How India’s flourishing spice trade shaped the future of the world



By Harshmeet Singh

“No man should die who can afford cinnamon” – A common saying in the 15th century, this perfectly depicted the rewarding spice trade between India and the rest of the world.

The fragrance and aroma coming out of an Indian kitchen are unparallel. If India has seen a flood a multinational food chains opening in the past three decades, the Indian cuisine has made sure that the progress takes place both ways! Known to be spicy and exotic, ‘Indian food’ is in vogue in many first world nations. But what makes our food so irresistible? How are cardamom, tamarind, pepper and other spices melted so perfectly that they enhance the taste of the food manifold? The answer, it seems, is hidden in the small round shaped spice box – an irreplaceable commodity of any Indian kitchen!

India’s spice monopoly

Spices were, perhaps, one of the first commodities to be imported from India in significant numbers. Kerala was known as the hotbed of many exotic spices around 3000 BC. At first, spice trade was carried out through land routes, and thus, remained confined to a few close nations. But with the starting to maritime trade, the spice business took off exponentially. While black pepper was indigenous to Kerala, Cinnamon was grown extensively in Sri Lanka. Cloves, on the other hand, came from the Spice Islands, a part of Indonesia.

Indian Spice trade has always been connected with one of the strongest empires of that time. Arabs were the first to exert control over Kerala bound spice trade in 600 BC. Huge quantities of cinnamon, pepper and oils were taken to Arabia via Persian Gulf. The Arab traders sold these spices at sky high rates by keeping its origins as a mystery and making up stories about the winged creatures and poisonous snakes that they had to fight off in order to reach the hills where these spices were grown. Pepper was a symbol of the riches and luxury. There have been multiple recorded instances in the ancient history where Kings have demands bags filled with pepper as toll for sparing a city. Tonnes of pepper were demanded as a dowry in royal weddings.

Pepper was called ‘Black Gold’ in the 4th century BC and exported in large quantities from Cochin in Kerala to the mighty Greek empire. With the rise of power in the Greek empire, the royal households became much more adventurous and flamboyant, thus increasing the demand for Indian spices. It is said that close to 120 ships every year were sent by the Romans at the peak of spice trade to import huge quantities of pepper from India.

Fun fact – Many Roman soldiers were paid their salaries in Salt! This gave birth to the term ‘salary’. The phrase ‘worth his salt’ was also derived from the same context.

And thus came the Europeans

It won’t be an exaggeration to say that India’s flourishing spice trade shaped the future of the world for the coming centuries. After silently witnessing India’s booming spice trade and Arab’s monopoly for many centuries, the European countries set out to search for a sea route to India. The colonisation of India and Americas was a result of such expeditions undertaken by different European nations. Americas were discovered while Columbus was searching for East Indies (India) through the Atlantic sea route. It is weird to imagine now that the world’s strongest nation was mistakenly discovered when the original destination was India and its spices! These expeditions, where the ships reached distant lands and didn’t fall off from the edge of the earth, forced the Europeans to believe what the ancient Hindus knew for centuries – that the Earth is round and not flat!

Famously, when Vasco Da Gama reached the Indian shores, his men, while getting off the ship, shouted, “for Christ and spices!”

The first European power to resort to colonization on the name of ‘trade’ was Portugal who captured Indonesian Spice Islands and Sri Lanka. They were later overthrown by the Dutch. The driving reason behind the formation of the British East India Company in 1600 was to compete with the Dutch spice trade in India. And this later on transformed into the grand British Empire in India. After the British entered the scene, an agreement was reached according to which India and Sri Lanka were to be ruled by the British while the Dutch would control Spice Islands.

Not just taste, but health too!

In ancient times, illness was treated with spices such as turmeric and ginger, and herbs. Many ancient inscriptions found in Europe and Egypt indicate that spices were preferred as medicines in many scenarios. The ancient medicinal art of Ayurveda also prescribed many spices for the well-being of the human body and mind.

Foreigners’ infatuation with Indian culinary and spices goes back many centuries. Indian spices, it seems, are taking the country’s name far beyond our imagination and borders.