History of Spices is very interesting. It tells us how Spices have been the dominating commodity of the word trade for centuries. Many wars were fought only to dominate the spice trade. Spice trade has shaped the world history as we know it today.
Spices and herbs have been used by men since ancient times for their health benefits. It is believed since early man lived with nature, they accidently discovered certain leaves or nuts or barks that enhanced the taste or had good aroma. The leaves, roots, seeds barks that had nice aroma became in demand. Over the years, spices and herbs were used for medicinal purposes.
India is blessed by nature and is home to many spices and herbs because of its climatic conditions. Today almost every state in India has at-least one or two spices grown there. Spices indigenous to India (such as cardamom and turmeric) were cultivated as early as the 8th century BC.
Spices and herbs such as black pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, and cardamom have been used by Indians for thousands of years for both culinary and health purposes. Medical writings of Charaka (1st century) and Sushruta II (2nd century) referenced spices and herbs. Sushruta II also used spices and herbs such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, and pepper for healing purposes. Spices such as cardamom, ginger, black pepper, cumin, and mustard seed were included in ancient herbal medicines for different types of health benefits. Ayurvedic medicine, refers to the use of cloves, cardamom, turmeric and many other spices and herbs for different health benefits.
The earliest written record in India on Spices is found in the Vedas – such as the Rig Veda (around 6000 BC) and the others – Yajurveda, Samaveda and the Atharveda. The Rig Veda contains references to various spices. There is also a reference to Black Pepper in the Yajur Veda.
India has been considered the ‘Spice Bowl’ of the world since early pre-historic times. History tells us India was invaded time and again by tribes like Arabians, Romans, Egyptians to gain control on the Spice and other natural resources of India. Finally Portuguese, French and Britishers moved on from trade to colonise India.
Epicurean Rome was spending a fortune on Indian spices, silks, brocades, Dhaka muslin and cloth of gold, etc. It is believed that the Parthian wars were being fought by Rome largely to keep open the trade route to India. Indian spices and other famed products were the main lure for crusades and expeditions to the East.
Spices from China, Indonesia, India and Ceylon (now Sri lanka) were originally transported by land from one place to another by donkey and camels in a caravan. For almost 5000 years the Arabs controlled the spice trade until the Europeans discovered a sea route to India. The Arabians used mythological stories to succeed in acquiring the first monopoly on the spice trade.
Many sea voyages and explorations were done with an eye to explore and obtain spices in a cheaper way, by people like Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and Christopher Columbus among them. In 1497 Vasco da Gama of Portugal discovered Kozhikode on the southwest coast of India in 1498. He returned back with a huge cargo of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and peppercorns. Spice has always been the highest trading commodity.
By early 15th century Portuguese gained the control of the spice trade of the Malabar coast of India and Ceylon. Until the end of the 16th century, their monopoly on the spice trade to India was exceptionally profitable for the Portuguese. Over half of Portugal’s state revenue came from West African gold and Indian pepper and other spices. The proportion of the spices greatly outweighed the gold. For three centuries the nations of Western Europe-Portugal, Spain, France, Holland, and Great Britain – fought sea-wars for the control of Spice routes and trade. This madness and greed to control the spice trade led to the colonization of India. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the Spanish, and the British, all established monopoly over certain parts of spice trade. This era saw the formation of the Trading Empire which was known as The British East India Company. This later on laid the basis for the colonisation of India by British.
After British came to India they faced challenges from the Portuguese, The Dutch and the French. The Portuguese and the Dutch soon lost it to British East India Company. The only strong rival were the French. The British efforts to establish a complete monopoly over trade and commerce in India brought them into conflict with the French and three long battles were fought between these two European countries during a period of 20 years (1744 AD-1763 AD) with the aim of capturing commercial as well as territorial control.
The French lost third Carnatic War at Wandiwash and subsequently signed treaty of Paris with the British in Europe. The victory in Carnatic war prepared the ground for the British to establish their supremacy in India. With the victory of Wandiwash the British East India Company had no rival left in India. The British gradually went on to colonise India.
By the advent of 19th century, spices started to be grown in other parts of the world. Spices not only had an impact on our food habits but resulted in many explorations and voyages, and also shaped the world as we know it today.
Spices board of India was set up in 1987 to administer the spice trading. India is still considered a hub for growing spices.
Natural history magazine: On the Origin of Spices | Natural History Magazine
The McCormick Science Institute: History of Spices – McCormick Science Institute
The Spice Journal: History of Spices in India | The Spice Journal