10 Surprising Facts about the Spice Trade
In the ancient world, spices were incredibly valuable and precious commodities. They were so rare and hard to obtain that the perfume in King Tutankhamun’s tomb was made from cinnamon, myrrh, and the resin of trees like frankincense and aloe that were valued in many parts of the world but didn’t grow in Egypt. Until the 18th century, people in Europe had never tasted nutmeg or black pepper because they grew only on small islands in Indonesia that were entirely controlled by Arabs who forbade anyone else from going there to get them. Here are 10 Surprising facts about Spice Trade Global.
1) Spices were used as currency
As far back as Ancient Greece, spices were used as currency. When Alexander The Great died on his path to India, it was rumored that he left a bag of gold dust worth one talent (equal to 17 pounds) in his tomb. In reality, though, there was no gold—the bag contained over 50 pounds of pepper and 10 pounds of cinnamon!
2) Marco Polo introduced spices to Italy from Asia
When Marco Polo returned from his years of adventures abroad, he told tales of a magical land where it was commonplace to add valuable spices to food. The Italians were amazed by these stories and went so far as to name him Il Milione (The Million) because they thought his tale seemed far-fetched and embellished.
3) The Dutch created a monopoly on nutmeg
The Dutch were responsible for two-thirds of all nutmeg spice trade in the mid-1600s. At one point, they owned more than 1,500 nutmeg trees on a single island. That’s because nutmeg was so valuable at that time that it actually served as currency in some places, with merchants trading 10 pounds of it for one slave (!) and four or five pounds for a cow. Nutmeg also played an important role in America’s early history.
4) Black pepper was the most traded spice
Pepper was a staple in global commerce for centuries and was used as a form of currency between European countries. Marco Polo alone is believed to have brought 2,000 tons of pepper back from China. We can still find traces of pepper in our food today, especially if we’re looking for it: Its use can be traced back to ancient Rome and Greece, where soldiers were paid in peppercorns instead of cash.
5) The Portuguese monopolized the cinnamon trade in Europe
Between 1516 and 1640, Portuguese traders kept a stranglehold on the cinnamon trade in Europe. In fact, during that time, no other European could set foot in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which was where much of the cinnamon came from, because it had been designated a port of call exclusively for Portuguese ships. Despite those restrictions, however, Ceylon’s spicy allure couldn’t be contained. Overland routes were established through Persia and eventually to Europe—without any involvement from Portugal. This is the history of the spice trade.
6) Pepper was produced in India, Java, and Sumatra
Black pepper was produced in South and Southeast Asia, particularly in India and Java. This spice was so important to Indian cuisine that it became known as black gold—and even today, black pepper is traded by volume, not weight. It’s also thought that black pepper was traded for gold during ancient times when you could exchange one for one.
7) Peppercorns (piper nigrum) are native to India
Piper nigrum, commonly known as black pepper, is a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae, cultivated for its fruit, which is usually dried and used as a spice and seasoning. It is native to India. In 2016 it was grown on 186,000 hectares worldwide. Peppercorns are planted in tropical and subtropical climates around the world. World production was 740,000 tonnes in 2016… (Thanks to Wikipedia)
8) Africa was an important region for spice trade in ancient times
In 350 BCE, Nearchus sailed from Egypt to what is now Pakistan along a route following a long-established spice trade. By about 800 CE, some merchants were drawn to Southeast Asia for its many spices, including nutmeg and cloves. The Indian Ocean trade was responsible for spreading both Indian religions (Hinduism and Buddhism) and Indian cuisine to parts of SE Asia. During World War II, Western nations cut off access to Asian spices in order to weaken food supplies available to soldiers on all sides.
9) In Medieval Europe, spices were believed to have medicinal value, other than their taste.
In Medieval Europe, spices were believed to have medicinal value, other than their taste. In fact, certain spice specialists in Florence advertised it as a great cure for many ailments like indigestion and parasites. However, that didn’t stop most aristocrats from consuming them often in hopes of living longer lives. Even today, some countries like India consider their health supplements good for digestion.
10) Nutmeg was very valuable during medieval times, causing European explorers to search extensively for it.
Nutmeg was seen as a gateway to a new world of profit, and it became known as malmok or nootmuskaat (meaning black muscat) in Europe, where it was extremely sought after due to its high value. The smell of nutmeg can be intense, so smugglers used wood shavings and other materials to hide their shipments when they transported them from Indonesia.
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