The Medieval Europeans Used Spices as Medicine
Legend has it that Assyrian Gods drank sesame wine the night they created Earth. Other sources dating as far back as 2600 BC inform us that the laborers who built the Great Pyramid of Cheops were fed spices to give them strength. Ancient Syrians are known for using cloves, which is extraordinary if we take into account that cloves grew only in the Spice Islands of Indonesia during that time. Ancient Egyptian embalmers used cinnamon, which is originally a Sri Lankan plant.
All known references to the genesis of spice suggest its permanence well back into antiquity. Spices originating in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India, found their way into the Middle East around the 4th millennium BC. In those days the shrewd spice traders withheld the sources of the precious commodity, instead telling mythical tales about its origins. Adding such intrigue contributed in part to the phenomenal prices that the traders were able to realize for the exotic commodity.
Although Asians and North Africans are known to have traded in spice since the dawn of history, it was the spread of civilization to Europe in the 1st millennium BC that created a new and significant market with an insatiable demand that, to some extent, has been sustained up to the present era. Spice use was developed not only as a flavoring but also as an aromatic, and probably more importantly as medicine; it became an essential item for the rich Europeans and for those who aspired to riches.
The North Africans and the Arabians dominated the European spice trade and exploited it to the extreme; their caravans, primarily laden with spice on their northward journey, were laden in equal weight with gold on their return south.
In the latter part of the 15th century and throughout the 16th century the European Mariners, who were predominantly Portuguese and Spaniards, enhanced their cartographic knowledge and tested the extremities of sextant navigation, with the purpose of finding a sea route to the fabled Indies. This was brought on by the enormous demand for spices, the stupendous prices that were being charged for them by the traders, and a dearth of spice precipitated by the fall of Constantinople (Istanbul) to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Constantinople was an essential Port on the last leg of the trade route into Europe and the Ottoman Turks who gained control of the Port, exercised their authority to charge exorbitant tariffs on all merchandise bound for Europe.
It is said that half of the world was discovered and settled because of the spice trade; this statement has considerable credence considering that Columbus was exploring a spice route to the Indies in 1492 when he serendipitously discovered the Americas. Columbus encountered the brown skinned natives on the shores of the new world and thought they were Indians. Because of that, the indigenous peoples of the Americas are even now referred to as Indians.
European explorers Vasco Da Gama (1497) Ferdinand Magellan (1511) and Sir Francis Drake (1577) built on the fame of Columbus and proved their mettle by linking Europe by sea routes to India, Sri Lankan, and Indonesia.
Following the successful expeditions of Vasco Da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese mostly gained control of the Europe Asia maritime spice routes and maintained their authority for more than a century. In 1512 they annexed the Banda Islands of Indonesia which gave them influence over much of the valuable nutmeg trade. Although they already had a monopoly of the cinnamon trade in Ceylon, for strategic reasons they invaded the Island in 1536 to strengthen their domination of the spice trade.
Magellan had already discovered the Moluccas (part of the Spice Islands) in 1511. Thus the Portuguese exercised substantial control over the trade of three of the most valuable spices; cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.
In the early 17th century the Dutch began making waves in the area with the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the British followed somewhat later with the British East India Company. The Dutch quickly expelled the Portuguese from the Banda Islands, taking control of much of the nutmeg trade and in 1636 they captured Ceylon from the Portuguese and began to systematically cultivate Cinnamon. In 1796 the Dutch were replaced in Ceylon by the British.
Nutmeg was especially coveted in Europe for its aphrodisiac properties, and as a repellent against fleas which were the purveyors of the plague known as Black Death. The red aril covering of the nutmeg seed is the source of mace which was used as an hallucinogenic; also enhancing the value of nutmeg. As a result the traders sold nutmeg for more than 6000 percent profit.
Wars were fought over the Spice Islands between the Portuguese and the Dutch, and between the Dutch and the British. Complete islands were set afire by the Dutch in “scorched earth” revenge to prevent the valuable spices from falling into competitive hands. Villages were completely destroyed and the natives were slaughtered. It was an extremely violent era, all in the name of the spice trade.
Meanwhile the Dutch and the British both had interests in the newly discovered Americas and the lucrative fur trade there. The Dutch had laid claim to the uninhabited Island of Manhattan which was discovered by British explorer Henry Hudson in 1610 while he was under contract to the Dutch. Not much happened on Manhattan Island, the Dutch established a trading post there and later abandon it, and then in 1663 the British took over the Island, facing little resistance. This added fuel to the fire that was already raging between the British and the Dutch in Indonesia, and the ensuing escalation of violence eventually resulted in a “cease hostilities” treaty which was negotiated between them and signed in Breda in 1667. As part of the Treaty of Breda, the Dutch relinquished control over Manhattan Island and in return the British gave the nutmeg Island of Run, to the Dutch.
Thus it is often said that New York was traded for nutmeg; another reference to the value of spice, and another milestone in its history.
The spice trade drove the world economy from the end of the middle ages well into modern times. The multicultural global society that we live in today exists in large measure because of spices and the demand for them; and spices are used in our kitchens worldwide, as never before. If we surveyed all the kitchens of the world, it would be a rarity to find a kitchen anywhere that did not have some spice in it.
Spice is a universal commodity, it is said to be even more universal than cash. The value of the global spice trade (spice used as a flavoring) is thought to be in access of seventy billion dollars per year. If the spice derivatives (fragrance, Ayurveda medicine, essential oils, and oleoresins) are taken into account, the trade is thought to be about one hundred billion dollars per year.
And yet the industry in much of the world is treated with indifference, it lacks governance, plantations are neglected, research in new spice growing technologies is minimal, plantation workers are among the poorest people on earth, adulteration of spice is prolific, and regulations and standards are treated with indifference.
Additionally, communication among the various levels of the industry, either locally or globally, is circumspect. The industry is somewhat adrift, and there doesn’t appear to be an authority capable of navigating it toward stability and respect.
The Spice Journal was founded for this reason, to promote discussion and to provide a forum for the voices of the industry, worldwide.