The Spices of the Spice Trade

By calling it the “Spice Trade”, it creates this abstraction in our head. Yes, there was spice, yes there was trade, but beyond that, there is no information that go into details as to which spices were involved. This post seeks to correct that.

However, it’s important to note that most spice traders from 1560-1800 (The era I’m wishing to cover), didn’t deal exclusively in spices. They dealt in anything that got them a decent return on investment. This isn’t to say that they were trading black pepper one day, and then slaves the next. After all, men are creatures of habit, and they will return to a well that provides water. But to think that the only things on their ships were spices is misleading and often incorrect.

Now, with that disclaimer out of the way, what spices am I generally talking about?

First and foremost – black pepper. This is the spice that was most coveted, was the primary spice that made Venice wealthy and powerful, and the spice that, primarily, was the reason that Portugal looked for a way around the Cape of Good Hope.

Then there were the spices that were thought could have their production controlled. These were cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and mace (Note – Mace and Nutmeg are from the same plant). If their production was limited, whomever controlled them could demand more money for them.

Finally, there were the items that weren’t spices at all. These are items who play a role in their history for some reason or another, items I hope to delve into. These include salt (which the Dutch had a devil of a time procuring when they didn’t have access to Portugal (thanks to severak Spanish embargoes). Coffee and Tea, commodities that which both the Dutch and English gained a taste for. And opium, which the British used as trading commodities with the Chinese (a gross oversimplification, but suits the need here).

I will hopefully be going over each of these items individual in the future.