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Herbs and Spices A Brief History of Spice


From the hieroglyphics on the walls of the pyramids, to the scriptures of the Bible, we find constant mention of the important part spices played in the lives of the ancients. Some of the spices, herbs, and seeds we know today, were cultivated by the early peoples of the western world, our word, ‘aroma’ was the ancient Greek word for ‘spice’.

Along the trade routes of antiquity went caravans with as many as 4,000 camels bearing spices and the rich merchandise of the East, plodding along from Goa, Calicut, and the Orient to spice markets in Nineveh and Babylon; Carthage, Alexandria and Rome. Joseph, of the coat of many colors, was sold to spice traders by his envious older brothers. “And behold, a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt.”

The route from Gilead to Egypt was part of the ‘golden road to Samarkand’ traveled for hundreds, almost thousands of years, bringing pepper and cloves from India, cinnamon and nutmeg from the Spice Islands (or Moluccas), ginger from China.

For hundreds of years ships clawed their way along the Indian coast, past the pirate-infested Persian Gulf, along the coast of South Arabia and through the Red Sea to Egypt. Those were typical ways of bringing spices from the Orient to the Western world in ancient tunes. As early as the days of Tiberius Caesar they discovered that ships scudding before the blast of the monsoon – the seasonal wind from the Indian Ocean, blowing east in summer, west in winter – could bring their spice cargoes to market in record time. Shipwrecks and storms brought large losses and there were constant robberies, but the risks were outweighed by the potential profits for, as might be expected during the highly developed Greek and Roman eras, spices were in great demand.

So costly that only the wealthy could afford them, spices nevertheless were used in every conceivable way. Many and varied were the aromatics, which seasoned the delicacies served at Roman banquets. Medicines required great quantities of spices and herbs, as witness the writings of Hippocrates, Theophrastcs, Dioscorides and Pliny. Bay leaves (or laurel) were woven into crowns for Olympic heroes; spice-scented balms were used after baths; spice-flavored wines were popular; incense made of spice was burned in temples and even along the roads.

An Arab Monopoly

For centuries, since 950 B.C. (or earlier), the Arabs were the masters of this dangerous but lucrative trade. In the Old Testament of the Bible, Ezekiel 27-22, it is recorded: “The traders of Sheba and Raamah traded with you; they exchanged for your wares the best of all kinds of spices, and all precious stones and gold”. The Arabs kept Europe completely in the dark as to the source of many of the Oriental spices.

Actually, they bought their spices from the Indians and from Chinese and Javanese merchants who put into Indian ports. But when questioned by would-be rivals from Europe, they would tell shuddery tales of the dangers they faced in gathering the spices in mysterious far-off lands.

MonopolyIslam gave great impetus to the Arabs’ activities in the spice trade. Mohammed, born about 570 A.D., married a wealthy spice-trading widow and as his Islamic missionaries made their way throughout Asia they spread their faith at the same time that they gathered up spices.

To understand the amazing prestige of spices in ancient times we must remember for one thing that food was neither good nor palatable. There was no cattle fodder that could be stored, so beef was killed in the autumn and salted. There were no potatoes; no corn, tea, coffee or chocolate. There were no lemons with which to prepare refreshingly acid beverages, and neither was there sugar with which to sweeten them. However, a dash of pepper, a little cinnamon or ginger, mixed with even the coarsest dishes, could make them palatable. The demand for spices spread like a wave over Europe – even beyond the fringes of civilization. As ransom, when he lay siege to Rome, Alaric the Visigoth
demanded 3,000 pounds of pepper and later, an additional tribute of 300 pounds annually. The barbarians from the north were quick to learn that spices kept their meat fresher and thus lessened the supply problem during their constant forays.

Spices in the Middle Ages

Whether spices came by sea or by land, they had to come by way of Cairo, Egypt. “Whoever is lord of Cairo,” said the merchant pilot, “may call himself lord and master of (Christendom. . . and. . . of all the islands and places where the spices grow), since of necessity all merchandise of spicery from whatever direction can come and he sold only in the land of the Sultan.”

From Cairo the spices were shipped to Alexandria and there they were bought and shipped by the
Venetians, and the Genoese, who rode the crest of swelling demand for spices to fabulous wealth. The spice trade, calculated to supply the demands of medieval trans-Alpine cookery, was great not only in volume but in value, it has been assessed as worth, at the very least a million ducats annually. A single big Venetian galeasse returning from Alexandria with her holds full of spice-sacks would carry cargo to the value of 200,000 ducats.

Middle AgesDuring the Middle Ages in Europe, a pound of ginger was worth the price of a sheep; a pound of mace would buy three sheep or half cow; cloves cost the equivalent of about $20 a pound. Pepper, always the greatest prize, was counted out peppercorn by peppercorn. The guards on London docks even down to Elizabethan times, had to have their pockets sewn up to make sure they didn’t
steal any spices. In the 11th Century, many towns kept their accounts in pepper; taxes and rents were assessed and paid in this spice and a sack of. pepper was worth a man’s life.

One day, in the year 1271, a young Venetian set out with his father and uncle on a 24-year journey which was to take them all over Asia, as far as fabled Cathay, or China. His name was Marco Polo and his book of traveler’s tales was to lead to the downfall of Venice, the destruction of the Arabian Empire, the discovery of the New World and the opening of trade with the Orient.

Not only had the Polos’ wanderings taken them to the rich court of Kublai Khan, “Zipangu” and the land of the Tartars, but Marco Polo was able to tell of the hot countries where he’d seen spices grown. He wrote of Java, “from thence also is obtained the greatest part of the spices that are distributed throughout the world.” He told of the door to India, Ormus, “Whose port is frequented by traders from all parts of India, who bring spices and drugs. . . These they dispose to a different set of traders, by whom they are dispersed throughout the world.” He described the kingdom of Dely as a place that “produced large quantities of pepper and ginger, with many other articles of spicery.”

*From F. H. M. Prescott’s “Once To Sinai” The MacMillan Co., 1958.
Quoted by permission from the publisher.

The Age of Discovery

DiscoverySuddenly European merchants realized these places could be reached by ship. Much of the mystery had been removed from the lands of spicery, and Europe was awakened to a new quest. First
Portugal, then Spain and England, then Holland and eventually even the newly founded United States entered one of history’s most exciting contests. During nearly four centuries, the major western powers raced each other to the Orient and battled each other for control of the spice-producing lands.

The little seafaring country of Portugal now claimed Ceylon, the East Indies and finally the Spice Islands themselves and became for a time one of the richest nations of Europe.

Meantime, spices contributed their most important gift to western peoples. They lured men into the discovery of a great New World. Christopher Columbus, Genoese mapmaker and day-dreamer, carrying Spain’s colors into the drive for spices, made his famous voyage across the Atlantic and discovered America. The only aromatic plants he found in the Western World, however were capsicums, “plenty of aji, which is their pepper, which is more valuable than pepper, and ‘allspice or pimenta,’ a tree whose leaf had the finest smell of cloves that I ever met with.” Thus wrote Dr. Chanca of Columbus’s expedition.

Spain’s delayed entry into the spice race was sped up not only by Columbus, but five years later by the navigator-explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who was successful in making the first trip to the east by heading west across the Atlantic in 1519. Although Magellan himself was killed in the Philippines two years later and four of the five ships of the expedition lost, the remaining ship, the Victoria, returned to Spain with enough spices to pay for the entire expedition. Nevertheless, Spain continued the spice quest only briefly, King Charles of Spain selling his rights to the Spice Islands to his brother-in-law, John III of Portugal. The gold of the Incas proved a stronger attraction to the Spaniards.

Wars and New Spice Monopolies

Portugal remained dominant in the Far Eastern spice lands until the end of the 16th Century, when the Dutch entered the competition in earnest. Van Houtman and Van Neck, each in command of expeditions to the Indies, made friends with native sultans, and organized trading posts which eventually gave their country a monopoly in the early 17th Century.With the Dutch conquest of Malacca in 1641 the Malay Peninsula and northern Sumatra canie under their control.

In 1650 they took over the cinnamon trade in Ceylon; in 1663 the best pepper ports of the Malabar Coast were theirs. Before the end of the 17th Century Macassar on the Island of Celebes and Bantam in Java were added to make the Dutch complete masters of the immensely profitable spice trade.

The Dutch ruled the market with a rod of iron. If the price of cinnamon fell too low in Amsterdam, they burned the spice. They soaked their nutmegs in milk of lime, a process which did not affect flavor, but supposedly killed the germ of the nut. This was to prevent nutmegs from being planted elsewhere.

France’s role in spice trading was generally a minor one, not backed by its government. French sea captains out of Dieppe had quietly made their way down along the coast of Africa by 1365, some 50 years before the Portuguese got there. They did not manage to create a rnonopoly as did the Arabs, Venetians, Genoese, Portuguese and later the Dutch, They did, however, help destroy the century-old Dutch spice monopoly when, in 1770, the French contrived to “kidnap” enough cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg plants from Dutch possessions to begin spice-growing in the French islands of Reunion, Mauritius and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean and in French Guiana on the north coast of South America.

Meanwhile, the great sea-faring English people were not idle. They, too, were looking for routes to the riches of the East. In 1527 British merchant Robert Thorne wrote to Henry VIII suggesting a search for the “Northwest passage” to India and the Indies: “The Spaniards hold the westward route, by the Straits of Magellan; the Portuguese the eastward, by the Cape of Good Hope. The English have left to them but one way to discover- and that is by the North.” These attempts led them to important discoveries in North America, but not to the lands of spices. Yet, navigators such as Lancaster, Cabot, Cavendish, Raleigh, Drake and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, made England a power at sea. In 1600 the British East India Company was chartered by Queen Elizabeth, with spice cargoes as its big objective.Where the Dutch controlled the East Indies, the English were gaining supremacy on the mainland of India itself. In 1780, the Dutch and the English fought a war, which was to be ruinously costly to the Dutch East India Company. In 1795 the English took Malacca and a year later all Dutch property and trading centers except Java. The Dutch East India Company had to be dissolved in 1799.

America Enters the Spice Trade

USA entersOn June 23, 1672, the first colonial American took an active part in spice-trading: Boston-born Elihu Yale – later to give his money and name to the great university – arrived in Madras, India, as a clerk of the British East India Company. There he established contacts on which he built afortune in spices.

It was not until a century later that America entered the spice trade in a big way. Father of the American spice trade was a dashing Yankee sea captain named Jonathan Carnes. Sailing on one of the early American trading voyages out of Salem in 1778, he discovered places in the Orient, principally in Sumatra, where he could deal directly with the natives, thus circumventing the Dutch monopoly. He convinced the Peele family of Salem to back him and in 1795 made a voyage, which yielded 700% profit in spices.

This sent America into the spice competition so actively that between 1784 and 1873, about a thousand vessels made the 24,000 mile-long trip to Sumatra and back. In 1818, when the pepper trade was very brisk indeed, 35 vessels made the long and dangerous trip. It isn’t at all surprising to learn that the pepper trade furnished a great part of the import duties collected in Salem (which at one point were enough to pay five per cent of expenses of the entire U.S. government). Pirates finally put America out of the oriental trade. Merchant ships were raided and destroyed time and
again. The idealistic young United States government decided it would be improper to back the spice trade with naval protection in foreign waters.

Modern Spice Trading

Modern TradeThroughout history, the country that has controlled the spice trade has been the richest and most powerful in the world. Although fortunately these aromatic plants are not so costly today as they once were the traditional rule follows.

In the 19th Century Great Britain’s maritime prowess gradually established her as the leader of the spice trade, and London’s Mincing Lane became the spice-trading center of the world. Since then dominance in this ancient trade has once again changed hands. The United States is now the prime figure in world spice buying and New York is its center.

“Record U.S. Spice Imports in 1983” announces the Foreign Agriculture Circular of the USDA for 1984. Some 385,000,000 pounds of 36 to 40 different spices, herbs and aromatic seeds were imported.

This makes the U.S. the world’s largest importer and consumer of spices used to season food products. Every year we buy more spices, so that spice consumption has risen 126 percent since 1961 when we imported 170,698,000 pounds.

The zooming spice use is due to several factors: High-income levels, increasing population, a growing demand for “convenience” food items and changing consumer tastes. Also, the rising consumption of dietary foods has added to the demand, for a pinch of one spice or another can make them more palatable for the consumer. Food manufacturer and processors are learning to rely on distinctive spicing to make their products more flavorful than competitive brands.

Most of our spices are imported, but approximately 190,000,000 pounds of aromatic products are grown in the United States, with California the leader. Domestic spices include capsicum peppers, paprika; such herbs as basil, tarragon, mint, parsley, sage and marjoram and seeds such as mustard, dill, fennel and sesame. Dehydrated vegetable products-onions, garlic, chives, shallots, bell peppers, parsley and mixed vegetable flakes – account for a high percentage of our domestic poundage.

Imported spices enter the U.S. through the ports of both coasts, but by far the largest volume comes
through New York. They usually arrive in the whole form. They are first inspected for cleanliness and must pass U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the American Spice Trade Association standards before they are allowed to clear the port. After that, they go to spice grinding plants where they are further inspected, cleaned, processed and packaged.

Various types of mills are used in spice grinding because of the wide variety of materials, which must be processed; i.e. leaves, seeds, bark, etc. By use of mechanical sifters the miller also regulates the fineness of the grind. Today, the spice industry also offers extractives of spices in which the essences are concentrated from the raw products. These are available in various forms to meet specific flavoring needs. Included are essential oils, oleoresins and compounds containing these plus natural spices and other ingredients.

The American Spice Trade Association

Those who bring spices to us – from growers and shippers overseas to agents, brokers, importers, processors and dehydrators in this country, as well as many firms associated and allied with the industry – are members of the American Spice Trade Association, founded in 1907. With headquarters in Washington, DC, this association, numbering over 200 firms and allied organizations, is active in research, trade relations within and outside its industry, and spice education.

Malabar thanks the American Spice Trade Association for it’s kind permission to reprint this history of spice. For more information, visit www.astaspice.org.