Spices and the Spice Trade

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Spices and the Spice Trade

Spices are derived from mineral and plant origins. The most fundamentally important spice is salt—a mineral. Yet, trade in spices of plant origin from tropical South and Southeast Asia—pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and mace—stimulated European "scientific thought during the Renaissance and the explorations and the empire building that followed" (Küster 2000, p. 437).

They were used to obscure the bad taste of food as well as to improve and aid its digestion. As was typical of the promotion of "exotic" goods, claims about their medical and sexual benefits were exaggerated. In the past, they were scarce and considered luxury goods. As they became more readily available and prices fell, they became mundane commodities. Also, there were shifts in consuming patterns as competing products were introduced (for example, chili peppers from the New World), diet and tastes changed, and food handling improved.

Today, spices are omnipresent, and a the term is used for all of the above dried aromatic products, to which others have been added, including allspice, cardamom, dried ginger, and turmeric, which come from South, Southeast Asia, the Americas, and Africa.


Pepper grows on a vine that produces strings of berries that are initially green and, after ripening, bright orange-red. Black pepper was and is its most common presentation. It is produced by picking the berries when they are green and drying them in the sun. Production originated in South India and spread to the Indonesian Archipelago. Today, it is grown in those regions and elsewhere in the tropics, including in Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and Brazil.

Cinnamon is the dried bark from several varieties of small evergreen trees or bushes of the laurel family that provide similar flavors. Early cinnamons were of the cassia variety. True cinnamon, or cinnamomum zelyanicum, is native only to Sri Lanka. It possesses a more delicate aroma and it is handled in a slightly different manner than cassia. Consumers preferred and were willing to pay higher prices for it. It was harvested in the wild until it was exploited on plantations in Sri Lanka in the later half of the eighteenth century. Multiple efforts from the seventeenth and through the nineteenth centuries were made by competing colonial powers to transplant it to different locations. They were not successful, in part because of the extra, semi artisan handling in its peeling.

Cloves originated in the Spice Islands of the Indonesian Archipelago. They are the immature buds of an evergreen tree. After they are picked and dried they turn red-brown. Cloves were successfully transplanted to other tropical locations in Africa (Zanzibar and Madagascar) and the Americas (the West Indies) in the eighteenth century.

Nutmeg and mace are the dried fruit of a large evergreen tree found in the Indonesian Archipelago and the Philippines. Opening the fruit reveals a nut—the nutmeg—that is surrounded by a bright red cage, or aril—mace. Similar to cloves, it was successfully transplanted to other tropical parts of the world, especially the West Indies.


Trade in all the spices dates from antiquity. Only available from distant and remote locations, they were transported by sea and by land via caravans. They were consumed and prized throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, and so offered individuals and states lucrative commercial and political opportunities via intermediation and trade control and monopoly.

In the fifteenth century pepper was the least costly (though still expensive) spice, and it had enjoyed the most stable demand of all the spices in Europe. Made available by Muslim intermediaries in Egypt and the Levant; the main commercial rivals in the Mediterranean were the Venetians, Genoese, and Catalans. Towards the end of the century they were responsible for importing annually an estimated 750 to 900 tons of pepper and less than 450 tons of other spices. The Venetians had a dominant market share of pepper (60–70%) but controlled under half (45%) the market in other spices. Driven by commercial and political interests to circumvent Muslim and Christian intermediation of spices in the Levant and the Mediterranean, the Portuguese embarked upon a series of voyages to find a route to India by sea, which was accomplished by Vasco da Gama (c. 1460–1524) in 1498.

Through their introduction of heavily armed shipping and other aggressive policies in the sixteenth century, the Portuguese were able to obtain the quantity of spices in Asia that they were prepared to purchase. Almost immediately, they established a dominant position as suppliers of spices increased the price of pepper in Lisbon from 22 to nearly 38 ducats a quintal (an old Portuguese term for weight, in this case, 60 grams). This was nearly the equilibrium price for pepper delivered by their competitors in the Mediterranean from the Levantine markets, which meant that Portuguese imports would always find a market. Accordingly, spice deliveries in the Indian OceanRed Sea and overland caravan routes to Egypt and the Levant were only temporarily disrupted. The overall result was that there was an expansion over the century in the supply and consumption of pepper from around 1,000 to 3,000 or 3,500 tons annually, without a price collapse. The Portuguese were able to maintain high prices and supply, and they sold from one-half to three-quarters of all of the pepper and other spices in Europe over the sixteenth century.

Drawn by profits and politics, other Europeans (primarily, the Dutch and English) organized in joint-stock companies challenged the Spanish and Portuguese empires in Asia. With their superior naval forces the Dutch wrested strategic positions from the Portuguese, then implemented draconian policies and established monopolies over clove, nutmeg and mace, and cinnamon production in the Indonesian Archipelago and on Sri Lanka. The Dutch failed to monopolize pepper because its production was too dispersed over South India and the Indonesian Archipelago. In Europe the Dutch and English actions provoked an oversupply of pepper, which produced a fall in prices by nearly 40 percent compared to the price maintained by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century. Competition from the Indian OceanRed Sea and caravans in the Levant and the Mediterranean was eliminated, but consumer prices also fell, which provoked a dramatic increase in consumption. Because the English or others were unable to offer effective competition for the other spices, there were fewer stimuli to increase consumption or downward pressure on prices.


Pepper imports into Europe reached levels of more than 5,700 metric tons annually in the late seventeenth century, but these levels were unsustainable, and annual imports fluctuated from 2,700 to 5,300 metric tons in the eighteenth century. Pepper, which enjoyed increased demand in Asia and lower prices and margins in Europe, and the monopolized spices (with the exception of cinnamon) had become mundane commodities. Cinnamon remained a luxury for a while longer because of its use as an added ingredient to chocolate from the New World.

Trade grew in more profitable Asian commodities, such as silk and cotton textiles, causing a relative decline in the trade of spices to Europe. The successful transfer of spice production by other colonial powers over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contributed to the increased availability of spices. Zanzibar eventually overtook the Indonesian Archipelago in production of cloves. Consumers began to reject the high prices for true cinnamon, and false cinnamon, or cassias, became accepted alternatives.

Despite this relative decline, European powers became increasingly involved in indigenous politics, in part to secure supplies of spices at advantageous prices. Although occasionally violent, most of this involvement, particularly in the case of the Dutch in the Indonesian Archipelago, was through negotiation of contracts between local rulers and the company.

By the twentieth century basic commodity production, including spices and the spice trade, encountered depressed prices. After decolonization independent spice-producing states have attempted to develop niche or brand markets in order to differentiate and obtain higher prices for their products. Although spices no longer provoke wars, the modern spice trade is important as a foreign-exchange earner and employer of people in the countries where they are produced.

SEE ALSO Agriculture; Albuquerque, Afonso de; Amsterdam; Antwerp; Arms, Armaments; Bengal; Bullion (Specie); Calcutta; Caravan Trade; China; Coen, Jan Pieterszoon; Columbus, Christopher; East India Company, British; East India Company, Dutch; East India Company, Other; Empire, British; Empire, Dutch; Empire, French; Empire, Ming; Empire, Mughal; Empire, Ottoman; Empire, Portuguese; Empire, Qing; Empire, Spanish; Genoa; Gold and Silver; Guangzhou; Imperialism; India; Indian Ocean; Indonesia; Iran;Lisbon;Madras;Magellan, Ferdinand;Mediterranean;Melaka;Mercantilism;Mexico;Philippines;Privateering;Protection Costs;Raffles, Sir Thomas Stamford;Singapore;Smuggling;South China Sea;Sri Lanka;Textiles;Venice;Women Traders of Southeast Asia.


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George Bryan Souza