...Oh those Spice Islands: sailors on those seas told how they'd be overcome by intoxicating aromas sweeping off the Moluccas--kind of like approaching New York City through northern New Jersey refineries, only pleasant.

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A Short History of Spices,
Through Western Eyes

(e-SoupSong 4: August 1, 2000)

ONCE UPON A TIME, spices were hidden in secret pockets all over the world.

Anise, caraway, celery seed, coriander seed, cumin, dill seed, and fennel seed--all members of the carrot family--these began life around the Mediterranean, in Europe and the Mideast. Likewise saffron in Persia; sesame in Egypt; fenugreek and white and yellow mustard seeds in Europe. By classical times in Western civilization, discerning eyes and palates had brought these aromatic flavorings out of hiding--cultivated them--catalogued them, used them in religious rites, buried their dead in them, prescribed them as medicine, and eaten them with relish. They were the known spices of the Western world.

We know that because lots are mentioned in the records of ancient Egypt. And in the Bible. And in Babylonian and Assyrian records. Then Herodotus, Theophrastus, and Strabo wrote about them in ancient Greece, still before the Christian Era. Then Tacitus and Pliny wrote about them in 1st century AD Rome. Allspice? Never heard of it. Nutmeg? Pepper? Star anise? Hardly a word.

That's because allspice and vanilla were tucked up in the tropical Americas, known only to Aztecs and other natives in the New World.

And because star anise, cassia (the "lesser cinnamon"), and black mustard were growing in far away China...Pepper, cardamom, and cinnamon in India and Sri Lanka...Ginger, galangal, and turmeric in Indonesia...Cloves on just 5 tiny islands in the Indonesian Moluccas...And nutmeg/mace--that crazy two-for-one spice--on even fewer Banda islands in the Southern Moluccas.

Thus it was that Sinbad, intrepid merchant from Baghdad (as told in the Arabian Nights), sailed to Cinnamon Island and Pepper Island on his 5th voyage. Better left unsaid how he tricked those monkeys out of their coconuts to trade for all those spices.

Oh those Spice Islands: sailors on those seas told how they'd be overcome by intoxicating aromas sweeping off the Moluccas--kind of like approaching New York City through northern New Jersey refineries, only pleasant.


The thing about spices was that they were precious; they were rare; people literally died for them. Spices? Oh yeah: spices, gold, and precious jewels-all in the same category. That's hard to imagine in today's world where supermarkets put up competing racks of commercial spices...and where souqs and bazaars knock you flat with whole, fresh, dried, and powdered heaps of them.

To understand that ancient rage for spices, we'd have to think in terms of fresh beluga caviar...fresh "black diamonds," those fabulous truffles from Perigord...belon oysters sauvage...ground rhinocerous horn...or the livers of bears. These are today's precious commodities. Some entrepreneurs break the law and put themselves in harm's way to get them, driven by their lust for money. Consumers will and do pay a fortune for them-craving the rare taste, wanting to show off, hoping to see their manhood burgeon from reputed aphrodisiac effects. They're just like spices in olden days.


So the bottom line is that anise, coriander, cumin, saffron, mustard and the others just weren't enough to suit the upper class of Mediterranean cultures. They wanted more and, thanks to truly ancient traders, they could have more. They just had to pay for it.

Somehow, someway, cassia and cinnamon found their way from China and Java to Queen Hatshepsut in ancient Egypt by 1500 BCE. They were a big favorite in the mummification process. Then, for heaven's sake, God Himself directed Moses around 1490 BCE to use cassia and cinnamon to anoint His tabernacle (Exodus 30).


The pieces of tree bark called cassia and cinnamon were light and easy to carry. They didn't spoil. But they had a long, long way to travel--some 5,000 miles. Possibly they first came overland from China by caravan-trudged west across the top of India, through Persia and Mesopotamia to the Med. Later sea routes were devised to shorten the journey or to get around trade monopolies: laden ships were launched first from Basra off the Persian Gulf...then from India...then from Asia itself.

Phoenician traders were part of it. Starting around 1200 BCE they traded from the Persian Gulf into the Med, all the way through the Straits of Gilbralter and, according to the Periplus of Hanno, all the way around Africa as well. They traded in spices, but they traded a lot of other things too.

It was the Sabean traders in southern Arabia who really locked up the spice trade from India and Asia. They specialized. They started off with the frankincence and myrrh that grew in their own backyards. Then they sailed up the Persian Gulf to pick up the last leg of the cassia and cinnamon trade from Asia: they were the ones who helped out Queen Hatshepsut and Moses. Then they started branching out even more, getting more and more daring on their voyages east. Inching along the coast, they picked their way across what's now Iran and Pakistan to arrive in India...and its fabled Malabar coast. BONANZA: besides cassia and cinnamon, they found other goodies--pepper, ginger, cardamom, cloves. And to protect their trade they told outrageous and absurd stories about where they came from--which the classical world bought hook, line, and sinker.

Oh sure, they said, cassia only grows in one spot in Arabia, in a shallow lake that's surrounded by horrible winged animals, like bats. Yeah, that's right: We cover our bodies and faces with the hides of oxen then wade into the lake to collect the cassia--and the whole time these creatures are flying at us, trying to poke our eyes out (Herodotus, Book III). A good one!

It was only a matter of time before Europe got wise--but it was a long time. In the end, it was Marco Polo who did the consciousness raising. While briefly jailed after a sea fight between Genoa and Venice in 1298, he dictated to a fellow prisoner the story of his early travels to China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India, dwelling on the spices that grew there. The cat was out of the bag.

Now the race for spices was on--and traffic started going the other way.

Bartolomeu Dias sailed from Portugal around Africa in 1487--and Vasco da Gama finished the job by landing on the Malabar coast of India in 1498. In de Camoes' The Lusiads and in Meyerbeer's opera L'Africaine, da Gama claims he did it all for "la gloire": "Wondrous country, lush garden, radiant temple, I greet you. This is paradise...you are mine! My own New World!" Well, maybe for money too.

Italian Cristophoro Colombo sailed west for Spain in 1492, desperately seeking spices. He was disconsolate about not finding them, looking for them everywhere and finding them nowhere. ("The island is beautiful...I believe there are many herbs and many trees that are worth much in Europe for dyes and for medicines; but I do not know them and this causes me great sorrow"--imagine, he didn't have a botanist along.)

Italian John Cabot sailed northwest from England in 1498. He reached Greenland, then Newfoundland; it got colder and colder and colder. He just couldn't find Japan anywhere.

Portuguese Magellan (Fernao de Magalhaes), who knew India and the Spice Islands well from his service in Portugal's navy, fell out of favor with his own king and ended up sailing west for Spain's Charles V in 1519-intending nothing less than to circumnavigate the globe to reach the Spice Islands. Success--to the tune of groaning shipfuls of cloves, ginger, nutmegs, and cinnamon. Except that Magellan himself did not make it: he was slain in the Philippines in a local war. Sir Frances Drake would repeat the feat in 1577, sailing on The Golden Hind for England and claiming California for Queen Elizabeth.

Incredibly, the English also thought it worth a try to find the Spice Islands by sailing through Arctic seas across the top of Russia. Sir Hugh Willoughby sailed for Henry VIII in 1553. Didn't get far. Got holed up in the White Sea, from which he made a 1,500-mile journey south by sled to Moscow to pay his compliments to Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible. They made trade arrangements--but not in spices.

Arabs, Phoenicians, Chinese, Malays, Indians, Greeks, Romans, Portuguese, Spanish, English, Dutch, all loading up their dhows, biremes, junks, triremes, galleons, and "East Indiamen" with the precious flavorings that had been so carefully tucked away for so many millennia. Soon the world was awash in them. And so it was that the hunger for spices led to man's discovery of the planet earth.

Best regards, Pat Solley

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