The Great trading routes: The Spice Route

Table of Contents

The journey to the East
Portuguese route to the Indians

The Great trading routes: The Spice Route

The most colourful and contentious of the seaways was the Spice Route which over two thousand years connected East and West across the Indian Ocean. Spices such as cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, cloves, pepper, nutmeg, saffron and turmeric have long been known to humans and have been used to enhance the flavour, aroma and even the colour of food besides its use for healing many illnesses. Some of the earliest references can be found in the ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Persian literature.

Spices in Istambul Market

The secret...

Nearly 2,500 years ago, Arab traders told stories of the ferocious cinnamon bird, or cinnamologus. This large bird made its nest from delicate cinnamon sticks, the traders said. One way to get the cinnamon was to bait the cinnamologus with large chunks of meat. The birds would fly down from their nests, snatch up the meat, and fly back. The precarious cinnamon nests would collapse when the bird returned weighted with its catch.

Spice route Europe Asia
Arab traders told stories of the ferocious cinnamon bird, or cinnamologus

.. .did not last long: The Portuguese

Then quick-witted traders could gather up the fallen cinnamon

 and take it to market. As enticing as the tale is, the fabled cinnamologus never existed. The story was most likely invented to ward off curious competitors from attempting to seek out the source of the spice. For many years, the ancient Greeks and Romans were fooled. 

But the world’s demand for spices grew throughout the Roman era and into the medieval period, defining economies from India to Europe. This demand gave rise to some of the first truly international trade routes and shaped the structure of the world economy in a way that can still be felt today. Those who controlled the spices could divert the flow of wealth around the world.

But the secret of the origins of spices such as cinnamon could only be kept for so long. In 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama made the first sea voyage from Europe to India, via the southernmost tip of Africa. The mission was driven by a desire to find a direct route to the places where spices were plentiful and cheap, cutting out the middlemen. His arrival on India’s Malabar Coast, the heart of the spice trade, marked the start of direct trading between Europe and South East Asia.


Da Gama’s voyage, and that of his country, was a heavy blow to the Arab traders. As well as their financial loss, da Gama maintained a bloody attack on Arab merchants at sea in order to establish and defend the new spice route from India to Europe. 

Arrival of Vasco de Gama to Calcutta

From then on, ships from many lands sailed the Spice Route, laden with all the exotica of Orient but it was the precious spices from South-East Asia that gave the route its name. Although now commonplace, cloves, pepper and nutmeg were once rarities worth their weight more than gold. Their lucrative trade bred international rivalries, quarrels and conquests, while the search for their source impelled Columbus to cross the Atlantic and Magellan to circumnavigate the globe.

The Spice Route, as the Silk Road was not a single route, but a network of sea lanes that joined the Mediterranean with the Far East. It stretched 12,000 kilometres across the Near East and around India to China and the Spice Islands of Indonesia.

Mariners from many nations sailed the Spice Route, and its ports served as melting pots for ideas and information. Three of the world´s major religions, Christianity Buddhism and Islam, spread not only through the Silk Road but also via the Spice Route while the commercial enterprises of its European traders eventually emerged as colonial empires. Its name became a sort of shorthand, referring only to the physical route of the ships, but also to the trade with Asia in general. It was also known as the Maritime Silk Route, for as the overland silk route declined, the ships that sailed it increasingly carried as cargo the silk and porcelain from China.

Chinese porcelain secret

Chinese ceramics from the 16th century
Chinese ceramics from the 16th century

Imported trade products like Chinese porcelain introduced Western craftspeople to not only new art styles, but also new technologies. Chinese potters developed the process of making porcelain –using kaolin-. The earliest evidence of its manufacture dates back to the Han dynasty (206 BC – 200 AD).

An Arab traveller named Suleiman gives the first description of porcelain in 851 AD, in the middle of the Tang dynasty. When it was first made, the secrets of its production were kept tightly guarded, so it came to be known as «white gold».

Its translucency and thinness gave it great appeal, and potters outside China –unaware of kaolin- went in great lengths to duplicate it. Experiments by European potters eventually led to the unlocking of the secret it was not until 1709 by the German chemist and alchemist Johann Fiedrich Böttger, almost accidentally and retained by King Augustus of Saxony, who was forced to «manufacture» gold for him. Once it was known, many ceramic factories produced copies of Chinese ware.

Ceramics Europe and Asia
Johann Fiedrich Böttger was retained by his King to manufacture "gold" for him

The history and origin of the spices

The history of the spices can be traced almost to the birth of civilization itself. The world´s oldest known recipes, recorded in cuneiform on Akkadian clay tablets about 1700 BC show that the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia used a wide range of spices in their cooking: no recipe contained fewer than three condiments and some contained as many as ten. In earliest time, however, spices were used no so much for seasoning as for religious purposes, for embalming the dead and for sacrifice and funeral rites. The ancients also used spices in producing medicines, cosmetics and perfumes.

The most prized spice in antiquity was cinnamon. Heavily used by the ancient Egyptians in embalming, it also mentioned as one of the sacred ingredients of the sacred anointing oil of Hebrew priests and was used by ancient greeks as a flavor in oils.

Most species were indigenous only to certain tropical regions of the Orient. Because they were high in value as they were low in weight, spices were transported and sold at a great profit. All along the route taxes, duties and tolls were levied, so that by the time they reached the West the prices were exorbitant. In the case of some spices, according to the Roman scholar Plinius, their original prices increased a hundredfold.

King Solomon and Arabian Queen of Sheba

Two peoples –Arabs and Indians- stand out as probable founders of the spice trade. Indian sailors shipped Eastern spices west to Arabia, from where the Arabs caravanned them north to Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. Early trade was essentially a luxury exchange in easily transportable items, and often took the form of gifts or tributes. “Spices of great store”, for example, were among gifts given to the Hebrew King Solomon by the fabled southwest Arabian Queen of Sheba in the ninth century BC. King Solomon’s history tell us he had around a thousand women, including wives and concubines, so it is not far-fetched to think that when he saw the Queen of Sheba, the flame of attraction did not arise….  What does seem certain is that they talked for long hours when they both played and tested each other’s intelligence, since both were considered wise monarchs.

One of the few paintings of Queen of Sheba as a black woman (which was the colour of his skin)

Known to the Greeks as the black Minerva, to the Ethiopians, she was Makeda (black queen), and to the Arabs (Yemenites in particular), she was Bilkís, as they doubted their origin. Curiously, this image from the Middle Ages is the first to be depicted in black.

Another secret: the Moonson trade winds

Inevitabilty these exotic substances found their way to the West, where the Greeks and Romans became avid consumers; black pepper from India, for example, was one of the favorite ingredients of Rome´s renowned chef Apicius. Spices were also in great demand in Rome as salves and charms, as well as religious and burial rituals.

It was the western craving for spices, and the huge profits to be made from their trades that laid the basis for the Spice Route, which linked great civilizations of Europe, India and the Orient for over two millennia. When Near East transit tolls and intermediaries mark´s up on these goods became prohibitive, they forced the Europeans  to look for other routes east –unlocking in the process, the secret of the Moonson trade winds, finding a sea route around Africa, and on the other side, accidentally discovering America to the Europeans.

The Moonson arrival to India
The arrival of the Monsoons to India

Over the last few thousand years, the Indian Ocean’s shipping and trade routes followed a particular rhythm

based on the dominant seasonal weather cycles. These are individually known as the monsoon, from the Arabic «mawsim», meaning a «fixed time of year». There are two main monsoons that may be identified: one blowing from the northeast in winter and one blowing from the southwest during the summer, with a changing weather season in between.


During the XV and XVI centuries, the business was not only in the more or less monopolised import into Europe, but also in its redistribution throughout the Old Continent, which made many businessmen rich. Even at the end of the 16th century, Augsburg companies dominated the spice market. The profits made on colonial products encouraged the maritime countries to try to gain direct access to the West and East Indies.


And from that moment, colonialism began, founding colonies outside the country of origin, in which the colonists imposed their laws and organisation on the colonised territory, including the indigenous population, and were the main beneficiaries of the economic activity.

The first global multinational corporation

Dutch East India Company could have its own army (it had a militia of ten thousand armed men) and declare war

As an example of what colonialism in the spices route was about, the Dutch East India Company was a

private, anonymous, privately owned company established in 1602 when the States-General of the Netherlands granted a monopoly for nearly twenty-one years to trade in the Far East. This company was the first global multinational corporation and the first company to publicly account for its operations and profits.

In1667, with complete ownership of cloves, it set the islands of Ternate and Tidore (in modern-day Indonesia) as the only places of clove production and obliged all clove trees not belonging to the company to be grubbed up or burned.

Furthermore, anybody found cultivating the spice tree, or unauthorized possession of clove seeds carried the death penalty. Of course, they restricted the supply to about 1,000 tonnes of cloves per year to keep prices high.

But that is another (and not so positive) story…

And here we come to the end of the three great trade routes in history. But the Journey to the East continues so…

Spices in an Indian Market

… If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully … If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or input, please email us at We will be happy to hear from you.

Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

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