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The History of Exploration: The Spice Road

Beginning from the luxurious Silk Road to the lesser known Spice Road. This lesser known counterpart over time came to be known as the maritime Silk Road. 


Though sharing its name with the ever popular Silk Road, The Spice Road has been used for years before the Silk Road’s popularisation. As early as 2000 BC, spices from Asian countries were frequently traded within its pipeline.


Unlike the Silk Road which dealt with a variety of luxury items, the Spice Road was much better known for trading a variety of spices. From the islands of Java to the spice hub of India, spices from all over made its way through this trade route. And though travellers initially only travelled short distances, as trade grew, more ambitious and lengthy trips began to take hold. Traders would frequently brave the treacherous seas past the African continent to deliver their cargo.


Cinnamon from Sri Lanka, cassia from china and cloves from New Guinea, these exotic spices were often traded for silks, gemstones and ivory at which the traders would return to their homeland carrying the beautifully scented, exotic spices.


 A Variety of traded spices

Image: judepics, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons


The Spice of Life

To many today, it may seem strange that trading such long distances for simple food flavourings is absolutely absurd. Yet, the word “spice” comes from the Latin species, which means an item of special value, as compared to ordinary articles of trade. Due to the exoticness and rarity of these spices however, demand rose and prices began to soar, hereby changing the meaning of the word entirely. 


Perhaps due to their strangeness or their inherent properties, many spices were often used for rituals and medicines. Add on top of that the fact that a lot of these spices could only grow in specific regions and you’ll slowly come to understand how these little food flavourings began to embody the word for “special value”.


 Map of Trade routes used over time

Image: World_Topography.jpg: NASA/JPL/NIMAderivative work: Uxbona, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


How did the Spice Road originate?

Though the spice trade had been in frequent use as far back as 1500 BC and some semblance of usage as far back as 2000 BC, early on it was more associated with overland routes. The first maritime trade routes were mainly through the Bay of Bengal between India and the Islands of Southeast Asia. However, the full extent of the trade route and the means for its growth was not in full force until the Cape Route past the Cape of Good Hope in Africa was discovered. 


This route which basically drove the world economy well into the renaissance era, was one of the prime reasons for Europe’s dominance in the East during later years.



Image: Iziko William Fehr Collection (Castle of Good Hope), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


When was it fully used?

Thanks to the many campaigns of Alexander the Great who ventured all the way to India, spices such as cinnamon and pepper have been a popular trade good throughout Europe for years. However, during the late Middle Ages, the prices soared due to demand not meeting supply. The goods were often passed from middleman to middleman, skyrocketing its price. Couple that with Arab and Muslim traders often being in positions to control parts of the trade route and an alternative trade route became ever so lucrative for the inhabitants of Europe.


It was as such that an alternative to the land based spice trade was sought. After a few attempts using routes by Portuguese navigators, the extended sea route was discovered past the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. This extended the sea trade from India all the way to Portugal, breaking the Arabian hold over the spice trade. Within a few decades, half of the land-based Asian spice trade shifted from road to sea, hereby giving the sea route its name: The Spice Road.


 Calicut during the peak of European trade

Image: BRAUN AND HOGENBERG,, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


The Legacy of the Spice Road

The spices were often proclaimed to be more than just flavourings for food. Myths and legends were often woven around them to hide their origins and both control the value and hide its methods of cultivation from the European market. Phoenixes, giant eagles, serpents and dragons were some of the few tall tales that were told about different spices.


These methods worked for years to maintain the profits of traders. They were small, dried and easy to transport, making them the perfect commodity. With the wealth that came with its control, the power and influence of many empires were often determined by who had the most control over the supply of spices within the trade routes.  


The Portuguese in particular benefited the most from the new Spice Road, especially in early years. As the first discoverer of the Cape Route, sailors and traders were free to establish a huge string of naval outposts. This network connected all the way from Lisbon to Nagasaki, past the coasts of Africa, the Middle East, India and South Asia, eventually becoming part of the Portuguese Empire.


Exploring the modern day

As you can see, exploration in the past as it is now was not easy, in fact it’s safe to say it never was. But as with any endeavour, one must set a goal in order to achieve anything. The Portuguese had a goal of finding an alternative trade route to break the Arabian stranglehold on the Spice Trade. If you truly want to live an adventurous life and explore the world, set a goal and set it early. The best thing that can happen early on is you fail, for it gives you the knowledge you need early on to succeed!


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