In their original settlements in the East Mediterranean and Near East, Jewish merchants traded in luxury goods, including *spices. This latter trade became more evident in the Diaspora era, when Jews, along with Greeks and Syrians, appeared as traders in Western Europe. Because of their relationship with the Orient, they were able to supply these products, which were grown mainly in the countries from southern Arabia to the Moluccas and were used for medicinal purposes, in the preparation of food and beverages, and in perfumes. At first the Syrians led this trade, losing their position to the Jews only after the conquest of the Syrian coast by the Arabs. Writing on the trade routes in the years between 854 and 874, Ibn Kordabheh, postmaster of the caliph of Baghdad, mentioned that Radhanites traded in musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon, and other commodities between France and China. From the tenth century the northern route through the Slav countries became increasingly important to Jewish traders as they were displaced in the Mediterranean by Italian merchants. When visiting Mainz around 978, Ibrahim Tartuschi, an Arab from the Iberian Peninsula, was astonished to find the markets filled with large quantities of spices which could only be found in the Far East; it was generally believed that these were brought by Jewish merchants from the Orient by way of Kiev. The activities of Jewish traders on the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean trade routes and ports are revealed in 11th- to 13th-century genizah documents and responsa. The disuse of the Eastern routes with the expansion of Tatar and Turkish conquest added to the increased Christian participation in overseas trade and the restriction of Jewish commercial activities, and caused the Jews to lose their position as intermediaries with the Orient, being replaced by the Italians and especially the Venetians.
Jewish merchants once more played a part in the spice trade with the opening of the direct route to East India by the Portuguese. Prominent among these merchants was the New Christian *Mendes family, probably descendants of the Spanish *Benveniste family. Rui Mendes (de Brito) sent a ship to East India with Vasco da Gama's second voyage in 1502, and in 1505, in association with the German Lucas Rem, armed three ships for East India. He was probably a close relative of the brothers Francisco and Diogo *Mendes who, the former in Lisbon and the latter in Antwerp, controlled a major part of the commerce in pepper and other spices in northern Europe, the largest market at that time. After the death of Diogo Mendes (1542 or 1543), Francisco's widow, Beatrice de Luna, carried on the Antwerp branch of the enterprise. As J.A. Goris has shown (see bibl.), about 12 other New Christians in Antwerp were engaged in the spice trade, on the basis of annual contracts made with the king of Portugal. For some time the Perez family and other Spanish merchants, who were probably also New Christians, were the representatives of these contractadores. When Philip ii succeeded to the throne of Portugal, he tried to renew the system of contracts, which had been in the hands of the German Konrad Rott during the last years of Portuguese independence. After Rott's bankruptcy, the Lisbon and Antwerp branches of the Ximenes and D'Évora families participated in the European contract. From 1592 to 1596 the Indian contract was in the hands of a consortium of New Christians: Tomáz and André Ximenes, Duarte Furtado de Mendoza, Luis Gomes d'Elvas, Heitor Mendes, and Jorge Rodriguez Solis. Attacks on Portuguese ships by English pirates, the revival of the Levantine spice trade from Alexandria and Syria to the Mediterranean ports, and the opening of East Indian navigation by the Dutch and English, all contributed to the decline of the Portuguese monopoly and thus of the activities of the New Christian groups. However, their participation in the spice trade in Hamburg and Amsterdam remained prominent. Among the 16 spice importers in Amsterdam in 1612, 11 were "Portuguese," i.e., Sephardim. According to Bloom (see bibl.), in the first part of the 18th century the spice trade still represented a considerable proportion of the commercial activities of the Sephardi community in Amsterdam.
W. Heyd, Geschichte des Levantehandels im Mittelalter (1879); P. Lambrechts, in: Antiquité Classique, 6 (1937), 357ff.; J. Brutzkus, in: zgjd, 3 (1931), 97f.; L. Rabinowitz, Jewish Merchant Adventures, a Study of the Radanites (1948); S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, 1 (1967), index; Roth, Marranos, index; C. Roth, House of Nasi, Doña Gracia (1947); J.A. Goris, Etude sur les Colonies Marchandes Méridionales à Anvers de 1488 à 1567 (1925); Brugmans-Frank, 1 (1940); D. Gomes, Discursos sobre los Comercios de las dos Indias, ed. by M.B. Amzalak (1943); J.G. da Silva, in: xiii Congresso Luso-Espanhol para o Progresso das Ciências, Lisbon, 1950; J.L. de Azevedo, Epocas de Portugal Economico (19472); H.I. Bloom, Economic Activity of the Jews of Amsterdam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1937); C. von Rohr, Neue Quellen zur zweiten Indienfahrt Vasco da Gamas (1939); J. Polišenský and P. Ratkoš, in: Historica, 9 (1964), 53–67; H. Kellenbenz, in: Monumenta Judaica (1963), 199f.; idem, Sephardim an der unteren Elbe (1958); idem, La Participation des Capitaux de l'Allemagne Méridionale aux Entreprises Portugaises d'Outre-Mer au Tournant du xve siècle et xvie siècle (1966).