Words by Rachel Trevarthan
Spice. The very word conjures up images of exotic trails, bustling winds and turban-clad men concocting salubrious brews.
The history of spice is, like many things in this world, not as it seems.
India would seem to many to be the birthplace of spice, as it is the land of curry and chai. But in fact many of the finest spices that we know today, cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, pepper and turmeric, came from the Middle East where they had been used and traded since well into antiquity.
For centuries, spices were traded along the silk road, the overland trail from India through Central Asia and the Middle East into Western Europe.
While much of Europe rested in the dark ages, the Greco-Roman world was engaged with Arabic, Persian and African Empires in trade along the incense route and Roman-Indian routes.
Spices were prized goods in the Middle Ages and the quest for spices saw the development of an early model of globalisation. Desired for their culinary, medicinal and cosmetic properties, spices fuelled European colonial empires to create political, military and commercial networks to capitalise on the trade.
The rise of the Ottoman Empire restricted European access to overland spice routes and Venetian merchants placed exorbitant tariffs on spices.
In response, European explorers sought other seafaring options to the East, culminating in Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama pioneering access to India and far Asia around the Cape of Good Hope.
A flawed attempt to follow suit led to Christopher Colombus’ inadvertent discovery of the Americas in 1492. In the process, they encountered the chilli pepper, still called by this name today, based on the initial false identification of the the chilli as the peppercorn.
So the European Age of Discovery began and the spice trade changed forever.
The opening up of sea routes to the far East for the spice trade allowed European interests and cultural domination to spread. They no longer needed to deal with Arab, Ethiopian or Turkish intermediaries to access the spice trade and began exploiting their colonial interests to make their countries rich. For the British this was India, for the Dutch this was Indonesia, for the Spanish and Portuguese it was South and Central America.
The spice trade also formed what today is the most influential city in the world, New York.
New York was originally New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony. Conflict with the British over Run Island in Indonesia, valued at the time for being the unique home of the lucrative spices, nutmeg and mace, led to a treaty giving the Dutch sole control of Run Island in exchange for transferring New Amsterdam back to New York.
India’s vast and diverse climate meant that many introduced species adapted incredibly well, including the chilli plant, and so it became the centre of the world’s spice trade. Today many of the world’s spices grow successfully in India and its cuisine is famed for the inclusion of diverse flavours and colours.
As spices became more and more common, their cultivation was transplanted to countries outside of the lands where they were first encountered and so their value began to fall, culminating in the crumbling of wealthy monopolies.
So spices today are without nationality. Their home is the world and the world is their home. Spices no longer hold the mystique they used to and, for many of us, are kitchen staples rather than mysterious luxuries.
But, together with their nutritional and culinary importance, their incredible history remains. They are the cornerstone of the best cuisines in the world, and the spice trade – for better or worse – was the beginning of globalisation as we know it.
The history of spice is in many ways the history of the world. Some food for thought when you next sit down to a steaming hot bowl of curry and nicely spiced cup of chai.