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  • Writer's pictureKim Cliett Long, Ed.D.

African American Maritime History Series #5: The African Spice Trade Route and Colonization

Spice history is almost as old as civilization. This history is comprised of intrigue and tensions involving lands discovered, wars fought, lost, and won, empires erected and destroyed, treaties established and contravened, and the spread and collapse of various religious practices and beliefs. Spices were among the most valuable items of trade in ancient and medieval times.

What we now perceive as ordinary kitchen spices constituted a critical component of ancient commerce well before the 15th century. During this period the trade was monopolized for centuries by Arabian and North African intermediaries who protected the valuable Asian provenance of the spices which made them fabulously rich as a result.

Spices not only made merchants rich across the globe — the commodity established vast kingdoms, exposed entire new continents to Europeans and altered the balance of world power and domination. If the modern age had a definitive beginning, the spice trade was the catalyst, historians have argued. Although many spices originated in other countries, at the foundation of the expansion of this first global maritime economy, once again, is Africa.

The exchange of spices from Asia and India into Europe had flourished since Roman times and paved the way for important trade routes, but Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India marked the start of the European powers’ mission to gain a direct foothold in the lucrative spice trade. This ultimately led to conquests and colonization.

As long ago as 3500 BC the ancient Egyptians were using colorful grains and various spices for flavoring food, mixing up salve recipes in traditional medicine, in cosmetics, and for embalming the dead. The remarkable Egyptian Ebers papyrus (dating to 1550 BCE) lists spices used for both medicinal and embalming procedures. Cassia and cinnamon, named in the papyrus, were essential for embalming; as were anise, marjoram, and cumin — all used to rinse-out the body cavities of the worthy dead.

The use of spices spread through the Middle East to the eastern Mediterranean and Europe. Spices from China, Indonesia, India, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were originally transported overland by donkey or camel caravans. For almost 5000 years, Arab middlemen controlled the spice trade, until European explorers discovered a sea route to India and other spice producing countries in the East.

Europe’s position in the trading chain for spices was at the far end of the spectrum. As a result, Europeans were left without direct access to primary sources, leaving them without any power to contest or negotiate steep prices. This demand for spices gave rise to some of the first truly international trade routes and shaped the structure of the world economy in a way that can still be felt today.

Those who controlled the spices could divert the flow of wealth around the world. During the 1300s, when prices were highest, a pound of nutmeg in Europe was more valuable as a commodity than gold and gems. Spice became the single most important force driving the world’s economy. The result was a transformational change to food preparation in Europe, which aided the food to become a lot less bland and monotonous. But more importantly, spices became another way to define what it meant to be wealthy and powerful. Resulting in a profound social, emotional, and economic impact in Europe. While spices had been consumed in Asia for most likely as long as there had been people living there, in Europe they became a new symbol of high social status.

The consequences of these seemingly insignificant products were cataclysmic. They became the first goods in the history of mankind to have such dramatic and unanticipated consequences. Those consequences included the colonization of the America, after Christopher Columbus took a wrong turn in search of spices, heading westward instead of eastward.

Burgeoning European outposts with various national flags flying, formed a ring around the Indian Ocean which resulted in tremendous wealth for the home countries. Desiring more spice territory and the associated wealth fueled the colonization of any territory deemed suitable for spice crops. The spice trade incited Europeans to come together to design the colonial map which divided up among these domineering nations--Africa, India, South America, and other lands already occupied by people. Ships were circumventing the globe like never before, predating the triangular trade, seeking to satisfy an unquenchable thirst for spices.

Map of African Colonization

Even the aristocracy — one of the biggest consumers of imported spices — began finding it hard to afford their shipments of peppercorn and clove. So, by the 1400s, when navigational equipment had improved to the point that long-haul sailing became possible, the kings and queens of Europe set out to change the balance of world trade by funding spice-hunting missions of their own.

European explorers such as Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and Bartholomeu Dias began their long sea voyages to discover a sea route to the sources of spices. Christopher Columbus went westwards from Europe in 1492 to find a sea route to the lands of spices but found the Americas. In 1497 the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route around the southern tip of Africa by way of Cape of Good Hope, eventually reaching Kozhikode on the southwest coast of India in 1498. Da Gama returned from his voyage with a cargo of nutmegs, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and peppercorns. He was the first to link Europe and Asia by an ocean route, connecting the Atlantic and the Indian oceans. This discovery opened the way for an age of global imperialism and enabled the Portuguese to establish a long-lasting colonial empire along the way from Africa to Asia.

While on the surface, the Crusades were fought because of a desire for religious dominance by Christians over Muslims by reclaiming the Holy Land and the religious ideology for the Reconquista, which in turn also inspired Atlantic colonization. Europeans additionally fought the Crusades in large part to maintain a portal to the spice trade. One of the most important technological exchanges of the spice trade network was the early introduction of maritime technologies to India, the Middle East, East Africa, and China.

The Spice Trade was a pillar of early modern globalism, broadening European economies to an intercontinental scale and connecting European and Asian cultures through food. A range of spices poured into Europe from China, Indonesia, and India that introduced flavor into the European diet and novelty into their medicine. Nutmeg, pepper, ginger, cloves, and more were “believed to cure disorders of the stomach, the intestines, the head, and the chest, and were also used to aid digestion.” Spices were also used in various ways through cooking, helping to preserve meat, mask undesirable odors, and add flavor to food. These multifaceted spices were of great value to populations throughout the European continent, and travelers went to great lengths to bring them to the market.

Spain and Portugal spent much of the 16th century fighting over cloves, while England and the Dutch dueled over nutmeg and mace in Indonesia. Crammed with nutmeg trees and mace, Run, one of the smallest of the Banda Islands in Indonesia, became the world's most valuable real estate for a time in the 1600s, when England gave it up to The Netherlands in a treaty to end hostilities between the two nations. In exchange for Run, The Netherlands swapped a couple of colonies — including what is now known as the island of Manhattan. Historians have considered Run as the genesis of the British Empire. Later after the second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667), England and the Netherland agreed in the Treaty of Breda that the English would keep the island of Manhattan, renaming it from New Amsterdam to New York. In return, Run Island was formally abandoned to the Dutch, giving them a monopoly on nutmeg and mace.

The origins of venture capital can also be traced to the spice trade because coalitions of Dutch merchants invested into a ship that was going to sail to Indonesia. The ship was to be filled up with spices, and then, sail back. Very literally, a venture. On the return, everybody would get a payout based on the profitability of the ship’s cargo.

Today, destinations such as Tanzania’s Zanzibar, have secured acclaim for its positioning in Africa’s spice trade history. Now known as the “Spice Island of Africa”, Zanzibar’s legacy for instance, is deeply steeped in it having been a trading hub that connected India, mainland East Africa, Malaysia, and Portugal specifically, as explorers sought after cheaper prices for spices in huge quantities. It is in fact estimated that four centuries ago, spices from Western Asia made their way to the east coast of Africa by way of traders onboard traditional dhows (a sailing boat with a long, thin hull and one or two sails used mostly in eastern Arabia, eastern African, and southern Asia).

Egyptian records reveal that one of the female Pharaohs Hatshepsut's (1473–1458 BC) most famous exploits was her expedition to Punt (modern Somalia) where aromatic herbs and spices were gained and brought back to Egypt. Examination of the mummy of her descendant, Rameses II (died 1213 BC) revealed that he had peppercorns inserted into each nostril.

The spice trade was so lucrative that after his conquest of Egypt in 332–331 BC, Alexander the Great founded Alexandria as a port for the extension of the spice trade into the Mediterranean. Even though the Arab traders still effectively controlled the spice trade, Alexandria grew wealthy simply on the duties levied on these exports — a fact that provides us with a good indication of just how profitable this trade actually was.

African involvement in the spice trade was minimal before Vasco da Gama’s 1498 journey around the Cape of Good Hope which resulted in a larger role for African countries in the spice trade. At this time, trade between Europe and Asia was flourishing, and European countries were becoming more and more dependent on Asian production as demand for spices increased. However, some spices of particular value to Europe, such as cloves, were simultaneously being developed in Africa and had yet to be exported into the larger spice trade. Vasco da Gama’s exploration throughout the Swahili coast enabled the Portuguese to gain a new sense of appreciation for African potential in the spice trade. Through this, the Portuguese ultimately gained control of African spice exports, exploiting countries like Zanzibar by increasing their growing and manufacture of cloves on a larger scale. This resulted in Zanzibar’s role as a leading clove exporter by the nineteenth century.

Vasco Da Gama introduced new trade partners for Portugal in various African countries along the Swahili coast, including Zanzibar. His expedition establishing the Cape Route through the Indian Ocean, created a new lifeline to African and Indian spices in which Portugal “promptly exercised the right to its exclusive use.” da Gama’s 1498 voyage reveals much about the spice trade, and the Portuguese eye for economic potential in Africa. While stopping in modern-day Kenya, da Gama encountered merchants from India in search of their own spices. This city was full of “quantities of cloves, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, and pepper,” suggesting that the spice trade was well underway in Africa by the time da Gama arrived, despite its focus in Europe and Asia. Ultimately, Portuguese involvement in Africa brought African spice development to considerable prominence in the spice trade throughout the early modern era. In no time, the Omani Arabs set sail towards Zanzibar, later settling, and introducing spice farming.

Indeed, the history of the spices is a major component within commerce and maritime trade. It is no exaggeration to say that America would not have been discovered and colonized were it not for the European desire to break the Arab traders' monopoly on spices. For better and for worse, the world's first crack at globalization and dominance had begun, all in the pursuit of a more flavorful dinner.

Kim Cliett Long, Ed.D., FRSM, FRSPH, FRGS

Support for this Series Provided by:

Artwork courtesy of (c) Jonathan Green.

All additional images are in the public domain.


Da Gama, Vasco. “Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco Da Gama to India, 1497−1499.” World Digital Library,

Doran, Edwin Jr. (1974). "Outrigger Ages". The Journal of the Polynesian Society. 83 (2): 130–140.

Gama, Vasco da. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press.

A Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco Da Gama, 1497–1499, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010, pp. 48. Cambridge Library Collection – Hakluyt First Series.

Nathaniel's Nutmeg: How One Man's Courage Changed the Course of History, Milton, Giles (1999), pp. 5–7

Prakash, Om. “Spices and Spice Trade.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Rabinowitz, Louis (1948). Jewish Merchant Adventurers: A Study of the Radanites. London: Edward Goldston. pp. 150–212.

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1 Comment

Dec 13, 2022

Powerful! Jonathan Green captured the power of the ocean with such ferocious strength and historical sensibility that we can envision the enslaved bodies trapped in its waves, entombed forever. We weep!

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