Spice trade

The spice trade refers to the trade between historical civilizations in Asia, Northeast Africa and Europe. Spices such as cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger, pepper, and turmeric were known, and used for commerce, in the Eastern World well into antiquity.[1] These spices found their way into the Middle East before the beginning of the Christian era, where the true sources of these spices were withheld by the traders and associated with fantastic tales.[1] Early writings and stone age carvings of neolithic age obtained indicates that India’s southwest coastal port Muziris, in Kerala, had established itself as a major spice trade centre from as early as 3000 B.C, which marked the beginning of the spice trade. Kerala, referred to as the land of spices or as the “Spice Garden of India”, was the place traders and explorers wanted to reach, including Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and others.[2]

The Greco-Roman world followed by trading along the Incense route and the Roman-India routes.[3] During the first millennium, the sea routes to India and Sri Lanka (the Roman – Taprobane) were controlled by the Indians and Ethiopians that became the maritime trading power of the Red Sea. The Kingdom of Axum (ca 5th-century BC–AD 11th century) had pioneered the Red Sea route before the 1st century AD. By mid-7th century AD after the rise of Islam, Arab traders started dominating the maritime routes.

Arab traders eventually took over conveying goods via the Levant and Venetian merchants to Europe until the rise of the Ottoman Turks cut the route again by 1453. Overland routes helped the spice trade initially, but maritime trade routes led to tremendous growth in commercial activities.[1] During the high and late medieval periods Muslim traders dominated maritime spice trading routes throughout the Indian Ocean, tapping source regions in the Far East and shipping spices from trading emporiums in India westward to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, from which overland routes led to Europe.

The trade was changed by the European Age of Discovery,[4] during which the spice trade, particularly in black pepper, became an influential activity for European traders.[5] The route from Europe to the Indian Ocean via the Cape of Good Hope was pioneered by the Portuguese explorer navigator Vasco da Gama in 1498, resulting in new maritime routes for trade.[6]

This trade — driving the world economy from the end of the Middle Ages well into the modern times —[5] ushered in an age of European domination in the East.[6] Channels, such as the Bay of Bengal, served as bridges for cultural and commercial exchanges between diverse cultures[4] as nations struggled to gain control of the trade along the many spice routes.[1] European dominance was slow to develop. The Portuguese trade routes were mainly restricted and limited by the use of ancient routes, ports, and nations that were difficult to dominate. The Dutch were later able to bypass many of these problems by pioneering a direct ocean route from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sunda Strait in Indonesia.


1. “Spice Trade”. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2016. Retrieved 25 April 2016.
2. “Of Kerala Egypt and the Spice link”. The Hindu. Thiruvananthapuram, India. 28 January 2014.
3. Fage 1975: 164
4. Donkin 2003
5. Corn & Glasserman 1999: Prologue
6. Gama, Vasco da. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press.