CulturallyOurs Understanding The History Of The Spice Trade

Understanding The Diaspora Of Indian Spices

CulturallyOurs Understanding The History Of The Spice Trade

The word Diaspora means movement of a large group of people or things from one place to another. And as is relates to spices, this has been the trend since people started moving place to place. Spices have has had an interesting movement since the beginning of time. But most of the documentation and awareness of the movement of spices a.k.a the spice trade came during the late 1600s when colonialism started in full earned, largely as a way to control the spice trade.

Sana Javeri Kadri the founder of Diaspora Co, a spice company has made it her mission to decolonize the spice trade by connecting with local farms, You can learn more about Diaspora and Sana on her podcast interview here.

Surbhi Mittal takes a look at the diaspora of spices with the evolution of the spice trade as well as the onset of colonization as a way to dominate and control the movement of spices – a commodity that has become an essential ingredient in cuisines all over the world.CulturallyOurs Diaspora Of Spices CardamonFrom Surbhi,

It is said that before there was gold, there was pepper!

The spice that we all have come to know and love as our favourite seasoning on basically everything, was once but a mythical substance. In 600 BC, when the Arabs controlled much of the spice trade in the eastern world, pepper was a symbol of riches and luxury. The Arab traders told tales of a ferocious cinnamon bird, or cinnamologus. The traders said that they would bait the cinnamologus with large chunks of meat. When they would grab the meat and fly back to their nests made of cinnamon sticks, the nests would break from the weight of the birds and fall. The traders would quickly snatch the cinnamon and bring it to the market. Tales such as these and nascent navigation systems helped Arabs retain control of the trade for a long time and charge sky high prices.

Apart from the Arabs, the Greco-Roman empires of the 4th century BC also had access to Indian spices via Egypt. Infact, it was in Greco-Roman trade markets that Western Europe first across spices from Asia and were bowled over by their quality. With the rise of power in the Greek empire, the royal households became much more adventurous and flamboyant, thus increasing the demand for Indian spices. It is said that close to 120 ships every year were sent by the Romans at the peak of the spice trade to import huge quantities of pepper from India.

Whether it was the Arabs in 5th century BC or the Greeks & Romans in the 4th century BC, Indian spices ruled the trade route. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that India’s flourishing spice trade shaped the future of the world for the coming centuries.

Having tasted the magic of the spices and tired of paying a premium for it, the European countries set out to search for a sea route to India. The colonisation of India and Americas was a result of such expeditions undertaken by different European nations. Americas were discovered while Columbus was searching for East Indies (India) through the Atlantic sea route. When the sailors travelled in two different directions and literally circumnavigated the world, without falling off the Earth, the Europeans came to accept the fact that the Earth is round (although, some people continue to contest that!)Credit: The Age Of Discovery By Cosmo Learning

Diaspora (movement) of Spices across Continents

In the 15th century, nations like Italy, Spain and Portugal were undergoing Renaissance. While the Spanish and Italian renaissance were highly aesthetic, the Portuguese took on the task of opening Europe up to travel. Having pioneered the Age of Discoveries, Portugal flourished in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, with voyages to India, the Orient, the Americas, and Africa. In 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama made the first sea voyage from Europe to India, via the southernmost tip of Africa. His arrival on India’s Malabar Coast, the heart of the spice trade, marked the start of direct trading between Europe and South East Asia. In Europe, these seemingly trivial goods became a new symbol of high social status, even before patronage of art. As the middle class grew during the Renaissance, the popularity of spices rose. Wars over the Indonesian Spice Islands broke out between expanding European nations and continued for about 200 years, between the 15th and 17th centuries.

The first European power to resort to colonisation in the name of ‘trade’ was Portugal who captured Indonesian Spice Islands, parts of India and Sri Lanka. They were later overthrown by the Dutch. The driving reason behind the formation of the British East India Company in 1600 was to compete with the Dutch spice trade in India. And this later on transformed into the grand British Empire in India. After the British entered the scene, an agreement was reached according to which India and Sri Lanka were to be ruled by the British while the Dutch would control Spice Islands.

The Dutch entered the competition in earnest at the end of the 16th century. Dutch explorers Van Houtman and Van Neck made friends with native sultans and organized trading posts which eventually gave Holland the monopoly in the early 17th century. In 1658, the cinnamon trade in Ceylon was under their control, and in 1663, the best pepper ports on the Malabar Coast were theirs. When prices for cinnamon or other spices fell too low in Amsterdam, they would burn the spices.CulturallyOurs Understanding The Exploration Of Spice Routes Around The WorldCredit: Chandernagore, Palace of French Governors from Columbia University

England was an immense threat to the Portuguese and later, the Dutch, because they were a power at sea.  In 1600, the British East India Company was chartered by Queen Elizabeth I, and its major objective was obtaining spice cargoes.  The British worked slowly in their attempt to gain the power away from the Dutch, and finally in 1780, England and Holland started a war which severely weakened Dutch power in India. By the 1800s everything that once belonged to Portugal and Holland was controlled by the British.

Some of the late entrants into Indian spice trade were the French & Danish. By the time, they decided to make a move into India though, large part of it was controlled by the Dutch & British, who had their own wars to fight. The French managed to set up a few prominent colonies in Pondicherry & Chandernagore whereas the Danish were more in Tranquebar & Serampore.

While it started with spices, towards the end of it, by 18th century, India was being plundered for its goods. Over three centuries, Europe bust all the myths that had ensured the Arab’s monopoly over trade in India. The subject of how ethical the colonisation was is debatable, but it has most definitely left behind a cultural legacy that thrives even today.

Renaissance and Spice Trade

Apart from fusion food, Indian spices were used by people in the Renaissance for curing & medicinal purposes as well. Pepper was used to preserve and to flavor spoiled meat. Cloves and cinnamon were used as substitutes for cleanliness and ventilation. They were strewn across the floor to prevent foot odor from permeating the room. People carried around pieces of nutmeg fitted with a tiny grater, ready to season unsavory, unpalatable food. It was also believed that pepper from the Malabar Coast helped cure the Black Plague.

During their time in India, the Portuguese left their mark on certain Indian cuisines by introducing Portuguese dishes that then were adapted to Indian culinary techniques and tastes.CulturallyOurs Understanding The Exploration Of Spice Routes Around The WorldCredit: Magazine

Possibly the most popular dish that the Portuguese introduced to Goan cuisine was The Pork Vindaloo. Blogger Hilda Mascarenhas, known for her Goan recipes, describes the famous Goan dish pork vindaloo:

“The name Vindaloo is derived from the Portuguese dish “Carne de Vinha dAlhos” which is a dish of meat, usually pork, with wine and garlic. The Portuguese dish was modified by the substitution of vinegar (usually palm vinegar) for the red wine and the addition of red Kashmiri chillies with spices, to evolve into Vindaloo. The alternative terms are Vindalho or Vindallo. Traditional Goan Pork Vindaloo is intensely flavored with fragrant spices and does not include potatoes. No celebration and festive occasion is complete without the Goan Pork Vindaloo. It is enjoyed with the most popular and loved accompaniment, Goan sannas, which are prepared with toddy! This speciality is served with pride in every Goan home at Christmas, New Year and Easter.”

Apart from Goa, influences of Portuguese cuisine is found in Bengal as well. Where Goa fused with Portuguese cuisine to produce unique flavours, Bengal retained Portuguese elements in their originality. The Portuguese influence in Bengal dates back to the late 16th century. Almost a century after Vasco da Gama reached the West Coast of India the Portuguese started making their inroads into Bengal. It was the probably the Portuguese who introduced the art of cheese making in Bengal and in spite of all odds the technique has survived over centuries. The Bandel Cheese introduced by the Portuguese was probably made by the Mogh (Burmese) cooks under Portuguese supervision.

Indians have Portuguese a lot to thank for as well. While they fused their ingredients with Indian spices, they introduced the potato (batata) and bread (pav) to Indian cuisine. As Lizzie Collingham points out in her authoritative Curry – A Biography, the Portuguese landed in parts of India (Cochin, Goa etc) where the locals ate rice. But they missed their crusty bread, and in any case, they needed bread for Holy Communion. They could find wheat flour in Goa but yeast was hard to come by. So they started using a few drops of toddy to ferment the dough and created the various Goan breads we know today: the round gutli, the flat pav, etc. Street food in Goa & Mumbai was heavily influenced by both the ingredients and has become a staple food across both the places.

Cultural Legacy of Spice Trade

Many remnants of the Spice Trade can still be found in the West Coast of India. Zheng He, a famed Chinese explorer, conducted his final voyage in the year 1431 and landed in South East Asia. He was known to have introduced a variation on Fishing Nets, which even today are a prominent way of catching fish. Along the harbor of present-day Fort Kochi, fishing nets hoisted by weights, called the Chinese Fishing Nets, allude to the once vigorous trade with East Asia.

Within one hundred years after the arrival of da Gama, Goa had become a city bustling with many nationalities seeking their fortunes. Jan Huygen Linschoten, a Dutch aide to the Portuguese Archbishop in Goa, described the city in His Discourses of Voyages into the East and West Indies in 1598, “Who can adequately describe the other riches and products of this city? … let antiquity no longer stand in awe of Cornith or Alexandria … it has been outstripped by the greatness of the wealth and the sublimity of this city.”

When talking about cultural legacy, it is also important to bring up the contribution of Jewish spice merchants. It is believed that Jews had existed in India since 11th century AD, when they flee from King Solomon. They were accepted in the cultural fabric and engaged in India Trade as spice growers and spice merchants. Even today, in the Jew Town in Kochi, they continue in as traders. When the Portuguese Inquisition arrived in early 1600, carrying out their persecution and burning Jews at the stake in Goa, the Raja of Kochi gave the Kerala Jews a parcel of land near the palace from which the community thrived during the great trading period. Kochi was inclusive because it thrived on trade, and business is business. The Jews were valued as traders, who spoke Malayalam, and they were successful as evidenced in the Belgian and Italian chandeliers that hang from the ceiling of the synagogue. The blue and white porcelain tiles covering the interior of the Jewish synagogue in Kochi were imported from China by the Jewish spice merchant Ezhekial Rahabi when the synagogue was rebuilt in the 16th century.CulturallyOurs Understanding The Exploration Of Spice Routes Around The World Paradesi SynagogueIt was imperative that with the opening up of trade routes, prominent elements from Indian culture would be introduced to the West as well. With them, the Portuguese, Dutch and French carried back ideas that fused with the distinctly Catholic narrative of art at that time. A magnificent fresco, of the procession of the Magi from the East to pay homage to the Christ Child, represents the celebrated Medici family of Florence in all their pomp and elegance. The gold spice-incense box held high by the bearer, on the right side of the image, is an acknowledgement of the importance of spices and unguents from Asia during the period.

To mark Vasco da Gama’s achievement of finding a direct sea route to India, King Manuel of Portugal commissioned 26 panels of tapestries called “The Discovery of India, the Calicut Tapestries” from the foremost tapestry makers of the period, Tournai Workshops in Belgium. Exquisite tapestries such as these, complex in design and workmanship, were highly valued and were proof of the owner’s status. The scenes depicted in the Calicut tapestries heightened Europeans ’s vision of exotic India, with dark skinned people in exotic costumes, and camels, giraffes, cheetahs and peacocks rarely seen in Europe.

Tracing the Spice Route today

Spices and medicinal plants once exclusively products of India are now cultivated in many parts of the tropics and are widely available. There is vigorous demand and trade in spices in the 21st century due to current interest in the culinary and medicinal properties of spices all around world. However, the charm of shopping for spices in the hallowed lands of the Malabar Coast has kept alive the tourism industry along the coast. Spice shops in Thekkady Hills of Kerala with sacks of Black Pepper, dried Ginger, Cardamom, Turmeric and Cinnamon, still supplies spices to local and international customers.

One visit to Fort Kochi is a perfect glimpse into the state of contemporary spice trade. The large thatch-covered river boats, once used for transport of commodities through the backwaters, are now converted to motorized tourist vessels. In Fort Kochi is also the India Pepper and Spice Trade Association Building, where auctions are still held for spices sales and ‘Godowns’ exist with sacks of Black Pepper, mounds of dried Ginger and Turmeric. In shops big and small are spice merchants signaling with fingers of covered hands, negotiating prices the traditional way.

If you’re travelling to India and want to experience the spice route legacy, travel to some of the smaller areas like Fort Kochi in Kochi, Tranquebar in Tamil Nadu or Fontainhas in Old Goa. These towns are dotted with built heritage left behind by the Portuguese, Dutch & Jewish. In the midst of these built heritage, what continues to evolve is the legacy of Indian spices and their undying charm. As in the older days, spices have become a way of empowering oneself economically. Sana Javeri (link interview here), a millennial with a deep understanding of India’s rich spice history, started Diaspora Co. in 2017 to to create a radically new, and equitable vision of the spice trade, decolonizing a commodity back into a seasonal crop, and a broken system into an equal exchange.CulturallyOurs Understanding The Exploration Of Spice Routes Around The World CinnamonLooking at the evolution of spices, it is clear that it is one of those commodities that have the power to unite people across borders by the simple virtue of being integral. In an increasingly fragmented society, it would do us good to remember that something as simple as spices can bind us together, if we let it.  

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  1. Megan says:

    this realy helped me understand the importance and origins of the spices and markets.
    thank you.