Running through wide and vast areas, the spice routes are a network of interlinking sea routes that were used in the ancient times linking the west coast of Japan, through the islands of Indonesia, around India to the lands of the Middle East – and from there, across the Mediterranean to Europe. These expansive sea routes aided traders and travellers who transported spices and a number of precious goods around the world for centuries. While this was an incredibly precarious and tedious route, often the promise of a far larger market was a constant source of motivation.
Dating back as early as 2000 BC, these routes were used primarily to procure large quantities of spices from Asia and transport them back to Europe. Documentation that we have today suggests that spices such as cinnamon and cassia were transported from Sri Lanka and China while other precious goods such as “cargoes of ivory, silk, porcelain, metals and dazzling gemstones” were traded in bulk too. These vast trade routes interlinking countries around the world not only played a vital role in increasing the demand for rare and regional resources but was also the indirect cause for dispersion of other essential knowledge about the cultures, traditions, languages, and regional artistry of countries part of the sea route.
While today, in retrospect it is hard to imagine a world in which people created such extensive trade routes to trade spices, documentation from Ancient Greek and a number of other sources suggest the luxury associated with a unique taste far from the land of their origin. In fact, the word “spice” is suggestive of this. Owing to its origins and derivation from the Latin word species, the word itself means “an item of special value, as compared to ordinary articles of trade”. Spices were not just considered to be an interesting olfactory experience, but were at the time also thought to have essential “ritualistic and medical values”. Such was the extent of its influence that one particular documentation of a Greek historian “Herodotus” in the 5th century B.C. states his knowledge of the spice Cassia, which “grew in a lake “infested by winged creatures like bats, which screeched alarmingly and were very pugnacious”. Studies of this documentation suggest that stories like these were told by traders who wished to “protect their profits”, which at the time were extremely large due to the demand for these goods.
Over the centuries, the world has seen the spices grow in popularity. Battles have been waged between countries to gain control of these seemingly unimportant facets of the culinary experience. An important fact that very often slips our notice is the way the New World was discovered. In the pursuit of a shorter spice route to India and China, which was known for its abundance of spices as “the fabled gold and spice islands of Asia”, Christopher Columbus set sail hoping to find India, only to find America. The rest is history.
Today the value of spices are often taken for granted, given its easy availability around the world as a hallmark of culinary experience. In retrospect, it is hard, even impossible for us to imagine a world in which spices were marked signs of power, influence, wealth, and even causes for war. Looking back at the Spice Routes, however, show us that this was possible.