the spice trade -- 12/21/21

Today's selection -- from Merchant Kings by Stephen R. Bown. In the 1400s, the spices of the East Indies -- pepper (of all spices the greatest in demand and worth almost as much as gold), ginger, cinnamon, resinous camphor and nutmeg -- dominated world trade:
"The commerce in spices dates back to before the recorded history of the area, preceding the arrival of the first European ships by two thousand years. Javanese, Malay and Chinese ships were frequent visitors to the early, remote marketplaces where local spices were exchanged for rice, cotton, silk, coins, porce­lain or beads in an ancient and intricate web of commerce. The demand inspired merchants to create elaborate trade routes that wound their way through these mostly tiny islands by sea and over land.

"Spices found their way to the great trading cen­tres of Sumatra and Java, changed hands and then wended their way to India, where they were passed on to Hindu merchants who resold them to Arab merchants, who in turn took them west across the Indian Ocean to Egypt and the Middle East, and eventually north to the rim of the Mediterranean. There, Alexandria was the first great trading emporium for this lucra­tive commerce; centuries later, commercial power in the region shifted to Constantinople. And, of course, each time the goods traded hands, the prices increased as successive merchants took their profits and successive governments took their taxes and tariffs. By the time the spices reached Europe, what could be had for a basket of rice or a few pieces of cloth on the Banda Islands might be worth a small fortune in silver.

Dutch spice islands by Willem Blaeu (1630)

"For hundreds of years during the Middle Ages, the spice trade in the West was dominated by the city state of Venice. Venetian merchants shut out all others from the marketplaces in Alexandria, and then Constantinople, where the Arab mer­chants offered their exotic wares for sale while concealing what they knew of their origin. In 1453, however, in a devastating siege, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and was sacked by the invading army, ending what remained of the Byzan­tine Empire. The fall of Constantinople placed the spice trade entirely in the hands of the Ottomans, who soon raised taxes and increased tariffs to virtually shut off the spice supply to 'infidel' Europe.

"During the late fifteenth century, however, the Portuguese discovered a sea route to the East by pushing south along the coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope, conquering numerous east African cities and founding the colony of Goa on the western coast of India in 1510. A few years later Portuguese adventurers seized cities in Indonesia, where they constructed fortified settlements to dominate and control the local spice trade. Soon Portugal was one of the richest nations in Europe, boasting a complex trade network that extended around the world. But in its very success was the kernel of Portugal's down­fall: the nation had a population of only two million, and the Eastern spice trade, with its continuous wars, shipwrecks and deaths from disease, took a heavy toll on Portugal's small popu­lation of males. To keep the enterprise running, Portugal hired foreign sailors, who soon shared the knowledge of this astonish­ing wealth. Others also wanted a share of the spice trade.

"Beginning in 1519, in one of the greatest voyages of all time, a Spanish expedition led by the disaffected Portuguese nobleman Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the world by sailing around South America, crossing the Pacific Ocean and establishing a Spanish presence in the Spice Islands. Despite their quarrelling, the Spanish and Portuguese reaped great profits by monopoliz­ing the spice trade in Europe for decades."



Stephen R. Bown


Merchant Kings


Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2009 Stephen R. Bown


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