The spice trade and its importance for European expansion

Priv.Doz. Dr. Udo Pollmer

Both historical studies and popular accounts tend to present European expansion and the discovery of the New World as the achievements of daring adventurers who were seeking the thrill of novelty. But what leads people to take risks in everyday life is the hope of gaining an advantage - usually a financial one. If we consider European economic activity before the "discovery" of the New World by Christopher Columbus, it is clear that it was mainly the centers of the spice trade where wealth was accumulated. The palaces of Venice and Genoa, the riches of the Fugger and Welser merchant families of southern Germany, and the splendor of Lisbon and Amsterdam were established mainly on the profits from the spice trade.

The route the spices took from the East Indies to the Occident was both difficult and dangerous. The spices were mostly harvested by slaves, and then sailed or paddled in tiny praos from the Spice Islands (the Moluccas) to Malacca. From there, they were shipped in junks across two or three dangerous tropical seas. After that, this freight was carried on camel-back through the desert from Aden to Egypt, becoming more expensive at each stage. Emirs, sultans, and pirates levied high customs tariffs on whatever had not been lost to typhoons, sandstorms, or other pirates. The exotic freight passed through at least a dozen hands before it was received by European merchant firms in Alexandria or Constantinople.

Today, we tend to underestimate their historical importance. For example, the term "spice" is not mentioned even once in the detailed subject index of Golo Mann's ten-volume History of the World (a well-known German reference work). 4 For spices are merely a perishable item of consumption. As soon as they have had their effect on our tongues and palates, they vanish into our stomachs. This makes them much less accessible for archaeology than gold and silver, which outlast the centuries, and still have great material value today.

Exotic spices were often more expensive than the food itself in former times. For a long time, people wondered why it was things with no nutritional value which were so strongly desired. The usual answer is, "Because they make things taste better". But this does not explain anything. For Nature does not do anything for nothing, or pointlessly. So why do human beings have this passion for spicing their food?