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Spices & sustainability


For a timeline of the Silk Road and Spices see here
Spices are clearly connected to the theme of ‘plants and people’ but how are they related to sustainability, another major theme of this web site?

What follows is an example of the way that sustainability analysis can be applied to a historical situation. There are, of course, many interpretations, but the process of analysis itself challenges the analyst to think about the future consequences of past actions.


Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

Ancient trade routes, both land and sea, were arteries for the spread of not only luxuries and vital resources, they were also the conduits for ideas so vital to physical and intellectual changes in social organisation and cultural adaptation. There is much to still be learned about early contact between peoples across Afro-Eurasia and the Indonesian trade with India, China and southeast Asia – the global redistribution of plants and animals and the spread of disease.

East-West contact entailed the intellectual challenge of reconciling or overcoming divergent philosophies, religions, ideologies, and world-views. There was, of course, conflict – but the Hellenistic period was marked by the fusion of cultures and artistic forms called syncretism. Greco-Buddhism would spread along the Silk Road to China and give rise to Zen Buddhism. Arising between c. 350 BCE to 450 CE in Bactria and northern India this followed the establishment of the Indo-Greek Kingdom and the Hellenized Kushan empire. Greco-Buddhism is perhaps most evident in in the fusion of artistic styles in sculpture although there may well have been a sharing of ideas through incorporation into Mahayana Buddhism.(see Greco-Buddhism 1) From the 1st century CE Buddhism would diffuse into China, Korea, Japan, Philippines, Siberia, and SE Asia.

Faiths offered explanations and it was along the Silk Road that languages and religions would meet: the Chinese eastern religion of Confucianism; the Indian religions of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism; the Persian religions of Zoroastrianism amd Manichaeism also associated with Nestorianism; and, at the western end, the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Afro-Asiatic languages mixed with Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan . . . Greek with Sanskrit, Semitic, Turkic and others.

Buddhism and Hinduism in Southeast Asia was associated with Indian commerce, culture, and cuisine (notably Malaysia and Indonesia) with Islam arriving in the 10th century and, later, influences from China. Christian missionaries, like Francis Xavier were also active throughout the East.

It was through the spice trade and Dutch merchant ships blown off course to flounder on Australia’s western coast that first drew the world’s attention to the ‘great southern land’.

The spice trade was, through the Age of Discovery into the Enlightenment’s Age of Reason, the opening up of a global economy created by the Spanish trading gold and silver from mines and other sources in Mexico and Peru for goods, especially spices, from Asia and the East Indies.

The Dutch followed Portugal and Spain in establishing an overseas colonial empire their colonial possessions in the East Indies accumulated through the private enterprise of the Dutch East India Company. The VOC, effectively the world’s first multinational stock company, continued the Spanish and Portuguese mercantile tradition of drawing in both the military and government. The Dutch Golden Age, founded on the spice trade, was a botanical opportunity as the Leiden Botanical garden and its medicinal faculty became the world’s best. It was the model of the outstanding physic-botanical garden of the Dutch at Leiden that so impressed Phillip Miller at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London and the lesson of political and economic leverage plants as evidenced through the spice trade that no doubt set Joseph Banks on his course of imperial economic botany. The British East India Company gradually commanded more of the world trade and, with the political and economic ascendancy of France and England during the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution more and more of the world’s land surface was claimed by European powers.

Lured by the quick riches of the spice trade Iberian merchants and European maritime adventurers of the Age of Discovery would complete the first circumnavigation of the world. In the 16th and 17th centuries Far Eastern trading hubs of Malacca and Makassar would be wrested from local sultanates. Changing political fortunes would then see the replacement of Spanish and Portuguese by the Dutch based in Batavia (modern Djakarta) along with the influx of over 1 million Europeans.

Modern mercantilism arrived with the Dutch East India Company and its massive private army and fleet of ships which, for 200 years, achieved a return on stockholder investment of 18% pa, spearheading an extractive colonialism while pioneering the modern stock-market and the market mechanisms that drive economic growth.

Spices were just one important element in the reciprocal exchange of goods and ideas between the West, the Orient, and the Far East. Passing westward were spices, silks, and porcelain while to the East went gold, silver, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Three of the world’s greatest historical trade routes were now in operation: the inland Silk Road, and the maritime Cinnamon and Spice Routes.

As European economy gathered momentum in the Middle Ages financial control moved from Venice and Genoa to Amsterdam and Antwerp. As spices became more widely distributed London’s financial domination in the Victorian era was based on other commodities.

Spice trading spawned world’s first multinational corporations and a merchant class using commercial credit as capitalism spread across the world quickly discovering the benefits of controlling product demand and supply. Early attempts at monopoly were eventually unsuccessful, the worlds first joint stock company, the VOC, finally declared bankrupt as spices once held by the few were now grown in large quantities around the world and markets stabilized. Political and economic fortunes favoured first the Iberian European powers of Spain and Portugal followed by a Dutch Golden Age and the 18th and 19th century rise to prominence of France and Imperial Britain. Advanced maritime and military technology saw a ruthless European exploitation of the native peoples of Asia and the Americas.

By 1800 spices were no longer of global consequence, the small group of islands that from 1500 to 1800 had changed the world, fading into oblivion, almost as mysterious and remote today as they were 500 years ago. First coffee and then tea became the new lifestyle commodities of choice, creating a different trading dynamic.

Though spices still excite the senses and conceal a wealth of history and intrigue they have joined the everyday product lines of multinational food giants. Spices that roused the gods and were, for millennia, only accessed by the world’s most privileged elites are now readily available to all.

Social organization

Social organization is key to sustainability since it is what allows communities to increase in complexity and grow to harness the benefits of scale. This process includes advances in transport and communication including new technologies and ideas and the trading of resources. For most of world history superiority of social organization has translated into the domination or subjugation of one people by another.



Domestication of dromedary camels probably occurred in Somalia and southern Arabia, around 3000-2000 BCE but it revolutionized transport systems and the trade in luxury goods, especially spices.


Over the fifteenth century the old camel trains of the Spice Road were replaced by the faster, cheaper European shipping that plied the world’s sea routes to the Spice Islands, cutting out the costs of numerous middle-men. The old Hellenistic Ptolemaic map of the second century which used coordinates of latitude and longitude was redrawn by Byzantine monks in 1295, and though still in use in 1482 but was quickly supplanted in the Age of Discovery as European charts subsequently included the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, numerous Pacific Islands, and a continuous Southern Ocean.


Maps were invaluable navigation aids for all merchant shipping. A globe of the known world inscribed with trade routes and commodities was a cartographic breakthrough by Martin Behain, a German cloth merchant living in Lisbon in 1490 and in the same year Henricus Martellus of Florence produced a map based in that of Ptolemy but which now had the additional information following the voyage of Bartholomew Diaz. Portuguese sailors had inherited much of their navigational skill from the Arabs especially the technology of astrolabes, compass, quadrant, and sextant. Prince Henry (Henry the Navigator) (1394-1460) built up solar tables and star charts. The astrolabe was replaced with the cross-staff for measuring latitude. The box compass was replaced by the mobile gimbal or pivoting compass. Ports had ben established in the Azores and Canaries as temporary havens and some re-provisioning as knowledge of currents and seasonal winds in the Atlantic improved.

Caravels were designed to take a lateen sail which allowed ships to sail closer to the wind.


Trading dynasties of the Italian city-states of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa dominated trade in the Mediterranean that originated from land routes from the East connected to the Levantine port cities of Acre, Tyre, and Sidon. Sea routes from the East up the Red Sea and Persian Gulf would trade from Cairo and Alexandria. Sooner or later private armies built up by these nation-states would be taken over by governments eager to cash in on the benefits and glories colonial expansion. In East Asia Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of Sumatra and the Malay Archipelago formed part of a continuous culture that included Cambodia, Thailand and India. This was the Srivijaya culture centred on the north coast of Sumatra where it attracted Arab, Chinese and Indian traders, the ports linked to land routes.

In the 13th century the key port of Malacca, one of the busiest in the world at this time, controlled a critical trading lane. Islam was spreading through the region, the Hindu prince of Malacca becoming a Muslim Sultan. When Constantinople was siezed by Ottoman Turks in 1453 the Silk Road was effectively closed to European traders, merchants from Spain and Portugal the determined to secure Malacca and eastern trade routes to the elusive and highly desired Spice Islands of the Moluccas.


Trade in spices is now global with clove and nutmeg production centred in India, Indonesia (cloves), Vietnam, Malaysia and the Americas.

Key points

Spices kick-started today’s global economy. For 400 years it was spices that powered global economic growth as gold and silver mined and extracted from th eAmericas by Europeans were exchanged for nutmeg, mace, cloves and other goods available only in the east.

The search for an eastern sea route to the Spice Islands begins with the Iberian appropriation of islands in the Atlantic, Canaries (Spain, 1402), Madeiras (Portugal, 1418), and Azores (Portugal, c. 1427). Following Muslim control of the Spice Road after taking Constantinople in 1453, led to the Age of Discovery which included rounding of the Cape of Good Hope (Diaz 1488), the first direct sea voyage to Asia (Da Gama 1498 arrives in Calicut), and the first circumnavigation of the world (Magellan and Delbano 1519-1522). Following a western route Columbus would reach the Bahamas in 1492, thus discovering the Americas.

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