From the bland diets of Europeans in the early 16th century to the myriad of culinary flavors available today, spices have had a huge impact in the world.  Join Active Minds as we trace the rise of spices from colonialism and the spice trade to the hundreds of varieties that are commonly stocked in nearby supermarkets.

Key Lecture Points

  • Spices are derived from the roots, bark, flowers, fruits and seeds of various plants native to the tropics.  Over the course of thousands of years of human history, various spices came to be valued as a means to flavor food, preserve meat, make perfume, heal the sick and embalm the dead.  Ancient cultures, from Egypt to China developed the use and trade of spices.  Initially by way of the Ancient Greeks, spices were brought to Europe from Asia via routes that came to be known as the Silk Road.
  • In the mid-1400s the Ottoman Empire cut off European access to the Silk Road land routes interrupting the flow of spices to Europe.  This came at the same time that technological advances were being made in navigation that made possible longer sea voyages.  As a result, European monarchs funded voyages of discovery to find their own routes to Asia—the source of the world’s spices.  Vasco de Gamma was the first European to round Africa and make the first direct sea voyage from Europe to Asia.
  • The Portuguese were the first Europeans to gain control of the spice trade in Asia.  In 1511 they captured the Banda Islands—then the world’s only source of nutmeg.  They also found the source of cloves on the twin islands of Ternate and Tidore.  When Spain took control of Portugal in 1580, they seized the Portuguese nutmeg and clove holdings in Asia.
  • Determined to have a piece of the lucrative spice trade, the Netherlands formed the Dutch East India Company in 1602 and proceeded to use brutal force against indigenous peoples and other Europeans to forge a monopoly of the spice trade.  The Dutch monopoly was broken by the Frenchman Pierre Poivre who succeeded in stealing clove and nutmeg seedlings from Dutch plantations.  This enabled the French to develop spice plantations in their colonies.  During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain captured the Bandas from the Dutch, giving the British access to nutmeg seedlings which they then transplanted to their colonies in Asia and Africa.
  • In two centuries, Europe had changed the ancient spice trade.  Spices that had before only been found in hidden archipelagoes were now grown around the world, in large quantities and in competitive markets.  Although the majority of spices still came from Asia, spices were also grown in the Americas and Africa.
  • Spices are no longer luxury goods, but they are still important as we seek out new cuisines and flavors.  As Americans become more health conscious, spices are a popular way to enhance meals without adding calories, salt, sugar or fat.  Also, research is showing spices can have health benefits—just as the ancient world and medieval Europe believed.

Exploration Questions

  • Describe how the spice trade drove the Age of Discovery.
  • Which European countries were involved in the spice trade?  How did their approaches to this trade differ?

Reflective Questions

  • What is your favorite world cuisine—what spices are used in it?  Why do you like these spices?
  • Have you ever been to a spice market in another part of the world?  What was it like?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Czarra, Fred.  Spices: A Global History, Reaktion Books, 2009. 176 pages. The author tells the story of the spice trade and how spices have influenced cuisines around the globe.
    Click here to order
  • Frankopan, Peter.  The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.  Knopf Publishing Group, 2016.  672 pages.  The author describes the history of the trade between the East and West along the Silk Roads and how this trade impacted world history.
    Click here to order