When I think of spice at this time of year, giving the hint of the winter to come in England, the image conjured up is of warm comforting smells, log fires, rooms scented with cinnamon and cloves; visions of warm far away places. These images lead to thoughts of European explorers from the 15th and 16th centuries bringing these precious materials from exotic plants to the shores of their homelands. There is such a rich history behind the movement of spices throughout the world which in itself evokes dreams of swashbuckling pirates and heroic explorers.
The earliest documented evidence of spices being used was in the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt during the New Kingdom Era — also known as the Golden Age, (1558 to 1085 BC) where spices such as cassia and cinnamon were used in embalming, and frankincense, myrrh, cedar of Lebanon in perfumery. The Romans also traded in spices via what was known as the “Cinnamon route”.
Islamic traders of the opening years of the Anno Domini period introduced these precious substances, to the West via the Crusaders of the Middle Ages who travelled through their lands to reach Jerusalem. These traders controlled the spice trade and originated from the Ottoman Empire which had, in the 13th century taken over the ancient Byzantine Empire with its centre in Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey). Spices from Egypt, Syria, Iraq and other important trading centres lying astride the trade routes to India, Persia and the Mediterranean were transported to the major towns and cities of Europe.
The explorers of the 15th century were driven by the search for new routes to bring spices back to Europe which led to the circumnavigation of the world. The key of the spice trade was simple: to control supply of these materials which were in enormous demand by controlling the routes by which they were brought back. The first sea voyage from Europe to Asia was made by Vasco da Gama in order to open a sea route into Asia to break the monopoly of the Islamic traders.
The story of Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas during the search for new route to the east in 1492 is well known. His navigation did not lead him to the east, but instead he arrived at the previously undiscovered Americas which he named as the West Indies to convince his paymasters and even himself that he had succeeded in his quest. Columbus named the “New World’s” natives Indians and their sacred chillies “red pepper” — two amusing misnomers that have confused people to this day.
The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan made the first successful attempt to circumnavigate the earth in 1521 during his journey to discover a new route to the “Spice Islands”, Sumatra, Aceh, and Timor, now known as the Maluku Islands, or Moluccas in Indonesia.
Francis Drake was the first English explorer to circumnavigate the world in the footsteps of the Spanish and Portuguese, mainly following and attacking their ships returning from their new conquests in the Americas and the East laden with precious cargo of spices and precious metals.
Trade between the East and West continued to accelerate as did competition between European countries to gain a stronghold on the trade resulting in the formation of the British East India Company and the Dutch Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie in the opening years of the 17th century. These were by far the two biggest players in the trade with the East until in 1664, the French Compagnie Des Indes was established.
Competition between the colonial East India companies reached a peak when the trading post of Singapore was annexed in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles, a member of the Governor of Penang’s Staff in Malaya became obsessed with the necessity to stop the continuing Dutch usurpation of British interests in the East Indies. Today, the tiny island remains as the central hub of sea transport across the world and it owes its modern multi-cultural society to the days of European colonial trading.
Without the trade of the Spice Road and the Silk Road, the cultures of East and West would never have met and the delicious amalgamation of scents and flavours, which epitomise our seasons, would never have existed.
Text: Loretta Wong Image: James Mackay
Cinnamon is the bark of a small, evergreen tree native to parts of Asia, which was once considered as valuable as gold. It was used in ancient Egyptian witchcraft and on funeral pyres in Rome. Up until Medieval times, Middle Eastern traders maintained their monopoly on the European sale of cinnamon by keeping its true origins a secret. Herodotus records that Arabian Cinnamon birds brought the sticks from an unknown country to construct their nests, and were robbed of them by the Arabs through sneaky trickery. Cinnamon has traditionally been used to cure colds and toothache, and has been proposed for use as an insect repellent. It is said to be impossible to swallow a tablespoon of powdered cinnamon without choking.
Nutmeg is the egg-shaped seed of an evergreen tree indigenous to southeast Asia and Australasia. In the 17th Century, the Dutch gave the British control of New Amsterdam (New York) in exchange for Run Island, then the only source of nutmeg. It is said that at one time, in England, possession of a few nutmeg nuts would enable financial independence for life. In Elizabethan times, it was believed that nutmeg could ward off the plague. In large doses, nutmeg is a highly-dangerous hallucinogen. It was once used to induce abortion. Nutmeg is a traditional ingredient of mulled wine, and ground nutmeg is smoked in India.
Ginger is the root of the plant Zingiber officinale, which originated in China. Historically, it was known as ‘Grains of paradise.’ Not only is ginger a commonly-used cooking spice, but it is also used world-wide to treat a variety of illnesses. Medical studies suggest that ginger may benefit those suffering from arthritis, diabetes, and heart disease. In China, ginger is sliced and heated in Coca Cola as a cure for colds. In Indonesia, ginger is used to reduce fatigue and prevent rheumatism. In India, headaches are treated by the application of ginger paste to the temples. In the Philippines, ginger is used to treat sore throats. Ginger has also been found effective as a cure for seasickness and morning sickness.
Saffron is derived from the dried stigma of the purple saffron crocus, native to Southwest Asia. It is the world’s most expensive spice by weight. The saffron crocus is sterile and its reproduction is dependent on human assistance. It has been cultivated for over 3,000 years. Saffron was first documented in Assyria in the 7th Century BC, and the Minoans depicted its therapeutic use in their palace frescos centuries earlier. The ancient Greek legend of Crocus and Smilax offers an account of the crocus’s origins. Cleopatra was said to have bathed in saffron to make her lovemaking more pleasurable, and Alexander was said to have used it in his bath to heal his battle wounds. The Sumerians used saffron in magic potions and the Ancient Persians scattered saffron threads across beds and sprinkled them into tea as a cure for melancholy. Non-Persians were wary of the Persian use of saffron as a drug and aphrodisiac. Saffron is widely used in cooking, dying food a luminous yellow-orange, and in perfumery. In China and India saffron is used as a fabric dye, and Buddhist monks wear saffron-coloured robes. The adulteration of saffron was first recorded in the Middle Ages, when those caught selling it were executed under the Safranschou code.