The Legacy of The Spice Routes
How the spice trade changed the flavour of our world.
The word spice comes from the Latin species, which means an item of special value. And spices were once the most valuable trade item of all (saffron is still worth more than its weight in gold).
If you’re anything like us, you have a dedicated drawer or shelf in your kitchen filled with jars of colourful, heady spices. Cardamom, paprika, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, turmeric, and the like are all there at your fingertips, so you can create an aromatic masterpiece whenever the desire hits.
But did you know that having this accessible array of flavourings in the West is a privilege that only exists because of the spice routes?
Why Were Spices So Important?
The spice trade began in the Middle East over 4000 years ago — spices mostly came from Asia, and transporting them overland via The Silk Road to other countries was a long and arduous task.
Because of this, they were a tightly guarded commodity that brought immense wealth to those who controlled their trade.
Spices were an exotic rarity used in cooking as a luxurious ingredient. Arabic spice merchants told mythical tales to drive the mystery and price of the aromatics up even further. They were determined to ward off others who sought the wealth that spices brought.
One such tale told of the giant cynomolgus bird — it collected cinnamon sticks from an unknown land where the cinnamon trees grew to use in its nest. The traders supposedly used clever tricks to retrieve the cinnamon.
These tall tales didn’t fool enough traders to keep the spice trade in Arab hands: other countries fought for control of the spice trade, and it changed hands numerous times over centuries.
Eventually, Venice became the primary trade centre for spices bound for western and northern Europe. They charged enormous tariffs, and given Europeans had no direct access to the spice sources in the Middle East and Asia — they had to pay exorbitant prices if they wanted access to spice.
What Were the Spice Routes?
Venice held the spice trade, but in the 15th century, the European Age of Discovery began; Europeans headed to the seas to explore and find new trading routes.
Europeans knew they could bypass the gatekeepers of spice if they established a direct sea route with the countries that grew pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, and other spices. They could purchase spices at a low cost, offer competitive prices to the European public and make huge profits.
The Portuguese had their eyes on the money, and in 1497, Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa and completed a sea voyage to India. They followed their expedition through to Asia; their determination created the maritime alternative to the Mediterranean Silk Road, and the Spice Routes were born.
The Portuguese continued to dominate the spice trade until the 16th century, exploring the seas to find new routes to lands of spice — The Spice Routes eventually spanned over 15 000 km. They stretched from the west coast of Japan to the Indonesian islands, around India to the Middle East, and then to the Mediterranean and Europe.
Over time, other countries, like The United States, dipped their hand into the spice trade and began dealing with spice countries directly. People figured out how to grow spices in other parts of the world. A single empire no longer controlled the trade routes. Spices became more common, and their value began to fall.
The power associated with holding the spice trade began to fade, and The Spice Routes lost their importance, but their effects are still present today.
The Lasting Effect of The Spice Routes
The Spice Routes brought about a lasting change to our diets and the way we cook. Salt and pepper are standard additions to food, and the array of seasonings we source easily and use in our cooking is mind-boggling when you consider that once these flavours were once only available to the wealthy.
We can eat an Indian curry on Monday night, fragrant with cinnamon, fenugreek, clove, and cardamom. On Wednesday, we can cook a Turkish feast heavy with black pepper, cumin, nutmeg and paprika; Saturday, we can make Spanish paella, vibrant with saffron. You get the picture.
Perhaps more importantly, The Spice Routes had a profound impact on our world relations.
Spices didn’t just create wealthy merchants — they made empires. They tipped the balance of world power in the direction of the country that held the spice trade.
The Spice Routes revealed entire continents to Europeans and drove the discovery of new lands.
You could say The Spice Routes were the beginning of globalisation. Spice forged our modern, connected world.
Taste the legacy of The Spice Routes in Bodha’s premium range of soft drinks. We use spices like cardamom and chilli to bring our sparkling beverages to life.