The Ancient Spice Trade Route From Asia to Europe 1500s to 1700s Changed The World


South East Asia consists of ten countries:

Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

The region’s abundance of natural resources (rubber, aluminum, tobacco, coconuts, coffee, palm oil, timber, rice, tropical fruits and spices) brought the European powers over during the Age of Exploration (also known as Age of Discovery) starting in the early 15th century right up to the 20th century. This created the ancient spice trade route which transported spices from South East Asia to Europe


During this period Europeans explored Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania (modern day Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific islands)

The Portuguese, Dutch, French, Spanish, British and Japanese colonized and ruled the Asian region from 1511 right up to 1984. As such, current day South East Asia is relatively new and consists of several fragmented developing democracies and economies.

To date, only Thailand has never been colonized by any foreign European power.

The spice trade began in the Middle East over 4,000 years ago. Arabic spice merchants would create a sense of mystery and adventure for their European customers by making up stories of having to fight off birds of prey which guarded the spices high on cliffs and mountain tops.

By making it seem hard to obtain and rare, the Arabs controlled and inflated the price of spices to their European customers. Spices were so valuable that dock workers in London in the 16th century were paid in Cloves for their bonuses.

The spice trade was initially conducted by camel caravans over land routes most notably The Silk Road via Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The Silk Road was an important route connecting Asia with the Mediterranean, North Africa and Europe. Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the great civilizations of China, India, Egypt, Persia (Iran), Arabia, and Rome.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 (modern day Istanbul, Turkey) to the Ottomans ended the 1,500 year Roman empire which cut off the land connection between Europe and Asia.

The Ottoman empire (Muslims) were now in control of the sole trade route that existed at the time. They  leveraged their position by charging hefty taxes on items bound for the west. The Western Europeans, not wanting to be dependent on an expansionist, non-Christian power for the lucrative commerce with the east, set about to find alternate ocean based routes which inadvertently started the Age of Exploration.

The fall of Constantinople cut off land route to Asia

The fall of Constantinople cut off the over land route to Asia

In its day, the spice trade was the world’s biggest industry. It established and destroyed empires and helped the Europeans (who were looking for alternate routes to the east) map the globe through their discovery of new continents.

The spice trade changed the culinary world forever. What was once tightly controlled by the Arabs for centuries was now available throughout Europe with the establishment of the Ocean Spice Trade route connecting Europe directly to South Asia (India) and South East Asia.

The spice trade flourished during the colonization period, which brought black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, and cloves (to name only a handful) from Asia via the ocean Spice Trade route (map below).

The discovery of the New World (United States) in the 18th century brought America into the global spice industry. American businessmen opened their own spice companies and started dealing directly with Asian growers rather than through European companies. When the population and businesses in the United States became more affluent, more and more companies formed and soon there were hundreds of American ships making around-the-world trips for these coveted spices from the East.

What was once worth more by weight than gold (like Nutmeg) now occupy shelves in kitchens across the globe.

The ancient spice trade route via the oceans connecting Asia to Europe

Asia’s rich history of multiple and consecutive colonial powers, fighting over the natural resources and spices infused the South East Asian region with a multitude of food flavors. This influence, commingled with the local ingredients and methods of cooking, created some of the world’s most diverse cuisines.

The spice trade route, stretching from China to the United Kingdom (both via land and ocean), unintentionally created a unique blend of culinary diversity. The food of the South East Asian region is a mix of Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Polynesian, French, Portuguese and other European influences.

Trade and the proximity of the Asian countries also plays a great role in lending culinary flavors to neighboring countries. For example, Thai and Vietnamese cuisines are strongly influenced by the use of fish sauce. Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines share a common use of coconut milk in their dishes and desserts.

One of the most significant things about the culture and people of South East Asia is their relationship with food. It’s safe to say that every single occasion be it personal, cultural or business related, revolves around food. It is the very glue that binds the people and culture of this region together.

Remaining very close to their food sources is the key to the delicious food of this region. The use of fresh spices and ingredients in all dishes creates the naturally complex and deep flavors of South East Asian cuisine, which is as diverse and interesting as its colonial history.

Regular chaotic street food scenes serving delicious, freshly cooked food while you watch and wait is common in any South East Asian country (see below). Street food is oftentimes available 24hrs where most socializing and business deals get done and it’s also usually the most affordable way to eat.

street food asia

image source: Pinterest

If you want to learn more about cooking with spices and experiencing a multitude of flavors of food from around the world, our Plant Fueled Meal Plans do just that. Get ready to experience a world of flavor through spices.

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  1. pamela patrick on January 29, 2014 at 11:41 am

    Thanks for the highly fun to read short course on the history of the spice trade. I especially liked learning that dock workers were paid bonuses in Nutmeg! That’s my kind of bonus! The maps and photographs really added to the content. The United States is such a “salt and pepper” nation and ordinary people coming home from their daily work would be pleasantly surprised by how much the addition of herbs and spices added to the food they prepare in their own kitchens would add to the dining at home experience. When herbs are purchased, unless they are bought as a potted plant, not dried, it is always BEST to buy them out of the “Bulk” jars at your favorite co-op or health food stop. They are not irradiated like so many “off the shelf” varieties, are often organic and ALWAYS fresh. The best part is, you can buy a teaspoon if that is all you need. Here’s to the Spice!

    • CaptTRajkumar on October 19, 2015 at 9:52 am

      19th Oct 2015.
      Greetings This is an excellent Blog and great photos too. Thank you.

      I am a Retd Mariner and study & write on social history and ships-on FB also.
      may add this:

      THE CHILLY-Chili,Pepper -all Spices have an amazing history across Planet Earth literally. Some time back I did a study of Chillies esp for Export in India’s Shipping Trade for our Commodity Dept & Lab. The finding was quite interesting as it is linked to the Spice Route and Spice Wars of 1500s .
      This is subjective but quote

      1) ” Most Europeans had grown capsicums only as ornamentals and believed that peppers were native to India and the Far East until the mid-nineteenth century when botanist Alphonse de Candolle produced convincing linguistic evidence for the American origin of the genus Capsicum (Candolle, 1852).It was only after capsicums had become established in Asia, the Middle East, and Europe that the Spaniards played any part in the movement of New World plants to places other than Spain, Italy, and perhaps Western Europe.

      The Pacific Ocean route of the Spanish Manila-Acapulco galleon was established in 1565 and operated for 250 years (Schurz, 1939). This ship was a major means for transferring plants as well as trade goods between Mexico and the Far East. At approximately the same time the Spanish colonies of Saint Augustine, Florida, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, were founded. Those first European settlements in the present-day United States initiated Caribbean and Mexican trade with Florida and the Southwest, respectively, forty years before other northern Europeans began colonizing the east coast of North America. The first peppers to enter an English colony were sent to Virgina in 1621 by the governor of the Bermuda Islands.

      2) It was not the Spaniards- but the Portuguese who were responsible for the early diffusion of New World food plants to Africa, India, and the Far East, abetted by local shipping and traders following long-used trade routes.

      These mariners and merchants enabled the spread of the new American plants throughout the Old World with great rapidity (Boxer, 1969a).

      To think how we all are Connected
      Most interesting and amazing
      Best Rgds
      Capt.TR Retd
      Chennai INDIA

      • Luanne Teoh on October 19, 2015 at 3:11 pm

        Thank you for stopping by and commenting Captain! 🙂

  2. Leah Z on March 28, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    I read this article to help study for my History 100 exam. Really clarified aspects of the spice trade that I hadn’t understood! Thanks!

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