The Journey of Spices

The Journey of Spices

Spices conjure images of tempting culinary art, fascinating travels and bitter struggles for supremacy. Expressions like variety are the spice of life and sugar and spice and all that is nice illustrate how spellbound were people of letters about the fascination of spices.

In the global south or as was commonly the East, spices are indeed the soul of food. In the global north or West, they evoke dreams of exotic tropical islands, exciting expeditions to the sources of Spice, and the rise and fall of empires.

Columbus headed westward from Europe in 1492 to find a sea route to the so-called, ‘Land of Spices’, instead he found the New World. Eight years later Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa touching Kozhikode on the South West coast of India. Long before that, Arabs were trading with the then known ‘Orient’ through land routes, and during the 13th century, Marco Polo experienced the attraction of spices in his travels.

Vast fortunes made and squandered, powerful rulers seduced, ailments cured, and nations discovered – all in the name of spice. Always casting a spell on our imaginations, spices flatter our senses: sight with their vibrant colours, smell with their enticing fragrances and taste with their distinct flavours.

Story of SpiceSpices have been the catalysts of some of the greatest adventures in human history, from Christopher Columbus to Vasco da Gama, as well as being the driving force for the British East India Company and the British Empire, whose merchants turned London into the greatest spice market in the world for 200 years.

More dramatic, through the book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, is the transfer of Manhattan Island in 1667 to England in exchange for the nutmeg rich island, Run to the Dutch.

Though the word “spice” didn’t appear until the end of the 12th century, the use of herbs dates back to ancient eras. Early civilisations wrapped meat in the leaves of bushes, accidentally discovering that this enhanced the taste of the meat, as did certain nuts, seeds, berries – and even bark.

It is claimed that the lavish use of spices in ancient times was a way to mask the often unpleasant taste and odour of food, and later, to keep food fresh. However, this myth is dubious as the cost and value of spices has always been very high, so it would be unlikely that you would use something very expensive on cheaper, less fresh, food.

Precious Commodities

The first spice expeditions were organized in ancient times to ensure that these coveted commodities would always be in supply. Legend has it that in 1000 BC the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon in Jerusalem to offer him “120 measures of gold, many spices, and precious stones.” A handful of cardamom was worth as much as a poor man’s yearly wages, and many slaves were bought and sold for a few cups of peppercorns.

Arab traders were the first to introduce spices into Europe. Realizing that they controlled a commodity in great demand, the traders kept their sources of supply secret and made up fantastic tales of the dangers involved in obtaining spices. At the crossroads of land trade from India and sea trade from the Mediterranean, spices played a huge role in Phoenician trade. The

Phoenicians were expert merchants and smooth navigators; so much so that at the end of the 14th century BC, spices were called “Phoenician merchandise.” These slick middlemen knew how to offer their services to kings as well as pharaohs in order to extend their supply sites and possibly pave the way to India.

Pepper Reigns The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire, whose boundaries progressively extended from one side of the Mediterranean to the other, couldn’t ignore these bewitching spices. Cleopatra herself used a “very stimulating” food to seduce Caesar. Huge quantities of saffron were strewn on the streets of Rome to celebrate Nero’s entrance into the city. The reputed excesses of ancient Roman food consumption were apparent in the wide variety of seasonings used in the meals of the rich. Long pepper, the Roman spice of choice, was as omnipresent as garum Iberico (a special salty fish paste from Portugal) on the Roman tables. Without a doubt, spices were elevated to a status symbol.

Story of SpiceIn the biblical story of the Magi, three kings from the exotic reaches of the Orient give gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn Jesus Christ. Frankincense and myrrh were rare, very expensive spices of the time. And in the 5th century, the Prophet Mohammed, from the merchant tribe of the Quora sites, took advantage of the spice trade to spread his Holy Message.

Spices In The Middle Ages

From the 10th century on, the crusades prompted a rediscovery of spices; seasonings made an obvious comeback to the tables of the great and powerful European courts. It was mainly from what was then referred to as the ‘Orient’, overland via Arabia and the Red Sea, Egypt and the ports of Venice and Genoa that spices reached Britain. Venetian merchants, strategically located midway between the Levant and Western Europe, became the great middlemen of the spice trade. They sent their cargoes via Flanders and the Low Countries for sale in local markets to supply the Northern European countries.

Certain spices were worth so much that one of them even became currency, such as pepper. In court, litigants bribed judges with spices. Culinary and medicinal uses overlapped, and grocers and apothecaries often worked in the same companies. Besides traditional black pepper, some of the other prized spices of the era were long pepper from Sumatra, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and galangal (a ginger-like spice from Southeast Asia).

The European Navigators Set Sail

As with any great discovery, the opening of the Southern seaboard spice route was no accident. Portuguese navigators and geographers had been working at it for over a half-century. Henry the navigator, who encouraged exploration of the African coast, was the most famous of them. Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492 to head west and find gold and spices, hoping to hit the Indian coast where these precious commodities could be found. Controlling and supplying the spice market were key objectives for the Portuguese and Spanish powers at the time in their goal to overturn the Arab and Venetian monopoly in the Mediterranean.

The virtual monopoly that Venice had held of the European spice trade and which had made the Serene Republic rich – was doomed. One day in May 1498 Vasco da Gama anchored his ship off the coast of India. The Arab merchants were shocked to see a Portuguese man on Indian shores. “We are looking for Christians and spices,” stated the Portuguese navigator, and with that, the Arabs saw their monopoly crumble. The sea route to India was discovered at last.

Three months later da Gama set off on his return voyage to Lisbon, bearing news that the ruler of Calicut was prepared to barter cinnamon and cloves, ginger and pepper for gold, silver and (strangely) scarlet cloth. The European spice trade passed into the hands of the Portuguese, who held on to it – with difficulty – for a century, only to lose it to the Dutch, whose trade with Java and the Spice Islands, as the Moluccas came to be known, led to the formation in 1602 of the powerful Dutch East India Company.

By the 1680s, the Dutch had established a total monopoly of the highly profitable trade in cloves and nutmegs, while the Portuguese retained a corner in the cinnamon business. At this period, British cooking was still heavy with ginger and pepper, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. The food of Italy, Portugal, France, Holland and Germany was similarly spiced and scented.

p1010906It was not until towards the middle of the seventeenth century that the British East India Company held a monopoly on all trade with India and that the British began developing its cooking along lines we recognise today. Spices and sugar were readily available and became relatively cheap, and were, therefore, less prized and used with more discretion. But the economic value of these products declined as farming sites increased.

The Dutch jealously protected access to the Moluccas for fear of seeing their clove and nutmeg trees exported to other regions, which would have ruined their monopoly. Thievery of this sort was punishable by death. After many attempts, a few pepper and nutmeg trees were successfully transplanted to Mauritius Island. This eventually led to a dispersion of plant production sites across Dutch, English, and French colonial empires, which involved spices in addition to coffee, cocoa, and many other plants. The tight reins on the industry were loosening.

Where Are We Now?

Today, colonial empires have all but vanished, physically speaking of course and spices are used in almost everything we eat, and costs are relatively low. It is hard to imagine that these fragrant bits of leaves, seeds, and bark were once so coveted and costly. For centuries wars were waged, new lands discovered, and the earth circled, all in the quest of spices. However, many of the spices have other purported properties as well as their culinary uses, such as nutmeg which is believed by some to be an aphrodisiac.

Thanks to the vogue of international travel, we can engage in our own spice conquest now. We can stroll through market stalls around the world where spices, perfumes, and exotic plants and flowers enchant the senses. And when we take these scents and tastes of far-reaching places back to our homes, we are again compelled to discover the allure of the unknown.

The Journey of Spices

Study Guides

A Short History Of Convict Australia

Who Were The Convicts? The late 18th century was a period of immense social and political change. France was reeling from revolution and America had just gained her independence. In…

The French Revolution

The French Revolution is one of the most important instances of political upheaval in history, marking France’s transition from Empire to Republic after centuries of monarchy. Lasting a period of…

The Nazis & The Holocaust

Who Were The Nazis? The Nazis, abbreviated from the National Socialist Germany Worker’s Party, rose from the civil unrest in the interwar years in Germany. Spearheaded by Adolf Hitler for…

The Crusades

The Crusades were military campaigns endorsed by the Latin Roman Catholic Church during the High Middle Ages and Late Middle Ages. Pope Urban II declared the First Crusades with the…

The Russian Diaspora

The Russian diaspora is one of the most considerable in the world. Due to the country’s former dominance of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, there are an exceptional number of…

Chinatowns Of The World

Chinatowns are located all around the world, from the Americas to Europe as well as Africa, Australia and Asia. These areas are historically known as any ethnic enclave of expatriate…

The Lost World Of Joseph Banks

Sir Joseph Banks, naturalist, explorer, collector, patron and President of the Royal Society for more than 40 years was one of Australia’s founding fathers.  As a young botanist, he accompanied…

A Short History Of Beer

Many anthropologists and archaeologists now believe that it was a taste for beer, not bread that started people farming barley around 9000 BC. Known as the agricultural revolution, it ended…

The Spanish Empire

Lasting nearly five centuries, The Spanish Empire was, at its peak during the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, the world’s most prominent global power, earning the nickname ‘The empire on…

Latin American Independence Movements

The political chaos in Spain predictably resonated throughout its empire, most significantly in Spanish America, which became a battleground for several independence movements during the early 19th Century, marking the…

Planet Of The Apes

The primate family, most closely related to humans, is in danger of becoming extinct. This is largely due to the activities of the nearly seven billion humans inhabiting the earth.…

The English Civil War

 One of the most important and violent periods in British history, the English Civil War was a series of closely related conflicts during the 17th Century, which saw the monarchy…

Volcanoes

Volcanoes have fascinated mankind for generations – their enormous beauty and destructive power revered in awe. They have been worshiped, immortalized in folklore and voraciously studied by geologist throughout the…

The Mongol Empire

One of the most imposing military and imperial forces in history, the Mongol Empire cemented itself as a power to be reckoned with over a very quick period of time.…

The Story Of Cheese

Cheese is one of the most ubiquitous foods in the world, ever-present across the world. Its many different variants reflect the cultural and culinary identity of each corresponding country. History…

Colonial Australia: The Gold Rush And...

The Gold Rush The Victorian gold rush was quite a significant part of Australia’s history, which began in 1851 when one of the earlier discoveries by Thomas Peters, a hut-keeper…

Native Americans

Given their near-genocidal treatment at the hands of European colonialism, the current population of Native Americans in the United States remains staggeringly low at over 5 million, just over 1.6%…

Galleons, Pirates And Treasure

Christopher Columbus put the Americas on the map in 1492. Shortly after, this ignited over 250 years of treasure hunting and vicious competition with the English, French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese,…

A Short History Of The Moors

Granada – the word in Spanish means pomegranate – a fruit brought to Spain by Moslem tribes from North Africa in the 8th century. They were known as the Moors…

The Transatlantic Slave Trade

The Transatlantic Slave Trade (1501-1867), sold at least 12.5 million black Africans as slaves to work for white land-owners on the other side of the ocean. Of these 1.8 million…

A Brief History Of Japan

 The early periods of Japanese history can be divided into four distinct periods. Firstly, the Japanese Paleolithic Period, which lasted several millennia between 40,000 BC to 14,000 BC. Human presence…

A Short History Of Tea

Food Facts: Where: Began in China, now consumed throughout the world, most notably in Japan, England, America, Russia and India. Serving Suggestion: Green Tea - serve without milk and honey to sweeten. Black teas -…

A Global Guide To Coffee Tasting

Coffee primarily grows within a belt thirty degrees north and south of the equator, between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Within this belt, more than eighty countries…

Route 66

Route 66 is commonly known as few different names, from Will Rogers Highway, The Main Street of America to the Mother Road, each identifies the famous stretch of highway that…

Who Were The Vikings?

Often misconstrued in contemporary times as a culture of bloodthirsty yet noble savages, the Vikings’ historical legacy is in fact far more complex and important. A race originating from modern day…

Wellington Vs Napoleon

In 1814, it seemed that twenty five years of war in Europe was finally coming to an end with the surrender of the Emperor Napoleon and his banishment to the…

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire occupies a special place in the collective consciousness of the West, at once a dark star on the eastern horizon, threatening the very existence of Western civilisation,…

What Caused World War I?

World War I, the Great War, the War to End all Wars, no matter what you call it, it was a game changer. Lasting from 1914 to 1918, this war…

The American Civil War

A house divided against itself cannot stand.  I believe this government cannot endure  permanently half-slave and half-free. — Abraham Lincoln, 1858 What Was The American Civil War? A war fought…

The American War Of Independence

British Rule [caption id="attachment_23753" align="alignright" width="300"] The Stamp Act Protest, 1765 by Granger[/caption] The brutal and bloody eight-year struggle between the British Empire and the newly-declared United States of America, which…

The Journey of Spices

Spices conjure images of tempting culinary art, fascinating travels and bitter struggles for supremacy. Expressions like variety are the spice of life and sugar and spice and all that is…

The Spanish Inquisition

One of the darker periods of Spanish history is the Spanish Inquisition, which entrenched Spain for over 350 years. Also known as The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the…

The Story Of Chocolate

Our love affair with chocolate began at least 4,000 years ago in Mesoamerica, in present-day southern Mexico and Central America, where cacao grew wild. When the Olmecs unlocked the secret…

Global Cities: Melbourne

No Australian city better personifies the country’s multiculturalism than Melbourne, one of the most diverse melting pots on the planet. The city is one of the most ethnically and culturally…

The Korean Diaspora

Overall, the Korean diaspora is comprised of around 7 million people. This includes Korean-born emigrants as well as the descendants of emigrants. This total includes people from all parts of…

The British Diaspora

Given the supremacy of the British Empire for much of the Age of Discovery, the British diaspora is widely dispersed throughout the world. The United Kingdom retains some control of…

The Mexican Diaspora

Mexican immigration is one of the more contemporary and urgent strands of global mass movement. The Mexican diaspora population is overwhelmingly based in the United States due to geographical proximity.…

The German Diaspora

The German diaspora, like many European populations, is difficult to quantify and is best divided into two separate groups. Countries with large populations of German descent and large countries with…

The Scandinavian Diaspora

The Scandinavian diaspora encompasses the foreign populations of five different countries: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland. Despite the distinction between the countries, they bear a number of cultural and…

The Persian Diaspora

The Persian diaspora currently numbers at around 4.5 million people around the world. A significant portion of this population lives in the United States, numbering around 1.5 million (most of…

The Jewish Diaspora

The history of the Jewish diaspora stretches back thousands of years. It remains a contentious and culturally significant issue. The Jewish Homeland of Israel remains a hotbed of political and…

The Thai Diaspora

The Thai diaspora is estimated to account for around 1.1 million people across the world. The most significant Thai populations around the world are based in the United States (247,000),…

The Filipino Diaspora

The Filipino diaspora is one of the largest and most spread-out in the world. Indeed,it is estimated to consist of over 10 million people, 10% of the country’s population. Countries…

The Armenian Diaspora

The Armenian diaspora has a long and extensive history stretching back nearly two millennia. Armenia has been a country which has long been contested by a number of larger powers…

The Japanese Diaspora

The Japanese diaspora has a very rich and unique history despite being a very recent phenomenon. Japan was notably one of the most isolated countries on the planet up until…

The Chinese Diaspora

As the most populous country in the world, it is of little surprise that China has one of the largest diasporas on the planet. It is estimated that there are…

The Vietnamese Diaspora

The Vietnamese diaspora has a population of 4 million people, over half of whom live in the United States. Other countries with significant Vietnamese populations include Cambodia (600,000), France (350,000),…

The Ethiopian Diaspora

The Ethiopian diaspora, despite the long and extensive history of the country, is relatively small and confined to certain countries. With a total population of 107 million, less than 1…

The Cambodian Diaspora

The Cambodian diaspora, as is the case with many other Southeast Asian countries, does not have a relatively long history. The Cambodian Civil War of the 1960’s and 1970’s was…

The Puerto Rican Diaspora

The Puerto Rican diaspora is overwhelmingly centralised in the United States due to the former essentially being a part of the latter. Puerto Ricans comprise 10% of the United States’…

Global Cities: Paris

As one of Europe’s most important major cities, Paris is known for its distinct cultural identity, something which makes it one of the most appealing cities for visitors. With centuries…

The Italian Diaspora

The Italian diaspora is one with a long and extensive history and provides one of the definitive immigration narratives in the world. It can be divided into three major stages.…

The Indian Diaspora

The Indian diaspora is the largest in the world, numbering 31.2 million. It is widely dispersed throughout the world, with sizeable populations across each continent. The United States is home…

The Bangladeshi Diaspora

The Bangladeshi diaspora is one of the largest in the world, with a population of over 7.5 million people. It is fairly evenly distributed around the world, with no country…

The Pakistani Diaspora

The Pakistani diaspora is one of the largest immigrant populations in the world, numbering around 9 million. The large majority are based in the Middle East, particularly in the Arab…

The Sri Lankan Diaspora

The Sri Lankan diaspora is relatively large in comparison to the country’s overall population. 3 million Sri Lankans live overseas, with Western Europe, the Arab Gulf States and North America…

The Arab Diaspora

The Arab diaspora is one of the most widespread immigrant populations around the world, as well as one of the trickiest to define. Unlike most diaspora populations, Arabs are not…

The Irish Diaspora

The Irish diaspora is one of the largest in the world. Ireland itself has a very small population of 4.8 million. More than double this number has emigrated from Ireland…

The Polish Diaspora

The Polish diaspora is widespread and has been notably oppressed for centuries by a number of different external forces. This has caused it to become dispersed throughout the world, with…

The Nigerian Diaspora

The Nigerian diaspora is one of the largest African immigrant populations in the world, but its actual size is very difficult to estimate. The advent of colonialism and the Trans-Atlantic…

The Jamaican Diaspora

The Jamaican diaspora is a very large one in proportion to its overall population. The Caribbean island nation has a population of 4.4 million. Its diaspora population is over 2…

A Short History of The Inca Empire

The most widespread empire in the Americas prior to European conquest; although the Inca civilization was long-lived, the Empire itself thrived for a relatively short period of time of just…

The Turkish Diaspora

The Turkish diaspora is difficult to categorise due to there being so many disparate population groups as a result of the sheer territorial reach of the former Ottoman Empire. Thus,…

The Greek Diaspora

The Greek diaspora, due to its sheer longevity, is one of the more difficult to categorise. It has existed since the days of antiquity and remains widespread in the present…

Global Cities: Berlin

While historically overlooked in favour of more glamorous and traditionally beautiful European cities, Berlin has undergone a renaissance of sorts in recent years, cementing itself as the continent’s premier culture…

Global Cities: London

London is one of the most global cities on the planet, a real melting pot of different cultures, nationalities and religions. With many traces of the country’s former colonial reach…

Global Cities: New York

New York City is one of the most global metropolises on the planet, practically synonymous with the virtues of immigration. For centuries, the city has been an entry point for…

The Malaysian Diaspora

The Malaysian diaspora is a relatively small one, numbering around 1 million people, a small number considering its population of over 32 million. It is also generally confined to nearby…

The Portuguese Diaspora

The Portuguese diaspora is very difficult to estimate in terms of size due to its extensive history. As one of the largest empires of the colonial period, Portugal’s territorial reach…

Global Cities: Los Angeles

Few cities epitomise multiculturalism better than Los Angeles. The city is home to one of the most diverse array of immigrant populations in the world. From its Spanish roots, the…

Showing study guides -