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Spice Trade and the Age of Discovery

Spice Trade

Spice trade had existed throughout the East for many centuries. In the 1400s, Venice held a very powerful position in the spice trade with the Eastern Hemisphere. To disrupt their near monopoly, other countries took to the seas to explore new sources of spices and other valuable goods. This massive enterprise became known as the Age of Discovery, since it resulted in the discovery of many new lands as well as foreign cultures. Several of the European explorers set out in search of precious metals and jewels. However, in doing so, they carved out an important trade route for silk and spices. In Europe, they found that there was a high demand for exotic spices, which were not only used in food, but also for their medicinal properties, as perfume ingredients and for important ceremonies. Among the most prominent explorers were Henry the Navigator, Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan. These explorers set out in search of spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, and other Indian spices. Let’s have a look at each of their explorations and discoveries in turn.

Born with both Portuguese and English royal bloodlines, Prince Henry resided in Portugal but was equally well-known in England. People of the latter country dubbed him Prince Henry the Navigator for his tremendous efforts towards exploration and discovery. However, Prince Henry never did set out on explorative voyages; instead he took charge of financing and organizing them, and hired professional cartographers, navigators and sailors to go in his stead. Henry was a very devout, sympathetic and determined figure. When the city of Ceuta, situated along the coastline of North Africa, was conquered by the Portuguese, Henry was inspired by the trade routes in that region. He wanted to explore more of the African coast to discover other resources. More specifically, he was set on discovering areas that could be mined for gold, a way of eliminating the constant pirate attacks on the Portuguese seaboard and the mythical Christian realm of Prester John. Prince Henry helped to develop a lighter and more seaworthy ship, known as a caravel, which enabled crew to sail greater distances much faster. Among the discoveries made under Prince Henry’s guidance were Porto Santo Island, Madeira, the Azores islands, Cape Verde and areas beyond Cape Bojador.

Born to a humble family in Genoa in 1451, Cristoforo Colombo, colloquially known today as Christopher Columbus, worked in his early twenties as a trading apprentice for several influential families. His line of work took him on many ship voyages, ranging from Iceland to Africa. During this time, he developed an intricate knowledge of the ocean currents and Atlantic routes. Fearing the Muslim pirates along the Middle Eastern routes, Columbus decided to travel to the East by a western route instead of the usual eastern one. Initially this plan was rejected several times. Finally in 1492, Spain’s monarchs agreed to fund the voyage. Columbus and his crew first arrived at the Bahamas and managed to trade with natives for goods such as cotton, spears and colorful parrots. Continuing the expedition, they also stopped at Cuba and the area now known as the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Columbus mistakenly assumed that this area was actually Asia and satisfied with his findings, his fleet headed back to Spain. He made three more voyages before dying in 1506. Instead of the Eastern Spices that he intended on bringing back, he discovered many Native American cultures, as well as goods native to the area that included coffee, cocoa, and tobacco. Ironically, Columbus died without ever finding the Eastern spices that he had been so determined to seek out.

Ferdinand Magellan, born in 1480 in the north of Portugal, quickly found himself without immediate family when he became an orphan at the age of ten. He was sent to be a page in the court of Queen Leonor, as part of his education as well as work experience. By the time he was twenty-five years old, he was allowed to join a large fleet that was sailing to India. Following this, Magellan was involved in several battles and quickly earned promotions until he became a captain. As Columbus had previously believed, Magellan also thought that he could reach the Eastern hemisphere by travelling along a western route. His voyage was funded by the King of Spain and Magellan’s crew first stopped at Rio de Janeiro. They continued southwards, reaching Argentina. To travel through to the other side of the land, Magellan urged the fleet to pass through a strait, which has come to be named after him. Finally, they passed into the Pacific Ocean, reaching Guam after four months, and then the Philippines. Magellan died during a tribal battle in 1521, but one of his ships did manage to return to Spain, laden with spices from the East. Although Magellan did not complete his journey, he is generally given credit for the first voyage around the world.

Although many of these famous explorers were far from reaching their intended destinations and even worse, finding the spices they were supposed to, their voyages were successful in other ways. In discovering the Americas, they made important steps towards developing European nations and initiating colonization. Apart from discovering new foods, they also discovered new animal species, plants and people. This period of trade was known as The Great Exchange.

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