[ A Peppering of Spice Trade History: Intro ] ~ from Monterey Bay Herb Company
The Header's Shadow
Most Americans think of faraway, exotic lands when it comes to the spice trade. In fact, the U.S. didn’t become a player until the late 17th century when Boston native Elihu Yale, a 20-year veteran of the British East India Company, earned his fortune from his own business based on clandestine trade contracts with the company’s foreign merchants. (Some of his prosperity would benefit a small school in New Haven, Connecticut that would later become Yale University.)
Taking a cue from Yale to eliminate the middle man, Captain Jonathan Carnes made Salem, Massachusetts the epicenter of spice trade in North America with a large payload of pepper from Indonesia in the late 1700s. But the real story of the spice trade begins in clay pot remnants that clutch carbonized scraps of cooked fish and game seasoned with ground cumin, coriander and garlic mustard seeds.

[ A Peppering of Spice Trade History: Stories and Glories ] ~ from Monterey Bay Spice

a. stories of
spice & glory

Based on archeological findings dating to the Neolithic era, or the Late Stone Age, humans first used spices as articles of trade as early as the 10th millennium BC. The earliest written record is credited to the ancient Egyptians, who imported ivory, gold and aromatic resins in exchange for spices with a neighboring region that now encompasses northern Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan.

The Roman Empire would expand existing trade routes in the Arabian Peninsula, eventually making the sea port of Alexandria the spice trade capital of the Greco-Roman world. While the Romans further developed trade with Arabia and India via the Incense Road of Antiquity in the Mediterranean, China controlled the Silk Road, an overland route from India. 

By the 7th century, Arabian merchants would dominate trade routes in the Indian Ocean and eastern Mediterranean. They also opened trade with Southeast Asia, creating a bridge to the remote islands of Molucca and Banda, which became known as the Spice Islands. To safeguard their territories, the Arabs spread rumors that spice-bearing plants and trees were guarded by winged creatures and venomous snakes. Although many lives were indeed lost to thieves and misfortune, these colorful stories only made the acquisition of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and other spices all the more sweeter—and introduced the world to the adventures of Sinbad the Sailor. 

< Vasco da Gama (c.1469-1524)
by artist Antonio Manuel da Fonseca

By the mid-15th century, Venice became the major player in the spice trade, largely owing to twenty-five years of global travel by Marco Polo. However, the discovery of an alternate route to India by Vasco da Gama in 1498 would shift industry dominance to Portugal that would last through the 1500s. 

[ A Peppering of Spice Trade History: Competition & Company ] ~ from Monterey Bay Spice

b. war, peace,
& pepper

In addition to venturing to India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Portugal imported black pepper from India — a spice fit for royalty because it required a king’s ransom to afford. In fact, because peppercorns were considered equivalent to currency, some Europeans elected to pay rent and taxes with it. To this day, peppercorn is a legal term in English law that represents a small payment or fee simple. The Freemasons of St. George’s have paid “peppercorn rent” to use the old Bermuda state meeting house each spring for more than 200 years. The price? A single peppercorn resting atop a velvet cushion, presented to the Governor on a silver platter.

[ A Peppering of Spice Trade History: Peppercorn - Fit for Kings ] ~ from Monterey Bay Herb Company

In the 17th century, explorers Frederik de Houtman and Jacob Cornelisz van Neck enabled Holland to next monopolize the spice trade industry. As part of the Dutch East India Company, they had full control over cinnamon exports in Ceylon and pepper imports from the Malabar Coast and India. England began competing with Holland, which contributed to the launch of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War in 1780. In a demonstration of persistence paying off, England invested another 20 years to gain control of the majority of Dutch colonies and Indian pepper ports.

India remains the leading exporter of spices today, providing more than 85% of the world’s supply. The country no longer trades with other nations, however, but distributes to wholesalers, retailers and distributers directly instead. This puts once rare and coveted spices within easy reach for consumers from all over the globe. More importantly, the practice ensures that peace will not be broken over the price of pepper.