We have all heard the phrase “the spice of life,” but there is far more to those spices than meets the nose.
Spices have a long and interesting history, and in its time the spice trade was the biggest industry in the world – not to mention the most lucrative. New worlds would be discovered, battles would be waged and empires made or lost because of spices.
The Silk Road was an important route that connected Asia to the Mediterranean region including Europe and North Africa. The trading of spices along this route played a significant role in the development of China, Rome, India and Persia. In the mid-13th century Venice became the primary port for spices headed to western or northern Europe and as a result of the huge tariffs they charged, became very prosperous. The cost became so prohibitive that it forced the Europeans to find a better way to get in on the action. During the European age of discovery in the 15th century, navigational equipment had improved enough so that long haul sailing would allow others to explore different routes in hopes of finding a way to bypass the Venice port.
Portugal was the first country to find another route, and they successfully sailed across the Indian Ocean to India and cleared the way for the Spanish, English and Dutch empires to compete in the lucrative spice trade. This competition between European nations sparked several conflicts over who would control the spice trade and the fighting continued for approximately two hundred years.
The Dutch emerged as the masters of the spice trade in the 17th century, but in the 18th century the French stole nutmeg and clove seedlings and started to plant them in climates similar to where they originated. After they realized that these once exotic spices would grow in their own countries, other spices soon followed and they became widely available to the rest of the world. Next time we will explore some individual spices in depth and learn about their individual history as well as the multiple benefits they offer.