Spices might be the single thing in history that most shaped our world today. That sounds crazy, but spices once were as valuable as gold. It was an international currency that created and destroyed civilizations and great cities, and enslaved millions. And along the way created the very economy we live under today, by way of the most powerful corporation in human history.
Maybe an opening where I go through my spice rack and make a comment on how common and ordinary these spices are today but believe it or not, our entire world was shaped by spices once upon a time.
Maybe an opening where I go through my spice rack and make a comment on how common and ordinary these spices are today but believe it or not, our entire world was shaped by spices once upon a time.
I know it’s kinda gross when YouTubers flex about their lifestyles but I’ve got something downstairs that’s pretty impressive. Come here, let me show you.
Again, before I show you this, I want you to keep in mind, I’m just a regular guy, I promise.
Okay, obviously the gag here is that there’s nothing impressive about my spice collection, in fact it’s basic af and some of these are probably way past the expiration date (look at one) Good lord…
But four or five hundred years ago, every one of these was a luxury. This collection would have been the envy of the most wealthy nobleman. They would have marveled at how well-traveled I must be and asked about my bloodline and… wondered what this weird soft colored metal must be… And probably hang me for being a witch, let’s not go back there.
There are a lot of things about the way we live today that’s different from the way our ancestors lived but maybe none more radical than the way we view spices.
In fact, I’ll make the argument that if you were to point to one thing that most explains the world as it is today, the answer would be spices.
This thing that we take for granted and just pick up while we’re at the store for a few bucks was once as valuable as gold. Men traversed the globe to find it, cities were built around it, it made and destroyed empires, enslaved millions… and created the most powerful corporation the world has ever seen. In fact it created the entire economic system we all live under today.
This video is the story of spices and the world it created.
“Hey look at this weird geography fact; have you ever wondered…?” and say how it can be explained with spices”.
How is it that something we pretty much all take for granted today was so insanely valuable hundreds of years ago? I mean, sure the world has changed, technology’s changed – it’s not like they had iPhones back then… But spice?
I mean I’m not even trying to make a Dune reference but for hundreds of years humans went to extreme measures to make sure the spice must flow.
Now, I wanna be clear, spices weren’t the only commodities being traded around the world, and trade didn’t start with spice, people have been trading across empires and tribes for thousands of years, but spice was a huge part of the global trade network.
And there are a few reasons why.
One theory is that spices covered the taste of spoiled meat.
This was long before refrigeration, so again, something we take for granted today was a major concern for people hundreds of years ago.
So there you go, problem solved. There are a few problems with this theory.
Spice was expensive. Actually way more expensive than the meat it’s supposed to be saving. In Medieval Europe, a pound of ginger could buy a whole sheep.
That would be like putting your phone in rice to save the rice.
The spoilage theory seems to come from a book by a food scientist named J. C. Drummond, and he based it on historical records that refer to “greene” meat.
But historians think “green” was used in the sense of fresh, or newly cut.
Besides, in the old days, they had another way of keeping meat fresh… they just kept it alive.
Yeah, before refrigeration, shipping meat was not a thing. They shipped pigs. And chickens, and cows and goats and sheep. And then the end user would do the dirty work.
On sea voyages and caravans, they didn’t stock up with meat, they just brought the animals along with them, and there was the added benefit that they could walk themselves.
Also meat was a much smaller part of most people’s diets back then. Of course not everybody had their own livestock or gardens and they did have to take some efforts to prevent spoilage but often this involved pickling or salting foods so if you consider salt to be a spice…
Having said that, some spices did help prevent food spoilage because many spices are antibacterial and antifungal.
And there’s a reason for this – because spices are basically poison.
Have you ever wondered why people who live in hotter climates tend to eat spicier foods?
There was a theory going around that eating spicy foods can actually make you feel cooler because it activates your sweat glands, or just kinda trick your brain into thinking the outside is cooler because your insides are on fire.
And there could be some truth to that but in general the reason is much simpler. They eat hotter food there because that’s where the spices grow.
Most of the hotter spices, your peppers and chilies, they tend to grow along the equator, where it never really gets cold and the plants grow year-round.
They don’t have the luxury of a winter freeze that kills off the bacteria, fungus, and bugs that can infect and kill them, so they developed a kind of chemical defense system.
In spices it’s capsaicin, in tobacco and coffee, it’s nicotine and caffeine.
But that kinda gets to the heart of the whole thing; the climate in these specific areas caused plants to create chemicals that… make us feel things.
Could one say that the Spice Trade was really the first drug trade? Only if one wants to be demonetized.
But many spices and teas were used medicinally because of their antibacterial properties. Of course they didn’t have the germ theory of medicine back then so they didn’t know how it worked, they just knew it worked.
It was also used ritualistically. Ancient Romans would burn it as incense, Egyptians used cinnamon to help preserve their mummies. Think about that next time you’re choking down a Cinnabon.
But maybe when it came down to it, spices were a flex. Kinda like I was doing at the beginning of the video.
Especially in Europe, spices were exotic and grew in far away places. And they were expensive. In a way, they were the ultimate status symbol.
I mean, gold and jewelry are nice, but what better way to show off how cool you are than by serving your guests a food they had never tasted before.
“Oh, this Moroccan, well… what’s your story?”
This is actually true of a lot of foods. Pineapples are a good example of this.
Sailors and travelers would bring home pineapples and serve it to everyone in their communities in big parties. And eventually pineapples became a symbol of hospitality, you would see them on old hotels and stuff, it’s actually got a really interesting history but that’s for another time.
But yeah, like pineapples and like the tulip craze, spices took on a value way beyond their practical use. They were valuable because they were valuable.
They were like NFTs that you could eat.
They were a symbol of wealth and high status in Europe – combine that with their medicinal and practical uses, and oh yeah, I haven’t even mentioned yet… they make food taste good.
And food holds a powerful place in our cultures and traditions. Think about how many holidays have specific foods attached to them.
Those tastes that we hold so dear are made by the flavorings and spices that go into them. And once upon a time, those spices were only grown in certain parts of the world.
So vast commercial and political systems were created to move spices from places where they could grow to places where they couldn’t. This in turn created cities, civilizations, even empires that still stand today.
So join me on a journey… THROUGH THE HISTORY OF SPICE!
The Incense Route
One of the first known spice routes was well established by the 3rd Century B. C. Known as the Incense Route, it ran from India to Africa, with stops along the way.
One of those stops was the city of Petra in modern day Jordan. Here they traded everything from Indian textiles to rare African woods, along with pearls, precious stones, gold, and incenses like frankincense and myrrh.
Petra is also where Indiana Jones would later punch some Nazis in the Last Crusade.
Petra, of course, is right down the road from Bethlehem, which is why the fabled three kings from the Bible were said to have come bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh.
And if you were anything like me when you were a kid, you made jokes about how that guy with the myrrh, he needs to step it up, that other guy’s got gold… or “oh, check out Mr. Gold over here, compensate much?” Well it turns out, frankincense and myrrh – were as valuable as gold back then.
Another hub was Alexandria
Today Alexandria is mostly remembered for its wonders of the world like the Lighthouse of Alexandria and the Library of Alexandria, well something had to pay for those wonders and that thing was spices.
Boats would sail from India around the Arabian Peninsula and up the Red Sea into the Gulf of Suez where they eventually couldn’t sail any further.
This was long before the Suez Canal but there were roads where goods could be transported to the Mediterranean sea in caravans.
And this is where Alexander the Great saw an opportunity and built his grand port city through which goods could be spread throughout the Mediterranean.
And because of this positioning, Alexandria became one of the most powerful and richest cities in the world. Apparently trade was so lucrative in Alexandria, the mint couldn’t stamp coins fast enough for the currency exchange.
The Silk Road
A much more famous trade route was the Silk Road, which was not just a road, it was actually several trade routes – and they didn’t just move silk, also spices.
And, jade, glass, furs, and slaves. But also spices. AND… technologies.
Paper and gunpowder were both invented in China, but found their way into Europe on the Silk Road.
Great explorers traveled the Silk Road like Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta who wrote vivid accounts of their journeys.
Often, these were the first exposure to new cultures for readers back home, as well as the ideas that came from those cultures.
One of the major port hubs along the Silk Road was Constantinople, and it was founded pretty much for the same reason Alexandria was.
It’s situated on the Bosphorus Strait, connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and just like Alexander the Great saw an opportunity to control shipping across the Mediterranean into Europe and created Alexandria, the Byzantine emperor Constantine saw the same opportunity here, so he created Constantinople.
Tiny egos on these guys.
But he was right. Constantinople became a powerful port city and eventually when the Roman Empire split in two, it became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, and survived long after Rome itself fell into ruin.
The Silk Road was an incredibly successful and durable network that flowed spice across Europe and Asia for 1500 years.
And Constantinople was just one of dozens of cities the sprang up along the Silk Road from Turkey to China and India, many of which still exist to this day. And many others that have been lost to time, like the aforementioned Petra.
Of course you won’t find Constantinople on the map today. But it is still there, it’s just called Istanbul. You know the song.
Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, who changed the name to Istanbul to be more Islamic, because Constantine was a Christian emperor.
And this is way more than just an interesting quirk of history and geography, this changed everything for Europe. Because they were now in control of the spice. And they wielded that power, restricting the supply and raising prices.
That whole stereotype of Arabs being shrewd and ruthless traders? That’s where it comes from.
All right, so it’s the late 1400s and Europe is suffering through Spice withdrawal, so they decide it’s time to go straight to the source, this time bypassing the Middle East by going around Africa.
Sea routes had been a part of the Silk Road for a while, but nobody had sailed all the way around Africa before. And that’s when Portugal said… “Hold my Sagres” (saw-gruse)
Portugal had been a seafaring powerhouse in Europe for a while, again because of geography.
(over map/animation)Their location on the tip of the Iberian Peninsula, gave them equal access to the Mediterranean and the North and Baltic seas, where another trading route existed across Scandinavia and Russia called the Volga Route.
This route was mostly controlled by Dutch merchants who partnered with the Portuguese.
So if any country had the skill and resources to go around Africa, it was the Portuguese, so in 1488, Bartolomeu Dias did just that, creating a new trade route directly to India.
But this was not an easy trip. The seas around the southern tip of Africa, were notoriously treacherous, with violent storms and massive swells.
So of course they named this the Cape of Good Hope.
They also found that sailing south along the African coast was especially hard because there was a northward current along the coast that slowed things down to a crawl – you’re basically swimming upstream.
They later figured out that that current was created by the South Atlantic Gyre, and it was actually faster to sail westward a bit and let the current carry you around to the tip of Africa.
But still, this was a ridiculously long voyage, which made it more expensive and dangerous. So still not a great solution.
Which is why in 1492, Christopher Columbus thought he could do better by just… sailing west.
Yes, the New World was discovered in an attempt to find spices – and gold.
And yes, they knew the world was round, that was why he went that way, he thought he could sail all the way to India.
It’s also why he named the Islands he discovered the West Indies, and named the natives who lived there Indians. A name that has stuck to this very day.
Columbus sailed for Spain of course, and they continued exploring and exploiting its resources, including gold and silver, and of course, chilies and allspice.
They also conquered native peoples and populated wide swaths of territory, which is why much of Central and South America speak Spanish.
Meanwhile Portugal continued going around Africa since that was where the spice was. But remember how I said they learned to sail west to take advantage of the South Atlantic Gyre? Well in 1500, one of them went a little too far west.
His name was Pedro Álvares Cabral and on his voyage they had a small navigational error and accidentally landed on South America. He figured while he was there he might as well claim it for Portugal which is why, unlike the rest of South America, Brazil speaks Portuguese. (refer to language map)
But back to the Spanish, while they did trade in spices from the New World, their main cash crop was sugar, which was harvested through the use of enslaved Native Americans and West Africans.
You know, sugar and spice and everything HORRIBLE.
So, I don’t want to go too much into slavery here because it is… a whole thing.
But while slavery has been around from as far back as we have records, the transatlantic slave trade began with Portugal making their way down the west coast of Africa and found (act out) a whole continent filled with slaves!
It actually started with them purchasing enslaved people from tribal leaders in Africa but over time as other European nations got involved, it spiraled into kidnapping and conquest.
Ultimately, tens of millions of Africans were displaced to mostly the Caribbean and central and South America to work on tobacco and sugar fields, and the conditions there were so brutal, the average life expectancy was only 7 years.
So they had to keep ’em coming.
Slavery of course made its way to North America, setting the stage for the economic and social disparity that we’re still reckoning with in the US today. And it all started with the Portuguese looking for a new spice route.
Throughout the 1500s, Spain got super powerful off their New World exploits, to the point that in 1580, when Portugal experienced a crisis in succession in their royal family, King Philip II of Spain swooped in and took over.
And their first order of business was to cut the Dutch out of their lucrative trade deal with the Portuguese.
Yeah, the Dutch kinda had their own thing going this whole time, basically serving as trade facilitators for Northern Europe, with the Volga Route coming in over land and the Portuguese ships feeding them goods from the Indies.
They had become exceedingly wealthy. So wealthy in fact that when this deal with the Portuguese ished the bed, they came up with with their own solution.
And being the shrewd merchants that they were, it was a decidedly capitalist solution. They created the world’s first publicly traded company. They basically invented the entire concept of a corporation. For spice.
This allowed the public to invest in literal trade wars. And it was so based on spice that dividends were often paid in mace or cloves.
This was the birth of the (Feren-de oost-indiche Compagnie) Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie , or the VOC, also known as the Dutch East India Company.
And these guys had no chill.
They immediately set their sights on a chain of islands in modern day Indonesia that were so rich in spices like cloves, mace, and nutmeg, they were known as the Spice Islands.
The Portuguese had tried to trade with the natives earlier but were met with hostility, so when the VOC arrived in 1605, they came with a massive fleet of ships and quickly took over an old Portuguese fort.— the Wikipedia source for this section, very detailed
Their early successes brought more investors in and by the 1620s, the VOC had conquered parts of India, Indonesia, Southern Africa, and both North and South America.
They held monopolies on the Spice Islands, all the trade routes between Africa and India, and were the world’s largest supplier of silver, copper, silk, porcelain, cotton, and textiles.
They were not only the richest company arguably in human history, they had the largest military in the world at the time, with 30,000 troops and more than 200 warships.
Once again, just a reminder – this was not a country. This was a company.
Oh, and they weren’t alone, the British had their own East India Company or EIC, and these two companies fought wars with each other. And I’m not talking about the cola wars with Coke and Pepsi, I’m talking canons firing at wooden ships filled with human beings. This is the birth of capitalism.
By the way, the EIC was a massive company itself and would eventually spread British influence to all seven continents.
But they couldn’t hold a candle to the power and wealth of the VOC, and nowhere was that proven more true than on the Spice Islands.
The Spice Islands were actually a chain called the Banda Islands and the natives of these islands were called the Bandanese and at the time this was the only place in the world where nutmeg grew.
How valuable was nutmeg? It was selling in Venice markets for the same price per pound as gold.
And the VOC was obsessed with getting a monopoly on this gold so they literally slaughtered and displaced the entire civilization of Bananese people in 1620.
The details of this situation are horrific – I literally couldn’t talk about it here without getting demonetized but it’s such an amazing story, I made a companion video about it that I’m uploading to Nebula.
It goes into detail about how they subjugated the people by slaughtering their leadership and torturing and enslaving the populace and the personalities involved that went on to become heroes in their native lands.
And actually I want to make a whole series of these videos – I’m calling it Forgotten Atrocities, I want to dig up stories about horrible events that have been kinda forgotten to time. Let me know what you think of that. I think it would be interesting. I’d like to dig into it.
But one last crazy fact about the VOC – they were obsessed with having a total monopoly on nutmeg. So much so that there was one tiny island in the Banda chain called Ran that the British owned and nutmeg was grown there. And they had to have it.
So they cut a deal with the British to literally trade islands. The British gave them the island of Ran, and in return the Dutch gave the British an island on the coast of North America where the Dutch had a small settlement.
That Dutch settlement was called New Amsterdam. The British changed the name to New York.
By the way, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a city founded by the hypercapitalist Dutch would go on to become one the the biggest financial centers in the world.
In so many ways, the world as we know it today was shaped by spices. And the fact is, the spice trade never really ended. There’s more spice being traded around the world today than ever before – most of it exported from China.
Although the Netherlands is still the world’s third biggest exporter and 2nd biggest importer of spices. And they ruled the Spice Islands — and all of Indonesia — until 1949.
But globalization increased the supply and made it possible to grow in more places, which is why you can go into a store and buy pretty much any spice you want for fairly cheap.
Except saffron. Saffron is always expensive.
You know, we always ask, like, what would people from hundreds of years ago think of the world today and we think it in terms of our technology but really I think the availability and cheapness of spices might be the biggest mind-blower for them.
I mean you might as well have grocery store shelves stocked with gold bars.
This video is obviously an oversimplification of a vastly complex story through human history and there was a lot left out. But I found it fascinating when I connected all the dots and realized like, holy crap – it was all about spice?
But anyway, I hope that was interesting to you and maybe it made you think about what we value today, and why we value it.
And how future generations might take it completely for granted.
Oh, alright In 138 BC, a Han Chinese noble arrived at the easternmost city of the Greek Empire The city was so distant, it had fallen under the rule of a local tribe
In this case, the tribe was an enemy of another tribe that hated the Han The noble had come looking for allies These guys were ideal
Unfortunately for the noble, they didn’t want an alliance But they did have these horses Swift and rugged, the beasts were known to sweat blood when they galloped NOTE: they don’t seem to have been unusually large; refs makes them sound more like mustangs, with parasites in their manes that accounted for the bleeding — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferghana_horse
The noble took ten years to get home But when he reported about the horses, the Han Emperor decided they were holy He needed these “heavenly horses” for his cavalry
A Han army marched, but failed to capture the city The emperor sent a larger army This time, while crossing a desert, the army secured its supply line
They captured the distant city and 3000 bloody horses Plus, they now had a convenient route to trot along That route was the foundation of the Silk Road[END TANGENT]Spices were an important trade item along the routes of the “Road”
Marco Polo is especially important to the history of spice exploration
His family were spice traders Marco’s descriptions of spice growing on islands inspired many to go to sea
Another Silk Road traveler, unfortunately, was disease The Black Death has long been thought to have spread from Asia to Europe A recent theory suggests it first lay dormant in Europe before a mutation made it deadly https://www.history.com/news/silk-road-black-death https://www.science.org/content/article/how-europe-exported-black-death
Whatever the case, the Black Death traveled by means of the Silk Road Its initial outbreak killed an estimated 50 million people in Europe, and about 25 million in North Africa and Asia Subsequent outbreaks…who knows?
In 1488, the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias rounded the tip of Africa His ships had navigated away from the coast, then swung back in Whether Dias planned this maneuver or stumbled on it by accident is unknown
Either way, the route let the Portuguese escape the currents that would have stopped them from reaching southern Africa There’s a roughly circular system of currents called the South Atlantic Gyre It pushes ships north and west, away from the African coast
The discovery of a sea route around Africa gave Portugal an edge on trade Particularly trade in spices Oh, and navigating the route is what brought explorers to Brazil, which is why Brazilians speak Portuguese