Spices are global now. But, once they were restricted to certain regions, were highly costly, even more than gold! Spices have come a long way since then. They are now used for a smorgasbord of purposes, ranging from perfume production to kitchen use to medicinal purposes. The word itself originated from the Old French word espice, which later became epice. It came from spec, a Latin root.
Geography of Spices
Spices are mainly found in tropical areas. Spices because of their antimicrobial properties are more commonly used in warmer climates as a way to treat prevalent infectious diseases in such areas. They are commonly found in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, east Africa etc.
The written record of spices can be traced to India, China, and Egypt. Dating from 1550 B.C.E., Ebers Papyrus explains a number of medicinal procedures and some 800 medicinal remedies of spices. By 1700 BCE, Mesopotamia was using cloves. Mentions of cloves can even be found in Ramayana, the ancient Indian epic. As per the records of Pliny the Elder, cloves were used by Romans by 1st century CE. Historians are pretty firm that Europe got introduced to nutmeg in the 6th century BCE. It originated from the Banda Islands in Southeast Asia.
In 2000 BCE, the spice trade developed in the Middle East and South Asia with black pepper and cinnamon. A similar story was going on in East Asia, however, with pepper and herbs. World trade was further stimulated with Egyptians’ need for herbs and spices for mummification. Medical systems that primarily use herbs were established in India, Korea, and China. Early uses of spices were associated with tradition, religion, preservation, and even magic.
In Europe, the most common spices in the middle age were cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cumin, and black pepper. These were among the most expensive products at that time. No wonder they were popular among aristocrats in Europe. King of Aragon wanted to put them in wine.
During these times, the spices were fundamentally imported from plantations in Africa and Asia. This was the main reason they were expensive. The Republic of Venice established a monopoly on the trade of spices from the 8th to 15th century with the Middle East. This made the region very rich. As per the estimates, about 1000 tons of spices, particularly pepper, were imported every year into Western Europe as late Middle Ages dawned. Saffron was greatly in demand too.
Early Modern Period
Considering the high prices of spices, Portugal and Spain were increasingly getting interested in finding new trade routes for spices from Asia. This was the main reason that drove Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama to sail to India. He found that pepper was at much lower prices than those of Venice. During this time only, Columbus came back from the New World. He told about the new spices available there to the investors.
Portuguese were able to control the sea routes to India with the help of Afonso de Albuquerque’s military prowess. He took control over Goa, India, in 1510 and also Malacca, Malaysia, in 1510. This enabled Portuguese to trade directly with the Maluku Islands, China, and Siam.
According to the 2017 data of FAO, India is the largest spice producer in the world. In a year, it produces 1,939,000 tonnes of spices. A distant second is Turkey, producing 199,018 tonnes a year. The others in the list are Bangladesh (180,993 tonnes), China (113,359 tonnes), Indonesia (110,387 tonnes), Pakistan (73,472 tonnes), Ethiopia (36,754 tonnes), Colombia (23,227 tonnes), Nepal (21,889 tonnes), and Myanmar (8,852 tonnes).
Some Interesting Facts about Spices:
- In Genesis, Joseph was sold to spice merchants.
- In the Song of Solomon, the beloved of the male speaker is compared to a number of spices’ forms.
- Greeks referred to black pepper as black gold.
- Nowadays, spices are used everywhere from washing hair to freshening shoes.