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Nowadays, when spices cost so little we can enjoy some black pepper, or the delicious aroma of cinnamon, ginger or clove. It seems incredible that these fragrant seeds and leaves were very expensive years ago, very difficult to get and transport. Men were willing to put in danger their life traveling to the most remote places of the planet, if needed, for a little nutmeg or Cassia.


Spices and herbs have played a dramatic part in the development of Western civilization. The Spices today are abundant and are mainly used as condiments. In ancient and medieval times, they were used for medicines, perfumes, incense and as condiments.


The traffic of spices begins before history is recorded. Archaeologists estimate that by the 50,000 B.C., the primitive man had discovered that parts of certain aromatic plants made the food tasted better. To reconstruct what could have happened, we can imagine that a man was about to cook a piece of meat in a hole in the ground. He saw some leaves and it occurred to him that if he wrapped the meat with the leaves, these would prevent the meat from filling with dirt and ashes. Covered the meat with the leaves and left buried in the hot hole. Then, to his surprise, he found that the leaves gave a new flavor to the food. In that moment, humanity discovered the art of seasoning.



Our word "aroma" was the ancient Greek word for "spice". The oldest use of spices that is known (sesame seeds), comes from an Assyrian myth. This myth says that the gods drank sesame wine the night before they created the earth.

Readings about ceremonies and primitive religious rites show how spices were used in the cult. In the legends of the ancient world there are many facts related to his magical powers. The Medical knowledge is based on the healing properties of aromatic plants, which to recent times, were authentic folk medicines. Sometimes more valuable than gold itself, spices were such an expensive item, that their places of origin were the best-kept trade secrets of all time. Another of the oldest stories about spices comes from China, where ginger, cassia, turmeric and anise grow abundantly. Emperor Shen-Nung, who lived in 2800 B.C. and founded Chinese medicine, wrote a treatise on herbal medicine and celebrated regularly spice markets. India was the homeland of pepper, the most sought spice, as well as hot pepper, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, coriander, cumin and sesame. Sri Lanka produced cinnamon and the East Indies had clove, nutmeg and mace.

3000 B.C. to 200 A.C.

The Arab Monopoly

For centuries since 950 B.C. (or before), the Arabs were the masters of this dangerous and lucrative trade.

In the Old Testament of the Bible, Ezekiel 27-22, it is recorded: “the merchants from Sheba and Raamah traded with you; they changed your objects for the best of all kinds of spices, all the precious stones and gold”. The Arabs kept Europe in the dark of the origin of many of Oriental spices. They really bought the spices from the Indians, Chinese and merchants of Java Island who traded in Indian ports, but when they were questioned by their possible European rivals, they told terrifying stories of the dangers they faced collecting spices in distant and mysterious lands. Mohammedanism gave great impetus to Arab activities in the spice trade. Mohammed was born around 570 A.D., married a widow of a rich spice merchant and so their Islamic missionaries made their way to Asia, proclaiming their faith at the same time they collected spices.


In order to understand the great prestige that spices had in ancient times, we must remember that the

Food was neither good nor good tasting. There was no piece of meat that could be stored, so they killed the animal in the fall and salted it. There were no potatoes, no corn, no tea, no coffee or chocolate. There were no lemons with which they could prepare refreshing and acidic drinks and there was no sugar with which they could sweeten. However, a little pepper, a little cinnamon or ginger mixed with the coarsest dish, made it tasty. The demand for spices expanded like a wave across Europe, even in distant places where civilization did not arrive. The barbarians of the north quickly learned that spices kept the meat fresh and reduced the problem of distribution in their constant looting.


The first real evidence we have of the use of spices comes from the writings and artistic work of ancient civilizations. Hieroglyphs of the Great Pyramid of Giza show workers eating garlic and onions for strength.

In Genesis, Joseph's older brothers sold him to a caravan of spice merchants, who were traveling to Egypt. Later in the Book of Kings, the Queen of Sheba paid tribute to King Solomon with spices, gold and precious stones. The Egyptians burned myrrh, incense and bedellium to scare away evil spirits and calm the gods. The upper classes used them as disinfectants to purify the air they breathed. In the embalming process, spices were among the main substances, and for that purpose were mostly imported cassia and cinnamon.


Spices such as anise, caraway, coriander, and poppy seeds were used to preserve the meat, as flavorings, condiments and even as cosmetics. In 1453 B.C., the first Olympic players in Greece celebrated their victory wearing laurel and parsley wreaths. Around the year 400 B.C. Hippocrates, the Greek doctor, listed more than 400 medicines made with spices and herbs, half of which are still used today.

An extensive route of the spice trade "The Golden Road of Samarkand", extended through the desserts of South Asia and the Middle East. For centuries, the Arabs controlled this route and made fortunes as intermediaries, trading locally produced products, African products and spices from Far East. Donkey caravans and then camels followed this route carrying products to faraway lands where there was a great demand.

Spices were also used as a sign of worship, as when the wise men offered incense and myrrh, along with gold, to the Infant Jesus.

200 B.C. to 1200 A.D.

Spices in the Middle Ages

As their Empire became more dominant, the Romans began sailing from Egypt to India to trade with spice.  It was a difficult two-year trip across the Indian Ocean to get pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger. By the first century, a Greek merchant sailor, Hippalus, realized that the changing monsoon winds blew southeast from April to October and from northeast from October to April. Instead of fighting the winds, merchants began to take advantage of them and so they made their trips less than a year.

During Roman times, spices were only available to the upper class, which valued them as expensive as gold. In year 65 A.C., as a show of honor, the Romans burned a year's supply of cinnamon at the funeral of Nero's wife. The Goths took Rome in 410. Their leader, Alaric I, ordered 15,000 kilos of peppercorns, precious gold, jewelry and silk. This package was his price for forgiving the population's life. The use of spices and trade in Europe declined after the fall of the Roman Empire. Whether the spices arrived by sea or land, they had to enter through Cairo, Egypt. "Whoever is the master and lord of Cairo, "said the merchant pilot," may call himself year and lord of Christendom and of all the islands and places where spices grow, because, by necessity, all spice merchandise can come from any address and can be sold only in the land of the Sultan. ”


From Cairo the spices were taken by boat to Alexandria and there they were bought and taken by boat by the

Venetians and Genoese, who handled the strong demand for spices and enriched themselves quickly. The spice trade, calculating the fulfillment of the demand of the medieval alpine cuisine, which was huge, not only by volume, but also by value, was worth, at least, one million coins annually. A Venetian merchant returning from Alexandria with his ship full of sacks of spices brought a shipment worth 200,000 coins.


During the Middle Ages in Europe, a pound of saffron cost as much as a horse, a pound of ginger had the price of a sheep; a pound of mace could buy three sheep, and two pounds could buy a cow; the clove was worth an equivalent of US$20 per pound. Pepper, always the best price, was counted grain by grain. The guards of the ports of London, until the time of Isabel I, had to sew the bags of their suits to ensure that spices were not stolen. In the eleventh century, many people maintained their accounts in pepper; taxes and rents were paid with this spice, a sack of pepper was worth the life of a man. During the Middle Ages, one of the ways in which wealth was made visible was the use of spices in the food. Spices and herbs were used, both, to color the dishes and to add flavor.

1200 to 1500 A.D.

Europeans explore routes of the East Indies

In the Middle Ages, European culture developed and the demand for spices was the key to the expansion of

World trade. Many of the most valuable spices came from China, India and the Indonesian Islands, including the Moluccas or the Spice Islands. Europeans dealt directly with these oriental cultures for spices and explorers were looking for new worlds with the idea of ​​finding exclusive trade routes.


One day, in the year of 1271, a young Venetian set off with his father and uncle on a 24-year trip that took them all over Asia, as far as China. His name was Marco Polo and the book of his travel stories would lead Venice to bankruptcy, the destruction of the Arab Empire, the discovery of the New World and the trade opening in the East. Venice remained prosperous until 1498. Suddenly the European merchants understood that they could reach those places by boat, much of the mystery was removed from spice lands and Europe woke up to a new challenge. At this time the Portuguese and Spanish found spice prices so high that they began to look for their own route to the producing lands of spices. The Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, to get to Calcutta, India. He returned with pepper, cinnamon, ginger, jewelry and treats for the Portuguese to continue trading with the Indian princes.


First Portugal, later Spain and England, then Holland and eventually the United States, recently founded, entered one of the most exciting contests in history. For almost four centuries, the major Western powers competed for the East and fought among themselves for control of the lands that produced spices.


In 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in America while searching for a direct western route to the Islands of the Spices (Spice Islands). Although he did not find the Spice Islands, Columbus took allspice, vanilla and red peppers from the West Indies to Spain.

Siglo XV al siglo

15th century to 17th century

Wars begin to control the spice trade

En el Renacimien

In the Renaissance, the middle class grew and the popularity of spices too. A conflict developed to see who would dominate that thriving trade. Wars for the Spice Islands of Indonesia started between the European nations that were in expansion and continued for 200 years, between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries.


Spain, Portugal, England and Holland fought for control. Portuguese merchants arrived in the East sailing south around Africa and through the Indian Ocean. Their Spanish rivals sought another route to the spice producing regions. Spain's late entrance to the spice race was accelerated, not only because of Columbus, but also because of the navigator and explorer Fernando de Magallanes, who 5 years later succeeded in making the first trip to the East, heading across the Atlantic in 1519. Although Magallanes died in the Philippines two years later and four or five ships of the expedition were lost, the remaining ship, the Victoria, returned to Spain with enough spices to pay for the entire expedition. However, Spain continued in the adventure of spices for a short time, King Carlos of Spain sold his rights to the Spice Islands to his brother-in-law, Juan III of Portugal. The gold of the Incas was a bigger attraction for the Spaniards. Meanwhile, Holland began to thrive by supplying ships and crew to the Portuguese. In the early 16th century, the Dutch took control of navigation and commerce in the North of Europe. By the end of the century, their influence had expanded and they entered the spice trade, taking control of the Portuguese. They made several expeditions in the West Indies and made new dealings with local rulers. At the beginning of the 17th century, Dutch control was more complete. Holland conquered the city of Malacca in 1641. This conquest brought them control of the Mayan Peninsula and nearby islands. In 1658, they took control of the Ceylon cinnamon trade. In 1663, they established exclusive trade rights in the Pepper ports along the Malabar Coast of West India. At the end of the century, more Indonesian islands fell under Dutch control, giving Holland rights over Asian spice trade without challenges.

When prices fell, the Dutch planned to keep high profits by burning trees of Cinnamon and clove. They put the nutmeg in “lime milk”, a solution that they thought would prevent their rivals bought these seeds to plant their own trees and that did not affect the taste of the nut. France was a great power in the seventeenth century, but it did not have a large part in developing trade because did not invest in the exploration of spices. However, the French helped take power away from the Dutch on the market. They stole enough clove, cinnamon and nutmeg without lime milk, to start plantations on islands controlled by France in the Indian Ocean.

16th to 18th century

English exploration begins

In the 1500s, the English sought their own route to the east in the north. They did not find any, but in 1600, Isabel I registered the British Company of East India and began to take control in India. In 1780, the Dutch and the English fought for the spice trade and destroyed the Dutch Company of East India. In 1799 the Dutch lost all the spice trade centers and the company closed.

17th to 20th century

Americans enter the spice trade


The Americans were introduced to the world spice race in 1672. Elihu Yale, a former employee from the British Company of East India in Madras, India, born in Boston, started his own business of spice trade. The fortune he made would be used one day to open Yale University. In 1797, Captain Jonathan Carnes, sailed to Salem, Massachusetts from Indonesia with a large cargo of Pepper. He had negotiated directly with Asian natives of the place to trade the spices through the European monopoly. Massachusetts became the center of the North American spice trade. The first trip produced a 700% profit and trade continued to grow. About a thousand American ships made that trip around the world for the next 90 years.

As their influence grew, the Americans made many new contributions to the world of spices. Texan settlers developed chili powder in 1835 as a simpler way of preparing Mexican dishes. In 1889, food researchers in Watsonville, California, developed techniques to dehydrate garlic and onions. In 1906, Eugene Durkee wrote the first standards for the purity of spices under the U.S. Food and Drug Purity Act. World War II attracted interest in international food to the U.S. because the soldiers brought to their homes a variety of foods they found in Europe and Asia. The use of oregano, the “herb for pizza” grew 5200% in the decade after the war.

At present, Asia produces most of the spices that once ruled the trade, including cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, clove and ginger. However, more and more spices are being planted in the Western hemisphere along with a wide variety of herbs and aromatic seeds. Brazil is the biggest pepper supplier. Granada produces nutmeg. Jamaica produces ginger and allspice.


Nicaragua, El Salvador and the U.S. produce sesame seeds. Europe and California produce several herbs and

Canada produces a wide variety of aromatic seeds. Since the beginning of history, the strongest nations have controlled the spice trade. The same happens currently; U.S. is now the largest buyer of spices in the world, followed by Germany, Japan and France. Today there are about 2,500 spices known as edible herbs, of which a large majority, are not taken advantage.

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