Saturday, March 8, 2014

Spices, the Food Commodity that Changed the World

Photo credit: Judepics

In ancient times spices and other goods from India, China and Africa passed through the silk routes in Asia into Europe. The conquest of Alexander the Great of the Persian Empire and his military campaigns in India saw the introduction of European Hellenistic language and culture to Asia. This also facilitated the exchange and trade of commodities such as silk, spices among others between Europe and Asia. The Roman Empire which supplanted the Greeks in Asia was also an instrument for the exchange of goods, culture and knowledge throughout the Roman Empire which spanned Europe, Asia and Northern Africa. The conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great facilitated the spread of Christianity throughout the ancient Roman world.

In the mid 7th century AD, Islam a new religion swept across Asia. The Islamic army conquered Persia, Egypt, India, the Levant and other places. and an invasion of Europe was imminent. With the conquest came the introduction of Arab culture to the conquered lands and the conversion of their population to the Islamic faith. At the rise of Islam overland route to Europe for the transport of spices was severely restricted and the Arab merchants had the control of the lucrative spice trade, the spice being an expensive and in demand commodity. The Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad, the seat of the Islamic power grew rich with the situation.

The strategic city of Constantinople, the then Christendom’s second most important city after Rome and a gateway between Europe and Asia fell to the Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453.The city states of Venice and Genoa being in good terms with the Ottoman Empire then gained financial benefits with the rise of power of the Ottomans. While Venice monopolized the spice trade and became fabulously rich with it, the Ottoman Empire imposed heavy taxation on spice and goods that were exported to Western Europe. As a result, spices which were imported from Asia particularly India became more expensive. 

Photo credit: Navy of Brazil
To avoid routes controlled by hostile and non-Christian power, European Kingdoms particularly Spain and Portugal looked for alternative routes to the seas for spice and other commodities. Their competition to dominate the seas for the lucrative spice trade ushered in the Age of Discovery and Exploration. 

Portugal pioneered the endeavor to sail the seas to reach India for the precious spices. An expedition by Bartolomeu Dias crossed the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. King Manuel I of Portugal sponsored four vessels under the command of Vasco da Gama that successfully reached India in 1497. In 1500 Pedro Alvares Cabral in his trip to India was blown westward to what is now Brazil. That incident made the Pacific Coast of the American continents open for explorations by the Europeans. 

Spain to be able to compete with Portugal had to find alternative sea route not controlled by the later. It had to find a westward sea route to reach India since the eastward route was already taken by Portugal. Queen Isabella of Spain sponsored and financed an expedition led by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Sailing westward, his fleet made a landfall on islands that are now called the Bahamas. Believing that he indeed reached India, he called the native there “Indians”. That event was of great significance because it led to the discovery of an unexplored vast track of land, a continent that is called America today.

The unsuccessful attempt of Columbus to reach India via the westward sea route was followed by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520. With a fleet of five ships he sailed from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean for Moluccas where famed Spice Islands were located. However, he was killed in the Philippines before he could reach his destination. Surviving crews commanded by Sebastian Elcano were able to successfully reach Moluccas. After settling conflicts with the Portuguese, the crews with their only remaining ship that was loaded with spices were able to return to Spain taking the Indian Ocean and Cape of Good Hope sea routes. The crews who made the return-home voyage were the first people to circumnavigate the world.

Other European powers such as Britain and Netherlands later joined the exploration of lands across the seas for the expansion of their territories and for search of treasures. The Spice trade resulted to the “discovery” of undeveloped lands in the American continents and other parts of the world. Later, the perilous voyage to the high seas was no longer a necessity since the Europeans were able to plant and propagate spices in many parts of the world that they had settled in. The spice trade emporiums in India and the Spice Islands in the Moluccas have now lost their economic importance. 

The Age of Discovery and Exploration brought about the wide transfer of peoples, plants, animals, knowledge, cultures and even communicable diseases across the world.  New nations were born or created. It also significantly changed the ethnic composition and the spoken languages of the settled lands. People of European and African descents, most of them speaking their mother tongue, are now in community with the natives in what was then called a “New World”.

The Age of Discovery and Exploration also spread the Christian and the Islamic religions in many parts of the world. Christianity spread largely to the American continent and parts of Asia particularly the Philippines. Islam was spread to South East Asia particularly in such countries as Indonesia and Malaysia by the Arab merchants who were trading with spice and other goods.