The Spice Trade Route

The Spice Routes, also known as the Maritime Silk Roads, are the given name to the network of sea routes that connect the East with the West. They stretch from the west coast of Japan, through the islands of Indonesia, around India, to the lands of the Middle East. From there, across the Mediterranean to Europe, people from the Neolithic era (or the New Stone Age) traded spices and other high value items as early as the 10th millennium BC. 

Rome played a role in the spice trade during the 5th century, but this role, unlike the Arabian one, did not last through the Middle Ages. The rise of Islam brought a significant change to the trade as Radhanite Jews and Arab merchants, particularly from Egypt, eventually took over the conveying of goods via the Levant to Europe. At times, Jews enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the spice trade in large parts of Western Europe.

Although the origins of spices were known throughout Europe by the Middle Ages, no ruler proved capable of breaking the Venetian hold on the trade routes. Near the end of the 15th century, however, explorers began to build ships and venture abroad in search of new ways to reach the spice-producing regions. In 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed under the flag of Spain, and in 1497 John Cabot sailed on behalf of England, but both failed to find the spice lands - though Columbus returned from his journey with many new fruits and vegetables, including chilli peppers. Under the command of Pedro Alvarez Cabral, a Portuguese expedition was the first to bring spices from India to Europe by way of the Cape of the Good Hope in 1501. Portugal went on to dominate the naval trading routes through much of the 16th century.

By the early 16th century the Portuguese had complete control of the African sea route, which extended through a long network of routes that linked three oceans, from the Moluccas (the Spice Islands) in the Pacific Ocean, through Malacca, Kerala and Sri Lanka, to Lisbon in Portugal.

Similarly, the French East India Company was organised in 1664 by state authorisation under Louis XIV. Other East India companies chartered by European countries met with varying success. In subsequent struggles to gain control of the trade, Portugal was eventually redundant, after more than a century as the dominant power. By the 19th century, British interests were firmly rooted in India and Ceylon, while the Dutch were in control of the greater part of the East Indies.

For the next two-and-a-half centuries, Spain controlled a vast trade network that linked three continents: Asia, the Americas and Europe. A global spice route had been created: from Manila in the Philippines (Asia) to Seville in Spain (Europe), via Acapulco in Mexico (Middle America).

In the present day, cultural diffusion has meant that different countries have kept and developed their own products and distributed them accordingly rather than through the spice trade. 

Of course the e-commerce way of the world looks very different now than it did hundreds of years ago. Without a central spice route, spices are exported and sold all over the world. There are of course dedicated spice markets in this country and across seas. 

The Maritime Silk Roads have changed somewhat over the years, the latest trade routes proposed in 2013 by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Whilst academics foresee an array of issues due to unresolved conflicts between China and the ASEAN.