21. ^ Corn & Glasserman 1999: 105
  22. ^ Collingham 56: 2006
  23. ^ Corn & Glasserman 1999: 203
  24. ^ Collingham 245: 2006
  25. ^ Collingham 61: 2006
  26. ^ Collingham 69: 2006
  27. ^ Collingham 129: 2006

Further Reading[edit]

External links[edit]

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The Hindu

The Hindu
Fri, 01 Aug 2014 22:26:15 -0700

The artefacts discovered from the region suggest links to the spice trade that flourished over two millennia ago. Experts believe that Muziris, a port located at Pattanam near North Paravur in Ernakulam district, served as a key link in the spice trade ...
Huffington Post
Wed, 20 Aug 2014 10:03:45 -0700

Christina grew up in Kuala Lumpur at the epicenter of the world's first spice trade. Her culinary career began in her family's kitchen and spice stall surrounded by exotic spices and aromatics such as turmeric, cardamom, galangal and tamarind, and it ...
The Island.lk (subscription)
Wed, 20 Aug 2014 13:03:45 -0700

The spice trade was subsequently controlled by the Dutch and then the British who established the British East India Company and with the increased demand large scale organised cultivation was started in India and Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon).
Financial Times
Wed, 20 Aug 2014 10:13:18 -0700

Next, lured by the spice trade, came the Europeans. Trade with China was always important but the Chinese themselves were relative latecomers and then, as merchant entrepreneurs not agents of a Chinese state. Only briefly, in the early Ming period, did ...
Thu, 14 Aug 2014 10:13:58 -0700

The latest arrest targets included a gas station owner in Holiday and his supplier. The latest arrest targets included a gas station owner in Holiday and his supplier. Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco tells us this Pure gas station is at the heart of illegal ...

Economic Times

Economic Times
Tue, 19 Aug 2014 05:45:00 -0700

Another intiative in the offing is the 'Spice Route Revival Project', which aims to showcase and promote the two millennia-old spice trade route which links the South Western Coast of India to Europe. The initiative is being supported by the United ...
Business Standard
Mon, 04 Aug 2014 01:19:45 -0700

Both Kerala and Unesco would also mobilise bilateral and multilateral collaboration with countries that were part of the ancient spice trade between Kerala and the rest of the world. Unesco director and representative to India Shigeru Aoyagi described ...
Jakarta Globe
Wed, 20 Aug 2014 02:33:45 -0700

“Pengangkut Sawi” (“Mustard Collector”) unflinchingly shows the role laborers play in Indonesia's spice trade for hundreds of years. Shot in East Jakarta's Kramat Jati traditional market, the burden on the laborer's shoulder is as figurative as it is ...

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