The Spice Trade

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The marketplace of today is full of products from all over the world. Everything — from Mediterranean olive oil to coffee from South America to pineapple from the tropics — is available on grocery shelves. People have always been willing to pay for special things that taste good. What people demand, business people will supply.

The demand for spices has had a great effect on the history of the world. The spice trade began before history was written. There is still evidence of a route that spice merchants used for crossing Asia in prehistoric times. The spice trade has affected world history because it forced people from different countries to communicate. Traders used to be the main source of ideas and information from foreign countries. Arab spice traders, for example, probably brought the first news of Asia to the Middle East. They probably introduced the Middle East to spices as well. Spices such as cinnamon have been used in the Arabian Desert since at least 2,000 BC. Arabs sailed from the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula to the island of Sri Lanka, near India. In Sri Lanka, they met Chinese traders who had already sailed around the South China Sea, trading Chinese foods for spices. The Arabs traded their own products for the spices that the Chinese had obtained. This early spice trade brought people of different parts of the world closer together. In order to trade, they had to communicate. The traders saw people who lived in ways very different from their own. They traded, or exchanged, ideas and information as well as products. Furthermore, when they returned to their own lands, they took the new ideas and information with them. Their own people learned about other lands and people by listening to the traders’ stories.

Arab traders had a monopoly on the spice trade for centuries because they were the only people who supplied spices to merchants. They controlled the spice trade for a long time. Eventually, the Arab monopoly ended because merchants from other countries began to trade in spices. However, the demand for spices was still greater than the supply. Therefore, both the Arabs and the other traders made money from their business. Many of them became rich. Many governments became rich, too. For example, the government of Venice became rich from the money that traders and merchants had to pay it for permission to sell spices. The spice trade was a good business, so European traders and governments wanted to enter the trade, too.

The Europeans knew that the only way they could compete with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean spice traders was to find a short route to the source of the spices, the countries where spices were produced. First, the Portuguese tried sailing around the African continent to reach the source of the spices. However, this journey was long and difficult. The investment of time and money was not worthwhile. The amount of time and money that the trip took caused the spices to be very expensive. Merchants could buy spices more cheaply from the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean traders than from the European traders. The Europeans had to find a better route in order to be able to compete with the other traders. The motive for the voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and of John Cabot in 1497 was to find a shorter route. However, their journeys across the Atlantic Ocean brought the Europeans knowledge of the American continents, not spices. Their discoveries affected the history of the world.

The spice trade made the world both larger and smaller. It made the world larger because it increased people’s knowledge of their world. They learned about countries that were different from their own. The spice trade made the world smaller because it encouraged people to communicate. When people communicate, the distances between them seem to become shorter.