gigatos | January 2, 2022
Spices and aromatics are mainly vegetable odorants with multiple uses. These often rare and precious goods have been traded since ancient times. The history of the spice trade is mainly interested in the long term trade of these resources and the influence it had on the different civilizations that practiced it. Although there are spice plants on all continents, a few South Asian species, such as ginger, cinnamon and especially pepper, have dictated the direction of large-scale trade. Nutmeg and cloves, whose cultivation was for a long time confined to a few islands of Insulindia, often serve as markers of the links woven between very distant peoples and cultures.
Spices were part of the rituals of many ancient religions and were among the first goods traded between Africa, Asia and Europe. Since ancient times, the incense route has linked Egypt to Mesopotamia and possibly India by land through the Arabian Peninsula. It experienced an extraordinary growth with the discovery of the monsoon winds in the Hellenistic period and the spice trade became the source of direct contacts between the Greco-Roman, Indian and Chinese worlds in parallel with the Silk Road.
With the fall of the Roman Empire and the expansion of Islam, the center of gravity of the spice trade shifted to the East. The Indian Ocean is the crossroads of all movements between the sources of production in South Asia and the Malay Archipelago, and the Arab-Muslim and Chinese markets. Spices reached the Levant through the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, and were redistributed by Mediterranean merchants. Medieval Europe played only a very marginal role in this network and bought goods at a high price, the origin of which was often unknown.
The great discoveries of the Iberian kingdoms were largely motivated by the desire to capture the manna of Asian spices. The opening of the route to India via the Cape of Good Hope permanently changed the modalities and scope of this trade, and led the world economy into modern times. It also triggered a period of domination of the Orient by Portugal first, then by the Netherlands, England and France, who entrusted this task to the various East India companies. The quest for spices was thus one of the roots of European expansion and paved the way for colonialism and world empires.
Interest in spices diminished quite abruptly from the second half of the 17th century. They were replaced by new colonial commodities, such as sugar, coffee, tobacco or cocoa. The causes of this decline are debated, but it is likely that they are linked to the disappearance of the very reason for their success: once the veil of mystery and magic that surrounded their nature and origins was lifted, spices ceased to enchant the world.
Spices were probably the first global commodity. Because of their high value relative to their small volume, they were among the first products to be traded over very long distances. Traded hundreds of times along complex transcontinental routes, or transported across oceans, spices were the cause of great voyages of exploration, the object of wars between empires and the origin of the prosperity of many cities.
The term “spice” appeared in French in the 12th century (in the form espice) to designate aromatic substances. It is derived from the Latin species, used to translate the Greek eidos, in the modern sense of the word “species”. By semantic shift from the Low Latin “goods classified by species”, it has long designated any “species” of food, before being restricted to aromatics and drugs. The list of products qualified as spices has never been unequivocal and sometimes differs greatly from current definitions which restrict them to plant products used as condiments in cooking. Thus, some medieval compendiums list animal substances (musk, castoreum) and minerals (mercury, alum) among the spices, as well as commodities such as almonds, sugar, cotton, indigo or wax.
In their historical sense, spices refer to aromatic, high-cost commercial products imported from distant lands. This distinguishes them from bulk goods, such as wood or salt, or common domestically produced foodstuffs. Given the distances traveled before their commercialization, spices appear mainly in dried form, even crushed or ground. This characteristic essentially differentiates them from aromatic herbs which share the same uses, but can be consumed fresh. Often harvested or cultivated locally, the latter have little commercial value.
Pepper was by far the most important spice of market value at least until the 18th century. Its trade, markets and price have been the subject of numerous studies in economic history and are analyzed as critical factors in processes as diverse as the devaluation of the Roman monetary system, the rise of the Venetian republic or the Iberian maritime explorations. Alongside pepper, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves were of great economic importance and still participate in the international food trade. Myrrh and frankincense, famous for their biblical mention as gifts from the Magi to the infant Jesus, were major commodities on the centuries-old “incense routes”. Other spices were traded over long periods of time, before being forgotten. The mastic of Chios was one of the luxury products of the ancient world. The Romans brought nard, costus, lycium and bdellium from India at high prices. For the medieval European kitchen, galangal, zedoary or paradise seeds were precious but relatively common spices.
Most spices and aromatics come from tropical and subtropical regions and the Orient is the home of the most popular of them. Basil, cardamom, turmeric, sesame, but especially pepper and cinnamon originate from the Indian subcontinent. China brought cassia, star anise and jasmine. Ginger comes from Southeast Asia, and the “spice islands” (Moluccas and Banda) were the only source of cloves, mace and nutmeg until the 18th century. The origin of the most famous Asian spices has often been kept secret, or subject to erroneous speculation. Ancient authors cite Arabia or Ethiopia as the source of cassia and cinnamon. Marco Polo reported that clove trees grow in eastern Tibet, on the Nicobar Islands and in Java. Other myths tell that cloves are the flower, nutmeg the fruit and cinnamon the bark of the same plant. Europeans learn the true origin of clove and nutmeg trees only in the middle of the fifteenth century, through the account of Nicolò de” Conti: “Towards the East, after fifteen days of navigation, we find two islands: one is called Sandaï, where the nutmeg is born, the other is called Banda, where cloves are born.”
The spices domesticated in Central Asia, such as dill, black mustard, garlic and onion or poppy seed, on the other hand, have become widely acclimatized and have therefore never had any great commercial value. The same is true for Mediterranean herbs and seeds such as anise, coriander, cumin, bay leaves, oregano, rosemary, sage or thyme. Saffron is a notable exception, but its high price is linked to the constraints of its production rather than to its geographical origin: today it takes 150,000 flowers to produce one kilogram of spice, and this quantity was certainly 3 to 4 times higher in the Middle Ages.
The contribution of sub-Saharan Africa to the world of spices is mainly marked by substitutes for Indian pepper, known as grains of paradise or Guinea pepper, which historically overlap several unrelated species. Tamarind, which has many culinary and medicinal uses in South Asia, was introduced there a long time ago from East Africa. As for the famous Arabian aromatics such as frankincense and myrrh, they originate from both sides of the Red Sea. Although the discovery of the New World brought hundreds of new commodities to the world economy, American spices never achieved the commercial success of their Asian counterparts. Chillies were quickly acclimatized throughout the world and certainly contributed to the decline of the pepper trade. Interest in vanilla came late and the spice trade only gained momentum after its introduction to other continents. In the 21st century, most of the world”s production comes from Indonesia and Madagascar.
During most of its existence, the international spice trade was therefore strongly unbalanced in favor of Asia, and India in particular. In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder protested that “100 million sesterces, at the lowest calculation, are annually taken away from our empire by India, Serica, and this Arabian peninsula; so much do luxury and women cost us!” His grievances are echoed thirteen centuries later by the Persian Wassaf: “India exports herbs and trifles to receive gold in exchange.” It is this imbalance that Europeans will seek to fill from the sixteenth century, gradually building colonial empires to control the precious “trifles” of the East.
Spices are now reduced to their sole culinary use, and this use has greatly diminished in Europe since the 18th century. They have also lost their importance to the world economy and are now just another food product. It is therefore difficult to understand why they were so passionately desired during the Antiquity and the Middle Ages and how they could have been at the origin of military campaigns and distant and dangerous expeditions.
The most common answer is that spices were essential to preserve food. Although totally erroneous, this explanation has a life of its own because it seems intuitively logical. However, spices are poor preservatives compared to methods known since prehistoric times, such as smoking, curing or air-drying. The belief that they were used to mask the taste of spoiled meat must also be eliminated: their prohibitive cost compared to locally available fresh food makes this assumption incongruous.
The Aristotelian tradition explains the craving for spices by the remedy function of these warm and dry substances against the cold and wet nature of the human brain. This theory, developed in particular in De anima, also distinguishes humans from animals: the latter only perceive food odors, whereas humans experience a strong pleasure when they breathe in perfumes and aromas. In his commentary on the work, Thomas Aquinas concludes that the natural state of the brain bears the stigma of excess and that man needs aromatics to be healthy. The high demand for spices had therefore much deeper and more complex causes than mere gastronomic curiosity. Ancient and medieval societies considered them to be particularly effective in treating and preventing disease. They were also burned as incense for the sacraments, distilled in perfumes and ointments and stimulated the imagination by their strong symbolic value. The boundaries between the different uses are porous and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the culinary ingredient from the remedy, perfume, ritual or magical substance.
Some authors also point out the psychoactive and addictive effects of products such as saffron, frankincense, nutmeg or even pepper. The frantic search for these “pleasure substances” could partially explain the “spice madness” observed at the end of the Middle Ages, as well as the excessive sacrifices invested in their trade. It is also interesting to note that the decline of spices in Europe in the 17th century coincided with the success of new stimulants: coffee, tobacco, tea and chocolate. Then, in the 19th century, it was the turn of opium to arouse commercial interest capable of provoking several wars. The historical circumstances of the spice trade thus show remarkable similarities with the modern traffic of illicit substances.
Finally, like all luxury goods, spices had a function of social distinction. Beyond their multiple uses, they represented for their purchaser a calculated display of wealth, prestige, style and splendor. According to the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “the conquest of the superfluous gives a greater spiritual excitement than the conquest of the necessary”. Spices and pepper are thus cited by Erasmus in the list of “luxuries and refinements” (in Latin: “luxum ac delicias”) whose consumption is reserved for the rich and which it is judicious to tax in priority. The banquets organized in 1476 for the marriage of Duke George the Rich showed impressive quantities: 386 pounds of pepper, 286 of ginger, 207 of saffron, 205 of cinnamon, 105 of cloves and 85 pounds of nutmeg. Spices, and particularly pepper, were also used for a long time as a refuge and even as currency. In 408, Alaric the Visigoth agreed to lift the siege of Rome in exchange for a ransom that included 3,000 pounds of pepper. Until 1937, the King of England received a symbolic annual rent of one pound of pepper from the Mayor of Launceston (Cornwall).
Spices and aromatics were certainly among the first products traded between the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, and would be at the origin of the oldest supply chain on a global scale. It is thus under the name of “incense route” that the connections linking the Horn of Africa and Arabia, ancient sources of aromatics, to Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Mediterranean world are known. Archaeologists place the beginning of these connections around 1800 B.C., but they may be much older. They were mainly terrestrial and developed especially from 900 BC onwards, when the domestication of the dromedary allowed the transport of goods over long distances and the crossing of deserts. Although regularly cited as markers of long-distance trade, Asian spices such as cassia and cinnamon were probably not part of the products traded on the incense route. The role of the Indian world was also very limited during the first centuries of this trade and would only flourish with the opening of the sea routes.
Egyptian expeditions in the country of Pount
As early as the Old Egyptian Empire, pharaohs such as Sahurê (XXVth century) sent ships to bring back spices from the mysterious “land of Punt”. Most authors interpret it as the Horn of Africa, in the region of Cape Gardafui, or more rarely as Happy Arabia. The most famous of these commercial expeditions is certainly that of Queen Hatshepsut (15th century), whose funerary temple contains bas-reliefs showing the various riches brought back from Punt. Among these are incense trees uprooted and carried alive with their leaves and roots in round baskets.
The spices of South Asia could have reached the people of the Nile through this same country of Punt, even if the routes that brought them there are not known with precision. The oldest evidence of this trade comes from the mummy of Ramses II (13th century), whose abdomen and nasal cavities contained peppercorns (species Piper nigrum). The spice could only have come from southern India, and was probably used in the embalming process. Many Egyptian sources from the 2nd millennium BC mention ti-spš, which has traditionally been translated as “cinnamon”, although this interpretation is controversial. It was a prestigious substance, offered by kings to temples and deities, and used in ointments and perfumed oils. In the early twentieth century, Henri Edouard Naville claimed to have found remains of nutmeg at Deir el-Bahari, in a context dating back to the eighteenth dynasty and perhaps contemporary with the Hatshepsut expedition. However, this discovery has never been fully published.
Biblical references to the spice trade
The Hebrew Bible contains many references to spices and their trade. Israel is indeed a bridge between Africa and Asia, between the empires of the Nile and those of the Tigris and Euphrates, between Pharaonic Egypt and Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian Mesopotamia. The importance of spices can be noted as early as Genesis: Abraham”s second wife is called Keturah (“incense” in Hebrew) and two of Ishmael”s children, Bashmath and Mibsam, have names derived from the term bosem (“spice”). In the Books of Kings, the Queen of Sheba goes “to Jerusalem with a large retinue and camels laden with spices” which she offers to King Solomon, and never again will Israel see “such a great quantity of perfumes and spices”. The Old Testament contains many other testimonies of the prosperity that the kingdom of Sheba derived from the trade of the incense route.
The Book of Exodus (attributed to Moses, 14th century) also gives the recipe for the holy oil to be used for anointing, which must contain myrrh, cinnamon, sweet cane and cassia. The Song of Songs (attributed to King Solomon, 10th century) contains a detailed list of “the finest spices”: pomegranate, henna, spikenard, saffron, sweet cane, cinnamon, frankincense, aloes wood and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh come from Arabia and the east coast of Africa, pomegranate and cane from Persia, but the Hebrew terms for nard, saffron (karkom, which could also refer to turmeric), cinnamon and aloes come from Sanskrit and could describe products from India. The majority of these words later passed into Greek in their Semitic form, attesting to the importance of Semites in the transport of aromatics to the Mediterranean.
Cass and cinnamon: the question of India
In their modern sense, cassia and cinnamon are the aromatic bark of several trees of the genus Cinnamomum, principally Cinnamomum verum (from Sri Lanka) and Cinnamomum cassia (from China). Supposed mentions of these two Asian spices in ancient texts produced by civilizations far removed from their natural habitats traditionally serve as evidence of ancient trade between East and West.
Many authors cite cassia as a known remedy in China since the 26th century BC. It appears in the Shennong bencao jing (“The Classic of the Medical Material of the Heavenly Tiller”), a pharmacopoeia traditionally attributed to the mythical emperor Shennong, but which was actually compiled at the beginning of the Common Era. Cassia was first mentioned in a European text by Sappho, the 7th century Greek poetess, when she described the oriental riches of the wedding of Hector and Andromache in Troy. The beginnings of the Indian spice trade with the Mediterranean are classically located in the fifth century BC, based on mentions of cinnamon and cassia in the work of Herodotus. The historian and geographer of Halicarnassus indeed cites them alongside frankincense and myrrh among the goods sold by the Arabs, and explains that they were used by the Egyptians to embalm mummies. The accounts he gives of the origin of the two spices are, however, rather fanciful: cassia “grows in a shallow lake” protected by “bat-like birds”, while cinnamon comes from Nysa “where Dionysus was raised” and must be harvested from the nests of large Phoenix-like birds. However, there is no formal evidence that the terms cinnamomum and cassia (Latin), kinnamômon and kasia (Greek) or kinamon and ktzeeha (Hebrew) actually referred to the species known today. Some authors consider it more likely that they were plants of Arabic or African origin. The bark of the Cassia abbreviata shrub, whose range extends from Somalia to southern Africa, thus possesses numerous medicinal properties that make it a more plausible candidate for the cassia or cinnamon of ancient texts.
Some archaeological discoveries support the hypothesis of a very early beginning of the Asian spice trade with the West. Remains of cardamom (native to the Western Ghats) and cloves (endemic to the Moluccas) have been found at Terqa, a Mesopotamian Bronze Age site. Phoenician clay flasks dated to the 11th and 10th centuries B.C. have shown significant traces of cinnamaldehyde, the main compound produced by the genus Cinnamomum. While the botanical identifications of these finds are debated, that of the black pepper berries from the nostrils of the mummy of Ramses II seems indisputable.
Although it existed, trade between India and the West before the Christian era was neither significant nor direct. As early as the 3rd millennium BC, the Indus Valley civilization had limited trade links with Mesopotamia, Elam and the Arabian Peninsula via the Persian Gulf. It was mainly coastal navigation from Gujarat and Makran to Oman (Magan in Sumerian texts), the region of Bandar Abbas and Minab on the Strait of Hormuz, or the archipelago of Bahrain (Dilmun) and the island of Failaka in the gulf. This early maritime trade was interrupted in the 2nd millennium due to a marked decline in agricultural production in southern Mesopotamia as a result of silting and salinization. It resumed only from the middle of the 1st millennium BC, thanks to the unifying policy of the Achaemenids.
Caravans of Happy Arabia
Trade by land between pre-Islamic Yemen and the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Assyria, the Levant and Egypt began in earnest at the beginning of the first millennium BC. The region located south of Happy Arabia was occupied by four kingdoms, with very different languages, cultures and religions: Hadramaut, Qataban, Saba, and Ma”in. Each is established in a large alluvial valley, in what has been called an “ecological pocket”: sheltered from the sea by the mountains, protected from invasion by the desert, and irrigated by a wadi filled by the biennial monsoons. A network of trade routes linking the kingdoms together is at the origin of the incense route. It allowed the exchange of goods such as salt, wine, wheat, weapons, dates or leather. Gradually, the network expanded northwards and focused on the lucrative trade of spices and aromatics.
Hadramaut is the epicenter of frankincense production and its capital Chabwa is a mandatory stop for any incense merchant. From there, the road leads to Timna, the main city of Qataban where the myrrh tree is cultivated and which is connected to Aden. It is in this port that exotic spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, sandalwood, aloe wood or dragon blood are unloaded. They come from Socotra and perhaps from India, Ceylon or even Insulinde, and are associated with local productions and claimed as such. The caravans then travel to Marib, the capital of the kingdom of Saba and the main city of ancient Yemen, and then to Yathul, in the small state of the Minaeans from which most of the incense merchants originate. It is there that the crossing of the desert begins.
The route to the north of the peninsula is not a single road, but rather a complex network of paths leading to various crossing points where supplies are obtained and goods are exchanged. From the 5th century onwards, caravans consisted of at least 200 dromedaries and were preceded by a guard of local nomads who protected them from bandits. After the oasis of Najran, a road branches off to the northeast and reaches Gerrha on the Persian Gulf. Presumably founded by Chaldean exiles from Babylon, the city thrives on its strategic location and trades Arab spices and incense for colorful Persian textiles. Another road leads to Tayma, at the edge of the Nefoud desert. It allows to reach Assyria or Babylonia and to exchange goods for silver and precious stones. The main route, however, continues to Petra, the seat of the Nabatean kings, which links Arabia to Syria, Phoenicia and Anatolia. Most caravans end their journey in Gaza, on the Mediterranean, from where the aromatics are shipped to Egypt. The journey, which is 1,800 km long, takes about two months.
For the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean, there was an eastern maritime space that led to spices and aromatics. Called the “Eritrean Sea” by the Greco-Romans, it corresponds to the stretch of water joining Africa to India and thus to the present-day Arabian Sea. This sea thus defined has two gulfs, the sinus arabicus (the Red Sea) and the sinus persicus (the Persian Gulf) which surround the Arabian Peninsula. For a long time, the access to these routes escaped them. But from the 2nd century BC, the establishment of direct contacts between Egypt and India was made possible by the progressive weakening of the Yemenite kingdoms that controlled the incense route. It occurred at the beginning of a significant historical period of peace and stability, during which five great empires were established: the Kushan Empire in northern India, Satavahana in the south, the Han dynasty in China, the Parthians in Persia, and imperial Rome in the Mediterranean.
Ports of Hellenistic Egypt
It is the conquests of Alexander the Great that really opened the southern seas to the Mediterranean world. However, the two gulfs continued to lead a totally independent life. On the Persian Gulf, the Seleucids controlled the eastern part, while the other shore was occupied by Arab tribes, including the Gerrheans. The empire is little interested in the coasts, because it is crossed by the terrestrial roads coming from the East, like that which leaves India towards Gédrosie, Carmanie, Perside and Susiane.
On the Red Sea, on the other hand, the Ptolemies actively sought to oppose Arab preponderance and to eliminate their intermediary. They developed their ports which put them in connection with the Nabatean merchants, who controlled the caravan trade from South Arabia. They first used Arsinoe (en), on the Gulf of Suez, then Myos Hormos at the outlet of the Ouadi Hammamat, and finally Berenice, founded around 260 BC by Ptolemy II Philadelphus. In spite of the long road through the desert which connects it to Coptos on the Nile, the port has the advantage of being protected from the northern winds by a cape and of being at the southern limit of the zone of the great calms. After having lost Syria at the beginning of the 2nd century, and thus the access to the land routes of the aromatics, the Lagid kingdom made an intensive exploration of the southern coasts of the Red Sea. It may have crossed the Bab-el-Mandeb strait and ventured into the Gulf of Aden.
It is in this context that the opening of a direct maritime route to India occurs. It is attributed to Eudoxus of Cyzicus, whose journey is recounted by the Roman geographer Strabo. This navigator made two voyages to India from an Egyptian port towards the end of the reign of Ptolemy VIII (died in 116 BC), then perished in an unsuccessful attempt to bypass Africa, which he suspected of being surrounded by an ocean. According to Strabo, only less than twenty ships crossed the Red Sea each year and barely dared to look beyond the straits. He contrasts these timid beginnings with the “great fleets” of the Roman era that annually left the Egyptian coast for India and the extremities of Ethiopia.
Indo-Roman silk and spice routes
After having annexed Egypt in 30 BC, Augustus tried to take control of the spice trade by seizing Arabia. This expedition was a failure and it is thus by the sea that the direct exchanges with the Eastern countries continue to be made.
The famous Silk Road, whose beginning is said to have been in the 2nd century BC, may have been a “romantic deception”. The name imagined by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen at the end of the 19th century has gradually been transformed into an orientalist vision of camels marching towards the West over thousands of kilometers loaded with Chinese silk. Although it cannot be said with certainty that there was no Silk Road, the idea of a direct transcontinental route linking China to ancient Rome is to be rejected. One of the only sources mentioning a route leading from the Levant to the Orient is a fragmentary account written in Greek at the beginning of the first century. The Parthian Stages of Isidore of Charax describes a route (without mention of trade) and indicates the distances in shenes separating the different stops. It begins at Zeugma on the Euphrates, which is directly connected to Antioch on the Mediterranean, then crosses Seleucia on the Tigris, Ecbatane the winter capital of the Parthian Empire, Rhagès, Antioch of Margiane (Merv), Alexandria of Arie (Herat) and finally Alexandria of Arachosia (Kandahar). The account stops there, but we know from other sources that Margiane is connected to China by Sogdiana, Bactria and the Oxus valley, and that India can be reached from Kandahar by Taxila. These land routes were much less frequented than the sea routes and Chinese silk reached Rome mainly indirectly via India and the Arabian Sea. Spices were also the main commodity imported from the East and silk never rivaled in importance during the Roman period.
Knowledge of the routes taken and goods traded between the Roman and Indian worlds comes mainly from two sources: the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, published under the emperor Vespasian (died in 79), and the Eritrean Sea Journey of an unknown Greek author, generally dated to the first half of the first century. Despite their differences, the two texts agree in describing the same routes. From the Egyptian ports of Myos Hormos (Periplus) or Berenice (Natural History), the merchants go to Ocelis (en), near the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. Both sources also mention the port of Muza on the Arabian coast of the Red Sea, frequented by traders in incense and perfumes. The next stop is Qana on the Yemeni coast of the Gulf of Aden, in the land of incense. From there there are three possible routes: the first one goes along the Arabian Peninsula, then crosses the Persian Gulf and continues by coastal shipping to Barbarikon (en), at the mouth of the Indus. The other two routes pass through the high seas: from the “Cape of Aromatics” (Cape Gardafui), in Africa, or from Cape Syagros (Ras Fartak), in Arabia, they cross the Arabian Sea to the ports of Barygaza or Muziris.
Barbarikon is located in the Indus estuary, near present-day Karachi, and serves as a major outlet for long-distance trade from the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir. Barygaza is identified as Bharuch in Gujarat, at the mouth of the Narmada. It is by far the most cited port by the Peripatetic, which is corroborated by references to “Bharukaccha” in Buddhist texts in Pāli and Sanskrit. In contrast to Barbarikon, Barygaza is also an important industrial center for the manufacture and distribution of a wide variety of products. The list of goods exported from the two ports is quite similar: costus, lycium, bdellium, nard, indigo, and long pepper are listed. Muziris would correspond to the current village of Pattanam (en) in Kerala, the region from which pepper trees originate. The port mainly exports pepper, but also “malabathron (en)” (perhaps a kind of cinnamon), Chinese silk, pearls and precious stones.
The Indian spice route also knew a completely different route, although much less documented: that of the Persian Gulf. It was mainly followed by Palmyrene merchants, who had trading posts in Egypt, Socotra and probably Barbarikon. Ships from the Indian coast docked at Charax Spasinou, near present-day Basra, the capital of the Characene kingdom. The goods were then loaded onto camels for a month-long journey across the Syrian desert to Palmyra. From the caravan city, the spices reach the Mediterranean at Antioch via Chalcis of Syria. Compared to the Red Sea route, the Persian route is clearly shorter, but has a long and difficult overland section on the border between the Roman and Parthian empires. The choice of one route or the other seems to have depended on the many factors determining the timing of these long journeys, such as the monsoon cycle on the Indian Ocean, the availability of animals from the nomads of the Syrian desert or the flooding of the Nile. It is likely that Indian spices reached the Mediterranean at two different times of the year: late spring in Antioch and early autumn in Alexandria, corresponding respectively to the beginning and end of commercial navigation on the inland sea. The use of multiple routes thus reduced the risks associated with weather and political conditions in the Red Sea and on the Euphrates border and had a balancing effect on prices.
The Muslim conquest of Egypt in the seventh century put an end to Europe”s direct trade in the Indian Ocean. During the Middle Ages, the spices that reached the Mediterranean through the ports of Alexandria, Beirut and Acre represented only a small part of the world trade in these goods. Their importance in the gastronomy, medicine and art of living of the Chinese, Indian and Islamic worlds indicates that the center of gravity of the spice trade and consumption was in the East. Europe is a peripheral actor in a vast commercial network of which India is the center. Its sources of supply were Indochina and India, and it extended eastwards to China for sales and westwards to Persia and Egypt for distribution to the Arab-Muslim world and to Christianity.
After the withdrawal of the Roman Empire, the Indian Ocean trade was dominated by Persian and Arab merchants, and by the Malayan warehouses of Srivijaya. These were mainly private networks, small in scale and developed peacefully by adventurers rather than by state political ambitions. This system was both disrupted and intensified by the almost synchronous rise of the Fatimids in Egypt (969), the Song in China (960) and the Cholas in southern India (985). The volume of maritime trade between the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea grew dramatically in the tenth century and remained high until the mid-thirteenth century. It then went through a period of recession, due to internal troubles in both China and India, which lasted until the beginning of the 15th century.
Zayton and the insatiable Chinese market
“And I tell you that for one ship of pepper that goes to Alexandria or anywhere else, to be carried to Christian lands, there come to this port of Çaiton a hundred and more.”
– Marco Polo, Devisement of the world
Ancient and medieval China represented one of the most powerful engines for the development of international trade, generating a demand for luxury goods that even imperial Rome could not match. The Qin”s territorial conquests favored the opening of the silk routes through which a number of spices were brought into the Empire from South Asia and the West. Incense culture developed under the Han with the expansion of Buddhism and Taoism. After the revolt of An Lushan in the middle of the 8th century, trade from the Western Regions was interrupted. This led the Tang to develop the sea routes by supporting the construction of large ships suitable for ocean navigation. Chinese ships began to frequent the Malabar and Ceylon coast in search of spices and other goods. At that time, shipbuilding was expensive, transport capacity was very low and the risk of shipwreck or pirate attack was high. The only economically interesting maritime trade was that of precious and expensive goods, the majority of which were spices, a term that encompassed some 100 different products.
The reign of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was marked by the expansion of what has been called the “Maritime Silk Road”. China exported gold, silver, copper, silk and porcelain, and received ivory, jade, rhinoceros horn and especially spices. Imports of the latter amounted to several tens of thousands of pounds per year, representing nearly a quarter of the total volume of goods. The spice and aromatics trade was a state monopoly and the taxes levied constituted the Empire”s main financial income. A superintendence of maritime affairs (Shibo si) was created in 971 in Canton and the ancient port dominated foreign trade for a century. It was gradually eclipsed by Zayton (now Quanzhou), which was given a similar office in 1087. In 1225, half a century before Marco Polo”s visit, the port housed the trading posts of 58 states. A large number of Arab and Persian merchants settled there between the 13th and 14th centuries and built palaces, stores and temples. The most famous of them, Pu Shougeng (en), even held the position of superintendent of Shibo si for more than thirty years.
In the first half of the 15th century, the voyages of Admiral Zheng He produced major changes in the Chinese economy and spice trade. This Muslim eunuch led seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433, mainly on behalf of Emperor Yongle. They brought together at least thirty thousand men on junks over one hundred meters long, the famous treasure ships (baochuan), loaded with precious gifts. More than trade, their purpose was above all to strengthen tributarism and to raise the prestige of the emperor and the new Ming dynasty. The first three voyages had Calicut as their final destination, passing through Java, Sumatra, Malacca and Ceylon. The next three pushed further west and visited the opulent Islamic cities of Hormuz and Aden, as well as Somalia and Malindi on the African coast. The last expedition launched by Emperor Xuande even reached Mecca.
The direct access to the sources and the huge quantities of pepper brought back from these voyages could have had an effect on the Chinese market similar to that which Vasco de Gama”s voyage would later have on that of Europe. In order to keep the profits as high as possible, the empire gradually set up an ingenious system of redistribution. Instead of the usual winter clothes, soldiers stationed in Peking and Nanjing were given pepper and Sappan wood (a precious species imported from tropical Asia). The part of the salary of all civil and military officials in the capital normally paid in the form of paper money was also replaced by these two goods. In 1424, for the enthronement ceremony of the emperor Renzong, each inhabitant of Beijing was given a catty (about 600 g) of pepper and Sappan wood. The wage substitution system was then extended to other provinces, and although inflation caused a significant devaluation of paper money, the rate of conversion to spices remained unchanged. Officials had to manage to sell their pepper at ten times its face value. Spice thus passed from the status of a luxury product to that of a common commodity: it is estimated that during the 15th century the annual quantity imported into China was 50,000 bags, which corresponds to the total volume brought to Europe over the entire first half of the 16th century.
Malacca and the thalassocracies of the Malay Archipelago
Born towards the end of the seventh century, the “kingdom” or “empire” of Srivijaya is a Southeast Asian state whose history remains in many ways elusive. Founded on the site of present-day Palembang in southeast Sumatra, it quickly subjugated the kingdom of Malayu in the center of the island and Kedah, the main city of the Malay Peninsula. For at least five centuries, Srivijaya controlled the Straits of Malacca and Sunda, thus participating very directly in the lucrative international trade between Western Asia, India and China. Its complex and still poorly understood relations (domination or federation of city-states) with the second-tier port cities of the Malay Peninsula, Java and Borneo, often earn it the name of thalassocracy. Srivijaya is especially known by the Arab and Chinese sources, which underline its important position, and even temporarily dominant, in the commercial system of the Indian Ocean:
“The king bears the title “Maharaja”. This prince rules over a large number of islands over a distance of a thousand parasangles or even more. Among his possessions is also the island of Kalāh, situated halfway between the land of China and the land of the Arabs. Kalāh is a trading center for aloe wood, camphor, sandalwood, ivory, tin, ebony, spices of all kinds, and a host of objects, which it would be too long to enumerate. It is there that the expeditions from Oman now go and from there the expeditions for the country of the Arabs leave.”
– Abu Zaid of Siraf, Relation of China and India
Srivijaya declined from the beginning of the 11th century, notably under the competition of the neighboring kingdom of Kediri, based on the island of Java. From then on, the successive Javanese kingdoms (Singasari, then Majapahit) controlled the spice trade in the archipelago. Their capitals are located quite close to each other, at the eastern end of Java. On the adjacent northern coast are the ports that trade in spices: from west to east, Demak-Japara, Tuban, Gresik and Surabaya, collectively about halfway between the Moluccas and the Straits of Malacca. Indian and Arab merchants travel there through the Sunda Strait in December and leave in May, to take advantage of the monsoon winds. The Javanese travel to the Moluccas and the Banda Islands in a complementary manner. In addition to nutmeg, cloves and sandalwood from the spice islands, Java also exports its own products: fennel, coriander, jamuju seeds (Cuscuta chinensis), wungkudu tincture (Morinda citrifolia), and especially pepper and safflower. The cultivation of these two spices originating from South India spread in the archipelago from the 11th century onwards, and Java became the main source for the Chinese market.
Founded in 1404 on the strait which will take its name by Parameswara, a prince of Palembang, Malacca becomes during the 15th century one of the first port in the world. The city-state receives the support of China following the expeditions of Zheng He and its sultan escapes the suzerainty of the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya and that of Majapahit. Malacca is the hub of trade between the Indian Ocean and the China Sea, thanks in particular to the low level of customs duties and a code of laws offering merchants guarantees without equivalent in the region. It was a very cosmopolitan city, where many foreigners settled: Arabs, Persians, Bengalis, Gujaratis, Javanese, Chinese, Tamils, etc. At the beginning of the 16th century, at the dawn of the Portuguese conquest, Malacca had between 100,000 and 200,000 inhabitants.
Calicut, Indian crossroads of spices
Located at the crossroads of Arab and Chinese trade networks, the Indian subcontinent was home to several distinct economic poles in the Middle Ages. In the northwest, Gujarat has been a central area of mercantile activity since antiquity, exporting cotton goods to the entire Indian Ocean. From the 11th century onwards, Cambay established itself as the main port of the region. The Portuguese Tomé Pires said that “Cambay has two arms; the right one goes towards Aden, and the other towards Malacca”. The Gujaratis are very involved in trade with Southeast Asia: they have trading posts in Pegou, Siam, Pasai and Kedah. They also exported textiles and beads to East Africa, which enabled them to capture much of the gold from Zimbabwe. Gujarat was also the main warehouse for Malabar pepper, which then reached Mesopotamia and Asia Minor via the Persian Gulf.
In the eastern part of the peninsula, the Bengalis dominate shipping from their port at Satgaon. The region mainly exports cotton, ginger, sugar cane and slaves. It is also where junks are built, for navigation on the China Sea, and dhows, better adapted to the Arabian Sea. To the south, the Coromandel coast emerged as a commercial hub with the rise of the Chola dynasty at the turn of the first millennium. After eliminating all competition on the eastern coast of India up to Bengal, they took possession of Ceylon and the Maldives and even attacked Srivijaya to control the trade routes to Song China. Tamil merchants, mainly Hindus, but also some Buddhists and Muslims, played a major role in these exchanges. In the 12th and 12th centuries, they ensured a continuous presence in the Malay Peninsula and in China, where they were organized into guilds.
For the spice trade, however, it is the Malabar coast and its pepper that are the object of all covetousness. It is served by several ports, the main ones being Quilon and Calicut. It is estimated that the latter is known to the Chinese from the 12th century, under the name of Nanpiraj. The merchants obtained pepper, but also ginger, areca nuts, turmeric and indigo, which they exchanged for precious metals and porcelain. Calicut owes its prosperity mainly to Arab merchants who supported the rise of the Zamorins and assisted them in their territorial expansion. The city received famous travelers, such as the Arab Ibn Battûta, the Chinese Ma Huan, the Persian Abdur Razzaq (en) or the Venetian Nicolò de” Conti. The latter reports the following testimony:
“In this place abounds the merchandise of all India, so that there is a quantity of pepper, lacquer, ginger, large cinnamon, myrobolans and turmeric.”
Siraf and the oriental Arab-Persian trade
The involvement of the Islamic world in eastern maritime trade gained momentum under the Abbasids (750-1258), when the capital of the caliphate was moved from Damascus to Baghdad. The Arabs simply extended the Indian Ocean trade routes that had previously been in the hands of the Sassanid Persians and the Jews of Mesopotamia. Merchants from the Persian Gulf dominated the seas and imported Islam as far away as Mozambique and Canton. The most famous account of this period is the fable of the fantastic adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, the Baghdad merchant who visited the east coast of Africa and South Asia in the early ninth century.
Basra was the first outlet of the Mesopotamian provinces on the Gulf, before weakening following the rebellions of the Zanj and then the Qarmates. From the 9th century onwards, the port of Siraf became the main Middle Eastern warehouse for goods from India, China, Southeast Asia, East Africa and the Red Sea. It was home to a population of wealthy merchants who made their living trading in luxury goods such as pearls, gems, ivory, spices and ambergris, and whose dhows plied the Indian Ocean. From Siraf, Asian spices reached the Middle Eastern markets by land, with Baghdad as the nerve center. They reached the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople and Trebizond on the Black Sea, which was for a long time the main distribution center to the West.
But from the eleventh century, the Persian Gulf experienced a deep economic decline. Siraf was damaged by an earthquake in 977, it suffered from the competition of Qays, and then suffered greatly from the collapse of the Bouyides in 1055. The Red Sea route then eclipsed the Gulf route for transporting spices to the Mediterranean. Siraf was replaced by other ports, such as Muscat on the Omani coast, and especially the island of Hormuz, which reached its peak in the 14th century.
Alexandria and the merchants of Karem
Originally from the western Mediterranean, the Fatimid caliphs settled on the Nile and founded Cairo in 969. They took over the geopolitical project of the Ptolemies and made Egypt the necessary intermediary between the East and the West. They developed the port of Aydhab on the Red Sea, which was located opposite Mecca and was already providing transport for pilgrims. From there, the commercial relations with Yemen, which is an old land of choice of the Ismailis from which the Fatimids originated, take an increasing importance. They allowed to divert from the Persian Gulf a traffic that enriched the Abbasid rivals, and Egypt began to receive more and more pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, camphor and shellac having transited through Aden. From Aydhab, a first land route reached Aswan in Upper Egypt via the Wadi Allaqi, from where the spices were shipped on the Nile towards Alexandria. By the end of the 11th century, however, caravan transport from the Red Sea took a more direct route to the Nile by following the Qûs trail, reached in seventeen to twenty days. This particular section of the great spice trade, known as the Kârim route, continued under the Ayyubids and the Mamluks until the middle of the fourteenth century.
Historiography has long pursued the hypothesis that the “Kârimis” were a merchant guild with a mysterious operation. In reality, kârim is simply the name given to a season extending between June and October, i.e. the period during which ships can travel between Aden and Aydhab. Ships leave the Egyptian coast by the end of June at the latest, and the last departure from Yemen is in October-November, supplying the markets of Cairo and Alexandria from late autumn. In Aden, this “Egyptian season” briefly overlaps with the “Indian season,” when merchants bring spices from southern India in the spring. The number of Kârimis rose to nearly two hundred by the beginning of the reign of Sultan An-Nasir Muhammad (1293-1341). Many did not make the journey themselves and were represented by slaves or relatives, and some did not even reside in Egypt. Many nevertheless made Alexandria the head of their merchant networks and built religious establishments, prestigious mansions, caravanserais, baths and madrasas. Far from the idyllic image of a permanently bustling port, the city was only intermittently occupied by big business, essentially during the autumn and winter when the spices from the Nile arrived. There is no single souk, but rather various sellers, more or less important, put in touch with their potential customers by brokers.
The route of the Kârim had to be modified from the 1360s onwards because the Bedouin policy of the Mamluks in the south of Egypt produced a break in the balance between the tribal groups that traditionally ensured caravan transport and the security of the tracks. Aydhab was abandoned in favor of two northern Red Sea ports, al-Qusayr on the site of the ancient Myos Hormos, and especially al-Tûr on the Sinai. The large round ships of the Kârimis were gradually replaced by the “Yemeni dhows”, small boats with a limited crew that took pilgrims from Aden to Jeddah, the port of Mecca. Particularly maneuverable, they can travel the Red Sea by coastal navigation regardless of the season of the year when the pilgrimage falls, set according to the lunar calendar. The shift of trade to the Hijaz was also due to the expansion of Islam along the East African coast and in Madagascar: many of the converts belonged to the merchant class and aspired to travel to Mecca and Medina at least once in their lives. From the Holy City, the spices followed the pilgrim caravans to Cairo or Damascus, and reached the Mediterranean at Beirut or Tripoli. Alexandria, which now received spices twice a year and at varying dates, thus lost its monopoly to the Syrian markets.
The volume of trade on the Red Sea also increased considerably: throughout the fifteenth century, it was four to five times greater than that transiting the Persian Gulf. Sultan Barsbay (1422-1438) saw this as an opportunity to replenish the kingdom”s coffers and took a series of protectionist measures to ensure his exclusive rights. In 1425, the first intervention favored Egyptian merchants and channeled trade to Cairo. Foreign merchants were allowed to buy spices on condition that they first went to the Mamluk capital before returning home. A year later, the Sultan gave himself commercial priority over pepper, forbidding Alexandrians to sell their stocks before he had finalized his own transactions. This privilege was reinforced in 1432 by a total embargo on the sale of pepper without the express authorization of the sovereign. The last measure aimed to promote direct shipments from India to Mecca by eliminating the intermediary of Aden. In a decree of 1434, Barsbay doubled the taxes levied on goods coming from the south of the peninsula and announced that any Yemeni merchant disembarking in Jeddah would have his cargo seized for the benefit of the Sultan. These different interventions were mainly dictated by political and strategic requirements: Egypt only survived thanks to its spice imports to Europe. Interference in the Red Sea traffic rendered the old system of the Kârim definitively obsolete, but also opened the possibility of a significant increase in the quantities traded. This led to an increase in the supply of spices to the markets of Alexandria and the Levant for the rest of the century.
Venice and the European monopoly
The Crusades allowed the Christian West to rediscover spices and provoked a new boom in trade with the Muslim East. Of the Italian city-states that competed in the Mediterranean for this lucrative trade, the Republic of Venice emerged as the big winner and managed to gain a virtual monopoly on the redistribution of spices in Europe. From the middle of the 14th century, the city regularly sent fleets of galleys in muda to acquire spices from the Levant in the ports of Alexandria, Beirut and Saint-Jean-d”Acre. Venetian ships also visited Trebizond and Tana, by the Black Sea, especially during the period of the papal ban on trade with the Saracens. However, the primacy of the Serenissima only began to be exercised from the second quarter of the 15th century, when the republic managed to oust its Mediterranean rivals: Genoa, Florence, but also Catalonia, Provence and Sicily.
Traditionally cited as the event that marked the end of the Middle Ages, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 also dramatically altered the spice trade. By taking control of the land routes used by Arab caravans from China and India, the Ottomans reshuffled the deck of trade in the Mediterranean. The maritime transport of spices was also made more perilous because of the pirates in the pay of the sultan who scoured the basin. The Venetian supremacy began a long decline and allowed the emergence of new commercial powers. The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 divided the world in two between the Portuguese, who went to the East, and the Castilians, who sought to compete with them from the West. The bypassing of Africa and the discovery of the New World moved the center of trade from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and the gradual establishment of a planetary network led to the first globalization, of which the quest for spices was the trigger.
The main Muslim powers of the time, the Delhi Sultanate, replaced in 1526 by the Mughal Empire, and Sephardic Persia, showed little interest in maritime affairs. But the Egypt of the Mamelukes, then the Ottoman Empire which annexed it in 1517, actively disputed the Portuguese control of these routes. In the second half of the 16th century, their efforts led to the restoration of the traditional routes of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf and the weakening of the first Portuguese colonial empire.
Portuguese Conquests: The Cape Route
Initiated in the early 15th century, the Portuguese discoveries were partly motivated by this search for an alternative to the Mediterranean spice trade. They achieved their first successes in the 1440s when, after crossing Cape Bojador, navigators discovered the origin of the seeds of paradise, which reached Europe by trans-Saharan caravans. Portuguese merchants took over the trade of this spice, which they obtained along the Pepper Coast and sold in Lisbon. According to a source from 1506, a quintal could be bought for 8 cruzados, compared to 22 for real pepper. The king claimed an absolute monopoly on these new resources, including those that had not yet been discovered or that existed only in the European imagination: in a letter of patent of 1470, he forbade merchants who traded with Guinea to buy seeds of paradise, all types of spices, dyes or gums, but also civets and unicorns.
The increasingly distant incursions of the Portuguese led to the opening of a new eastern spice route, which bypassed the African continent via the Cape of Good Hope, crossed in 1487 by Bartolomeu Dias. It is by this route that Vasco de Gama reached the port of Calicut on May 21, 1498. When one of his men was approached by two Spanish-speaking Tunisian merchants who asked him about the reason for their visit, he replied: “We have come to look for Christians and spices”. Even if this first expedition to Asia was a failure, it inaugurated more than a century of Portuguese domination of the spice trade. The direct access to the sources created a competition that the Venetians could not overcome: a quintal of pepper was paid for at 3 ducats in Calicut and sold for 16 ducats in Lisbon, while the merchants of the Serenissima, who bought it from the Arab traders, offered it at 80 ducats. By 1504, the Mediterranean ports of Beirut and Alexandria had no more spices to sell. The German financiers Welser (in Augsburg) and Fugger (in Nuremberg) obtained them from Antwerp, which became the branch of Lisbon. The cornerstone of the emerging Portuguese imperial system was the Carreira da Índia (pt), the “India voyage”, which was made every year by a special fleet set up by the crown. From Lisbon to Goa, bypassing the Cape, it was the lifeline along which colonists, information and the spice trade circulated. The Portuguese also tried to block the Arab maritime traffic towards the Mediterranean: they seized Ormuz to lock the Persian Gulf, and Socotra, from where they controlled the access to the Red Sea.
“This is bad news for the Sultan, and the Venetians, when they have lost the trade of the Levant, will have to go back to fishing, because by this route the spices will arrive at a price they cannot afford.
– Guido Detti, Letter of August 14, 1499.
For at least half a century, the face of the developing empire was shaped by the geographical distribution of spice plant cultivation. Upon their arrival in the ports on the west coast of India, the Portuguese learned from Arab and Chinese traders that the origin of many drugs and fine spices lay further east. Eight days” sail from Calicut, Ceylon is the source of high quality cinnamon, and abounds in precious stones. A first fortress was built in Colombo in 1518, then captaincies were instituted in Cota, Manar and Jafanapatão. The entire island then came under Portuguese suzerainty, paying an annual tribute in cinnamon. But it was above all the great port of Malacca, believed to be located on an island, that attracted the covetousness of the newcomers. The most precious spices could be found there for a fraction of the market price in Calicut, but also musk and benzoin, which could not be found in India. This opulence did not escape Tomé Pires, who estimated that “whoever is lord of Malacca takes Venice by the throat”. The city was conquered in 1511 by Governor Afonso de Albuquerque, who had taken Goa the previous year. From there, a small fleet commanded by Antonio de Abreu and Francisco Serrão soon discovered the famous spice islands: these were Ternate, Tidore, Motir (en), Makian and Bacan in the north of the Moluccas, which produced cloves, and six small islands in the Banda Sea south of Amboin.
Spices were therefore the primary motivation for the Portuguese expansionist drive in the Indian Ocean. The various production centers were gradually discovered and brought together in a commercial network centered around Cochin, in southern India. This network did not replace that of Calicut, as the Portuguese quickly abandoned the idea of eliminating intermediaries and instead created a system of client states acquired by paying generous tributes to local leaders. In the first half of the 16th century, the annual volume of spices passing the Cape of Good Hope reached 70,000 quintals, more than half of which was Malabar pepper. But the restoration of the Levantine routes gradually undermined the Portuguese monopoly and by the end of the century the annual volume had dropped to 10,000 quintals. The empire of the Portuguese Indies collapsed at the beginning of the 17th century, mainly for demographic reasons: the small Iberian kingdom did not have enough soldiers to wage offensive wars on such a vast territory. During the whole period, there will never be more than 10,000 Portuguese in all of Asia.
Spanish Conquests: The West Indies
“When I have found the places where gold or spices are in quantity, I will stop until I have taken all that I can. And, for that, I only go forward in search of them.”
– Christopher Columbus, Journal of October 19, 1492.
The Genoese admiral participated in an exacerbated competition for spices on behalf of the Catholic kings of Spain. The aim was to break the monopoly of the Venetians and their Mameluke allies, which reached its peak in the 1490”s. He also had to compete with the Portuguese exploration of the African coasts, which Columbus knew from his visit to the fort of São Jorge da Mina on the Gold Coast. When he concretized his project to reach the East through the West, inspired by Marco Polo, he dreamed of the riches of Malabar and Coromandel, and of heavy ships loaded with pepper and cinnamon from far away Cathay. He also took with him samples of various spices to show to the Indians so that they could tell him the source. In Ysabela, Columbus wrote that he had the ships loaded with aloe wood, “which is said to be of great value”. When he disembarked in Cuba, he said he found large quantities of mastic, similar to that which the Genoese exploited on the island of Chios. His enthusiasm eventually waned, and the spice balance of the first voyage was very thin. Columbus did discover a new product, however: “There is also a lot of aji which is their pepper and is much better than ours”. These are the American peppers, surely Capsicum chinense, which will later conquer the world. The doctor Diego Álvarez Chanca, who accompanied the Genoese on his second trip, also wanted to believe in the illusion: “I saw trees that I believe produce nutmeg, but I cannot be sure, because they are now without fruit. I saw an Indian wearing a ginger root around his neck. There is a kind of cinnamon which is not, in truth, as fine as the one we saw. It will take a few years for the Spaniards to realize their mistake and understand that the New World, although overflowing with vegetable wealth, produces neither cinnamon, nor nutmeg, nor ginger. After his fourth and last voyage, Columbus complained that he had been vilified: the spice trade had not produced the immediate results that had been expected after the discovery of the Indies.
The race for spices made Europeans discover a new hemisphere. To establish its sovereign, the Treaty of Tordesillas defined the meridian passing 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands as the limit between the Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence. However, its eastern location became controversial after the Portuguese reached the Indian Ocean. Ferdinand Magellan, who participated in Albuquerque”s expedition to Malacca and then fell into disgrace in his own country, maintained a correspondence with Francisco Serrão who had settled in Ternate. He persuaded King Charles V that the Moluccas belonged to Castile and proposed to find the route sought in vain by Columbus to reach the islands from the west. The navigator sailed around the Americas through the strait to which he gave his name and discovered the Philippines (which he named “St. Lazarus Archipelago”). The expedition stayed for some time on Cebu, whose population was converted to Catholicism, and then was drawn into a war with the neighboring island of Mactan, where Magellan died in April 1521. It was his second in command, Juan Sebastian Elcano, who had the honor of landing at Tidore in the Moluccas and completing the first circumnavigation in history. When he disembarked in Seville on September 6, 1522, only 18 sailors out of 270 had survived the crossing, but the holds of the only surviving ship were filled with cloves. The success of the expedition was mainly symbolic: after several other unsuccessful attempts, Charles V gave up his claims to the Moluccas for 350,000 ducats in the 1529 Treaty of Saragossa. The boundary between the two kingdoms was set at 17 degrees east of the archipelago, leaving the Portuguese with an almost absolute monopoly on the juicy Asian spice trade. However, merchants from Seville and New Spain did not give up so easily on Far Eastern possibilities. In 1542, the Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza sent the explorer Ruy López de Villalobos to conquer the Ponant Islands. This time he left from the Mexican coast and reached Mindanao in a few weeks, in the archipelago that he named Philippines in honor of the infant and future Philip II of Spain. But he came up against a double wall: political in the west, where the Portuguese blocked the passage, and natural in the east, where the trade winds prevented the return to America. After the failure of Villalobos, the Spaniards lost interest in the archipelago, too busy with their European policy and the development of the new continent.
However, in the late 1550s, the price of Portuguese pepper suddenly increased and Philip II ordered a mission to conquer the Philippines in the hope of negotiating commercial access to the precious spice. The ships commanded by Miguel López de Legazpi and Andrés de Urdaneta took the route opened by Villalobos, loaded with glassware and colored cloth for the transaction. The expedition reached its destination in 1565, but had to make do with small tributes of cinnamon. On the other hand, the Philippines became definitively Spanish, and Urdaneta discovered the way back alone. He undertook a long and arduous journey up to the Japanese coast, then across the Pacific along the 35th degree of north latitude to California. This is the establishment of the Spanish Pacific, a costly bridge that allows Spain to realize the dream of Christopher Columbus and obtain its share of the oriental wealth. For 250 years, the Manila Galleon would make the annual shuttle between the Philippines and Acapulco in New Spain, from where goods were transported overland to Veracruz, where they were then shipped to Spain. Although the origin of this route was dictated by the race for spices, it was ultimately Chinese silk that made it profitable.
Ottoman conquests: the revival of the Levantine routes
Although the opening of the Cape route caused Venetian spice imports to fall by two-thirds, trade with the Levant was never completely interrupted. More unexpectedly, a revival of the traditional Red Sea and Persian Gulf routes can be observed in the second half of the sixteenth century and the flow of spices found its way through the obstacles erected by the Portuguese. The average volume of pepper imported by the Republic of Venice from Alexandria reached 1.31 million pounds in 1560-1564, whereas it was 1.15 million pounds before the beginning of the Portuguese interference. Several theories have been put forward to explain this phenomenon: some historians have used it to question the “revolutionary” character of the Estado da Índia, arguing that it would never have contributed to changing the overall trade patterns in the region. Others blamed corruption, undercapitalization or inefficiencies inherent in the Portuguese pepper monopoly. Still others have attributed the revival to increased Middle Eastern demand for spices, thereby refuting that the Cape route declined during the same period. The role of the Ottomans has long been underestimated, as they were considered to have had no particular interest in the trade and were content to passively collect customs duties. It was, however, the sophisticated commercial strategies of the Turkish Empire, and the complex infrastructure they eventually put in place, that challenged the monopoly of the Portuguese thalassocracy.
The direct participation of the Sublime Porte in the spice trade became effective under the government of the grand vizier Sokollu Mehmet Pasha (1565-1579), who even envisaged for a time the drilling of a canal between Suez and the Mediterranean. He organized an annual convoy of galleys that carried loads of spices from Yemen to Egypt and were exempt from taxes throughout the journey. Later, these cargoes were sent directly to Constantinople, where they were sold for the benefit of the imperial treasury. Private merchants wishing to trade in the Red Sea were forced to call at Mocha, Jeddah and Suez and to pay substantial passage fees. Sokollu pursued a very different policy on the Persian Gulf, where he reinstated the right of the Portuguese captain of Hormuz to establish a trading post in Basra and to trade there without tax, in exchange for similar privileges for the Ottomans in Hormuz. To accommodate this traffic, roads, port facilities and caravanserais between Basra and the Levant were expanded and security improved. This land route soon became so fast, safe and reliable that even Portuguese officials in India began to prefer it for their urgent correspondence with Lisbon. Imperial strategy was thus dictated by two completely opposite approaches, but adapted to the realities of the two contexts: the Red Sea, whose trade was propelled by religion, was a captive market that the state could restrict and tax with impunity. In the Persian Gulf, where there is neither exclusive access nor pilgrim traffic, the logic is to create favorable conditions for merchants to increase the volume of goods traded and maximize revenues.
A final element to explain the relative decline of the Portuguese trade network is the rise of the Aceh Sultanate. Founded around 1514, this Muslim kingdom on the northern tip of Sumatra seems to have been involved in the pepper trade since the 1530s. Portuguese fleets repeatedly attempted to intercept ships from Aceh at the entrance to the Red Sea to prevent this parallel traffic from circumventing the monopoly of the Estado da Índia. Closer relations with the Ottoman Empire were established in 1562, after a delegation from the Sultan was sent to Constantinople to request military aid. This embassy brought gold, pepper and spices as a prospect of the benefits to be derived from the expulsion of the Portuguese from Malacca. If the planned joint military expedition to Sumatra never saw the light of day, a direct trade route developed between Southeast Asia and the Red Sea, maintained by Turkish, Acehnese and Gujarati merchants. Cargoes of spices from Sumatra were exchanged for cannons and ammunition developed by Ottoman technology, which were then used in the numerous battles between the Sultan and the Portuguese in the Straits of Malacca.
At the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch and the English, who were embargoed from the Portuguese spices for rejecting Catholicism, launched an assault on the empire that controlled the lucrative oriental markets. They created the India companies, which gradually established themselves as the new powers of the international spice trade. The French also entered the race, but with a delay.
In 1568, the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands led by William of Orange revolted against Philip II and began a war of Eighty Years against the Spanish monarchy. Although the king succeeded in regaining partial control of his states, the Seven Northern Provinces signed the Union of Utrecht in 1579 and declared themselves independent. The following year, Philip II took advantage of the Portuguese succession crisis to take over the neighboring throne and establish the Iberian Union. In 1585, Dutch merchant ships were denied access to Lisbon and Seville. The United Provinces also lost the port of Antwerp, which was not only their capital, but also the spice hub for northern Europe. These two events prompted Dutch merchants to challenge the Portuguese monopoly and to enter the spice race as well. From the end of the 16th century, they sent spies on Portuguese ships, followed by several expeditions to Asia. Six different trading companies were created, based in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Zeeland. But this internal competition was deemed unprofitable and in 1602 the Staten Generaal founded the United East India Company (in Dutch: Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC) to better fight against Spanish and Portuguese interests in Asia.
The company”s first targets were the “spice islands”: Moluccas and Banda, the only regions producing cloves and nutmeg. In 1605, an offensive fleet commanded by Steven van der Haghen (en) and allied with the Sultan of Ternate conquered the Portuguese forts of Amboine, Tidore and Makian. But the following year, a Spanish armada sent from the Philippines recaptured these positions, with the exception of Amboine. In gratitude for the liberation of the island, the Sultan of Ternate offered the company a monopoly on the purchase of cloves. However, competition remained fierce, as the Dutch had no direct access to the crops. Portuguese and Asian merchants driven out of Amboina took refuge in Makassar, from where they continued to trade cloves from Ternate growers for detour to Manila and its galleon. In the 1620s, the annual value of Portuguese trade in Makassar still amounted to 18 tons of silver, and the Dutch company would not succeed in putting an end to this parallel trade until much later. In the Banda Islands, the Dutch encountered resistance from the inhabitants and confrontation with British interests. The conquest of the spice islands was merciless and, on several occasions, involved the massacre of the entire population. In the end, the company”s aggressive strategy proved successful: the trade routes were secured by the capture of Malacca (1641) and Makassar (1667-1669) from the Portuguese, and England finally gave up the Banda Islands in the Treaty of Breda (1667). To preserve this hard-won monopoly and avoid a collapse of prices, the Dutch did not hesitate to burn surplus crops or uproot plantations. They promised death to anyone who dared to sell seeds or cuttings to a foreign power and nutmegs were soaked in lime water before being sold, which prevented their germination.
At the same time, the company obtained important commercial privileges in Ceylon, where cinnamon came from, in exchange for the promise of military aid against the Portuguese. It seized many trading posts in India, the island of Formosa, from where it traded with China, and was allocated the artificial island of Deshima to trade with Japan. Spices from all over the continent were stored in Batavia, the capital of the company founded in 1619 on the island of Java. They were then transported to Europe bypassing Africa via Good Hope, where the colony of Cape Town was created for the occasion, allowing the ships to be provisioned halfway. Spices were mainly bought with Indian textiles, which were themselves bought with European precious metals, silver from Japan and gold from Formosa. They were also partly resold in these regions, as well as in Persia, where they were exchanged for silk. The Dutch company, which had up to 13,000 ships, was the first real “multinational” in history, and for a long time half of its profits came from the spice trade.
In 1599, eight ships of one of the Dutch pre-companies returned to Amsterdam with a full cargo of pepper, nutmeg and mace and made a profit estimated at four times the value of the initial investment. English merchants trading with the Levant were dismayed: their supply of Asian spices depended on routes from the Red Sea via Egypt and the Persian Gulf via the Syrian desert, and they took a dim view of the new strategy developed by their North Sea competitors. In 1600, they obtained a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth granting them a monopoly of the East India trade and invested £70,000 in the capital of a company. Two years before the VOC, the East India Company (EIC) was born. The first two voyages were organized to Bantam on the island of Java, famous for its pepper culture. The company set up a factory there, from where it visited the Banda Islands and negotiated their precious nutmeg. To facilitate the spice trade, the company had a great need for textiles from the Coromandel coast, and a factory was founded in Masulipatnam in 1611. It was also interested in the western coast of India, to make the return journeys to Europe more profitable by transporting, in addition to pepper, indigo and Gujarati fabrics. After several unsuccessful attempts, it obtained from the Mughal emperor the right to establish a trading post in Surate.
The monopsony strategy of the Dutch company in the spice islands quickly led to conflict. After several incidents, the two companies signed a treaty in 1619 that guaranteed England a third of the spice trade and half of the pepper trade in Java in exchange for a contribution of a third to the maintenance costs of the Dutch garrisons. This agreement strongly displeased Governor Jan Pieterszoon Coen. In 1621, he launched a punitive expedition: the population of the island of Lonthor was practically exterminated and the goods of the English trading post were seized. Two years later, the Amboine (en) massacre, during which VOC agents executed ten men of the English company, provoked the cancellation of the treaty and the de facto withdrawal of the Spice Islands. This was the beginning of nearly two centuries of conflict between the two nations, during which the cruelty of the Dutch in the Moluccas was often recalled.
France was late in entering the spice trade, initially through Breton sailors. On November 13, 1600, merchants from Saint-Malo, Laval and Vitré created a company, with a capital of 80,000 ecus, “to travel and trade in the Indies, the islands of Sumatra, Iava and Moluccas. An expedition was launched a few months later, with the very theoretical support of King Henry IV: the royal treasury was weakened and the economic context not very favorable to overseas expansion. The 400-ton Crescent was commanded by Michel Frotet de la Bardelière, nicknamed the “Ajax of Saint-Malo” for his military success during the Wars of Religion. The Corbin, of 200 tons, was commanded by François Grout du Closneuf, constable of Saint-Malo. The two ships left the port on May 18, 1601, piloted respectively by an Englishman and a Fleming who were supposed to guide them to the Cape of Good Hope route, which was unknown to French sailors at the time. The aim of the expedition was clear: to go to the source of the foodstuffs bought at a high price from the Iberians and thus attempt to break their monopoly on spices. Due to a navigational error, the expedition entered the Gulf of Guinea instead of allowing the trade winds to carry them to the coast of Brazil, as the Portuguese did. Lacking water, the ships stopped at the island of Annobón and were taken hostage by the Portuguese who demanded a large ransom. They passed the Cape of Good Hope on December 28, in the company of two Dutch ships, then another navigational error caused them to enter the Mozambique Channel when they intended to round Madagascar by the east, and they suffered four days of a storm that separated the two ships. To repair the damage, they were forced to stop for three months in St. Augustine Bay, where the tropical climate, mosquitoes and fevers killed a significant portion of the crew. After the ships finally set sail again, the Corbin ran aground on a bank in the Maldives without the Crescent being able to rescue the shipwrecked. The latter finally dropped anchor in the roadstead of Aceh on July 24, 1602, where it found the Dutch ships that had crossed the Cape, as well as the first expedition of the East India Company.
“After having stayed in the Indies for five months or so, where we had free trade in several kinds of spices, and some other peculiarities emerging from the country, under the guidance of the Almighty who had brought us there, on November 20, 1602, we reembarked to take the road back to France bringing with us eight Indians who are still at present in St. Malo.”
– François Martin, Description du premier voyage que les marchands français ont fait aux Indes Orientales.
The return journey was also fraught with difficulties, and the Crescent never reached France: on May 23, 1603, off the Spanish coast, the last survivors were forced to hand over their meager cargo to board three Dutch ships, and saw their ship sink before their eyes. The human and economic toll of the expedition was catastrophic, but it did lead to the founding by Henry IV of the first French East India Company on June 1, 1604. Forgotten by history, the company was undermined by the diplomatic opposition of the United Provinces and the brutal death of the king, and never sent a single ship to the Indies.
The regent Marie de Médicis merged it with another company to create the Compagnie des Moluques in 1616. She managed to send two ships, the Montmorency and the Marguerite, to Bantam in Java. They met with Dutch hostility and only the first one returned to Dieppe in 1618. Another Malouin expedition sponsored by Antwerp merchants was launched in parallel. The Saint-Louis went to Pondicherry, then joined the Saint-Michel, which had filled its holds with pepper in Aceh. The latter was then captured in Java, which gave rise to half a century of litigation for the disturbances created “by the Dutch Company in the trade of the Molucca Islands, Japan, Sumatra and Madagascar”. A final attempt to enter the lucrative oriental spice trade was organized jointly by the two parties that had armed the previous expeditions. A fleet of three ships, the Montmorency, the Esperance and the Hermitage, left Honfleur on October 2, 1619 under the command of Augustin de Beaulieu. The Montmorency was again alone when it returned to Le Havre two and a half years later: the Dutch had burned the Esperance in Java, and shortly afterwards captured the Hermitage after massacring its crew. These failures marked the end of French expeditions to the East Indies for nearly half a century. It was not until 1664 that Colbert resurrected the Company: from its new headquarters in the port of “L”Orient”, it set up trading posts in India, in Pondicherry and Chandernagor, as well as on the islands of Bourbon and France. But times had changed and it was the Indian trade, rather than the spice trade, that made it prosper.
The role of France in the “conquest of the spices” knows however a last episode thanks to the adventures of Pierre Poivre (1719-1786). This Lyonnais with a predestined name was initially destined for the orders and went to China at the age of 21 years for the account of the Foreign Missions. Wounded by an English cannonball that amputated his right hand, he had to renounce the priesthood and decided to devote his life to collecting the “treasure of spices” for the king. He brought back and acclimatized on the Island of France (Mauritius) “pepper trees, cinnamon trees, various shrubs producing dye, resin and varnish.” He managed to outwit the Dutch guard by concealing in the lining of his coat nutmeg plants stolen in Manila, and by wearing the colors of the House of Orange to travel to Amboine and bring back clove trees. Ten years later, he was appointed Intendant of the Mascarene Islands, where he organized the plantations and put an end to the Dutch monopoly on the two precious spices.
Supply side conspiracy or lack of demand elasticity
Two types of economic arguments have been advanced to explain this decline. According to a theory mainly defended by Marxist historians of the 1970s and 1980s, spices were victims of a real “conspiracy” on supply fomented by the Dutch and British companies. They were deliberately replaced by a new type of colonial commodity characterized by a comparatively low unit price, which allowed them to count on a much larger demand in Europe. Towards the end of the 17th century, the plantation economy based on slavery became the dominant economic form in the Western Hemisphere. It was the product of what has been called wild capitalism, knowing no other law than those of the market, and even ignoring on several occasions the limits that the mercantile policies of the metropolises tried to impose on it. This economic model allowed massive returns thanks to cheap labor and low transoceanic transportation costs. These profits would have led the companies to manipulate their supply of spices and oriental luxury goods in favor of sugar and later tobacco. It should be noted, however, that under Dutch rule, spices were produced in circumstances comparable to those in the Caribbean: large populations of slaves from Mozambique, Arabia, Persia, Malaysia, China, Bengal and Japan were forcibly brought to the Moluccas by the government of Jan Pieterszoon Coen. This theory is also criticized for exaggerating the profits obtained from sugar production, as well as the cheapness of slave labor.
Other authors have suggested that the expansion of the spice trade has been limited by the low income elasticity of demand: demand for basic foodstuffs is little affected by the increase in consumer income, while the share of luxury goods grows faster than their budget. From this perspective, spices would have faced competition from products such as natural dyes, textiles, tea or coffee, which are characterized by high income elasticity and thus by much larger potential markets. The Dutch would have paid dearly for their monopoly: by driving the English out of the spice islands, they would have pushed them to invest in Indian calico, and then in other goods, with a much more interesting economic profile. But this hypothesis is contradicted by studies describing the demand in the late Middle Ages as very elastic. An analysis of the purchases of the Beguinage of Lierre (province of Antwerp) between 1526 and 1575 differentiates several groups of products according to their share in the institution”s budget (see table). These data indicate that spices were perceived as luxury goods at the time.
Competition from substitutes and diffusion of chillies
While the Portuguese conquests allowed Europeans to discover the sources of many Asian spices, they also introduced plants with similar properties from Africa and especially Brazil, which was extremely rich in plant life. These new products were not always considered to have the refinement of their oriental counterparts and their selling prices were often lower, but the competition with them was real. In the last quarter of the 16th century, Lisbon was forced to prohibit the cultivation of ginger in São Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea, because of the harm it caused to the Indies. It was too late, because the famous rhizome had already reached Bahia in Brazil and, more seriously, was cultivated by the Spaniards on the islands of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. For a few years at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, imports to Seville of Caribbean ginger exceeded those of sugar. According to a Hamburg market price list from 1592, it was sold for five times less than that of Calicut.
The pepper market is more complex, as it has a large number of substitutes from all parts of the globe. Long pepper and cubeb belong to the same genus (Piper) as the queen of spices. Also Asian, they have been known and appreciated since antiquity, and sometimes sold for more than their Malabar cousin. The Achantis pepper, which the Portuguese call pimenta de rabo, is another closely related species from West Africa. Because of the risk of substitution, its trade is explicitly forbidden by Lisbon, although it sometimes reaches Northern Europe by smuggling. Other plants with a pungent taste are called pepper, but their trade seems to have remained relatively limited: betel (Piper betle) from Malaysia, Ethiopian pepper (Xylopia aethiopica), Jamaican pepper (Pimenta dioica) or even pimenta longa (Xylopia aromatica) from Brazil. The most serious competitor on the pepper market is certainly the malaguette, or seed of paradise, grown on the coast of Guinea. Its import volumes increased rapidly after Diogo Gomes discovered the source in 1465, reaching 155 tons in 1509-1510, and although they remained significant throughout the 16th century, they were never worth more than one-tenth of those of Asian spices.
If these various substitutes could at times disrupt the pepper trade, it was the spread of the pepper in the Spanish Americas that marked its decline. The spice, already highly prized by the Incas and Aztecs, seems to have spread very quickly: Christopher Columbus brought back some from his first voyage and, on April 4, 1493, the Very Catholic Kings “tasted aji, a species from the Indies, which burned their tongues. A few years later, the Portuguese cultivated the new spice in West Africa, from Senegal to the Niger Delta, from seeds obtained in the West Indies. Sources then indicate the presence of chillies in Italy in 1526, in the gardens of Portugal and Castile in 1564 (where they were consumed pickled or dried as a substitute for pepper) and in the fields of Moravia in 1585. They seem to have quickly reached western India, as the botanist Mathias de l”Obel observed their appearance in 1570 in Antwerp, among the goods coming from Goa and Calicut. Legend has it that they were introduced to the subcontinent by Governor Martim Afonso de Sousa, who missed the Brazilian flavors. Peppers became very popular in North Africa, where they could have been brought from Spain after the expulsion of Moriscos, from India by the Alexandria spice route, or from Guinea by the trans-Saharan trade. Their presence is attested in China in 1671, perhaps coming from the Philippines, who themselves got them from the Manila Galleon. Peppers have thus gradually conquered the world and dethroned all other spices, without ever having had a significant commercial value. This diffusion took place along the routes of the Asian spice trade, during the period when the latter was in decline. But this could be a coincidence rather than causality.
Culinary revolution and good taste
A true “culinary revolution” occurred, however, during the 17th century around the principle of “good taste”, a notion whose origins are debated. All of these practices and preferences could have been developed at the court of Versailles, during the Spanish Golden Age or under the influence of an Italy committed to aesthetic values since the Renaissance. The notion of taste, intrinsically hedonistic, goes hand in hand with the abandonment of medieval preoccupations for Aristotelian dietary oppositions. Works such as Le Cuisinier françois by François de La Varenne (1651), Le Cuisinier de Pierre de Lune (1656) or Le Cuisinier roïal et bourgeois by François Massialot (1691) reflect this new trend in France and reject hot spices and “violent flavors” associated with the cult of excess. Pepper, ginger and saffron were thus eclipsed, while grains of paradise, long pepper and galangal disappeared from European gastronomy. The “fine” spices, considered subtle and delicate, remain in desserts. Cinnamon and cloves were relegated to the growing repertoire of pastries and complex confections, and American vanilla spread throughout Europe from Spain.
The new sensibilities lead to the development of butter cooking, the “marriage” of drink with food and color with taste, the separation of sweet and salty, and the reduction of acid consumption. They promote “natural” flavors and campaign against practices that disguise tastes by heavily spicing, overcooking, or adding unnecessary ingredients. Local herbs replace exotic spices: chervil, tarragon, basil, and especially thyme, bay leaves and chives are used. Parsley and alliaceous plants (onion, garlic, shallot) became essential. New categories appeared such as the condiments of Provence: capers, anchovies, olives, lemons and bitter oranges. These new seasonings go better with a lighter diet and bread gradually replaces meat as a staple food.
The new “colonial commodities” replaced spices in their role as euphoriant and created their own forms of sociability. In accordance with the rationalist precepts of the culture of good taste, these stimulants allow for what the Austrian cultural historian Egon Friedell called “sober intoxication” (in German: nüchterne Räusche). Easily prepared, they are adapted to the evolution of the public sphere and its new forms of social engagement. They are not eaten during meals, but before or after, and often in dedicated places. Finally, the new products combine and complement each other: sugar with tea, tobacco with coffee.
Snobbery and disenchantment
For some authors, spices have simply been hit by the “snob effect”. This phenomenon is characterized by the decrease in demand for a consumer good because others also consume it or because others increase their consumption. The rejection of a product that is available to the masses contributes to the consumer”s desire to be “exclusive”. However, this explanation remains insufficient to explain the reversal of several millennia of collective practice.
It is more likely that the loss of interest in spices is a collateral effect of the disenchantment of the world. Botany became an academic discipline and disavowed the medieval tradition of treating spices in books of wonders rather than in herbariums. The age of discovery allowed the outpouring of increasingly realistic descriptions and cartographic representations. They rule out the existence of an earthly paradise, the location of which was debated by cosmographers until the 17th century. The “scents of the Garden of Eden” now have a precise geographical origin:
“The reveries of those who have told that the tree of the aloe wood grows only in the earthly paradise, and that its parts are carried by the rivers, are so fabulous, that there is no need to refute them.”
– Garcia de Orta, Colloquia of the simple and drugs of India.
Spices were not only precious commodities and substances of pleasure, they were also carriers of a higher meaning, linked to an atmosphere of holiness. Once demystified, they were no longer so desirable. The paradigm shift in European sensibilities and their relationship to taste probably stemmed from this disenchantment that led to the collapse of the age-old spice trade.
Modern and contemporary eras