Though something like a peppercorn may seem extremely insignificant to us now, there was a time when spices like pepper controlled the trade of Europe.
The spice trade was a major factor in the development of the modern world economically, culturally, and politically. One area that was affected majorly by the growth of the spice trade was the economy of Eurasia, affecting different groups of people in different ways. Arab middlemen became very rich due to the spice trade. “… Arab traders sold their cargoes of these precious goods to Italian shippers, who, in turn, sold them to people in European towns and cities… Each time these goods changed hands, their price increased” (Spice It Up 1). This quote shows how the middlemen profited from the spice trade, due to the high demand and the long way the spices had to travel to reach European cities. European powers that controlled the spice trade also benefitted economically. “When the Portuguese… succeeded in gaining a monopoly over the spice trade, they dictated prices as the Venetians had done before them” (Price of Spice 4). As explained in the quote, the country that controlled the spice trade could dictate prices as they wished, making the spices cheaper for themselves and more expensive for other countries. However, these weren’t the only ways the spice trade affected the economy of Eurasia. Not only did countries improve economically as a whole, but the economic status of individuals within the country also changed. “Pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg were status symbols for the ruling class, emblems of power which were displayed and consumed” (Price of Spice 2). As spices were seen as “emblems of power”, the ruling class that consumed it became more powerful, while the poor that could not afford it became more economically distanced for the rich. The economy of Europe and Asia improved, and in some cases worsened, drastically in many ways due to the growth of the spice trade. However, economy wasn’t the only thing affected by the spice trade.
Culture was also greatly affected by the spice trade, particularly religion, for it was spread through the Silk Road. As explained in episode 9 of Crash Course: World History on the Silk Road and Ancient Trade, the trade along the Silk Road, which also consisted of spices, helped the spread of religion to other places. An example is Buddhism, which was dwindling in India, but due to the coming and going of merchants, the religion was gradually spread to other countries in Asia. This example shows how the spice trade played a big part in spreading culture throughout Europe, Buddhism being only one example among many. The episode also explains how cities, along the Silk Road, where the spice trade passed through frequently also became religious centers. Merchants would stop to rest and pray for good luck during their journey. This is yet another example of how the spice trade affected culture, as the culture and religion in these towns and cities flourished due to the coming and going of the merchants. Without the spice trade, religions would never have spread and cultures wouldn’t have developed. The spice trade was therefore a major factor in the spread of culture and religion around the globe.
Economy and culture were not the only areas majorly affected by the spice trade, because it also played a big part in developing politics during that era, including political borders and wars. Political borders in Asia were constantly changing during this time due to control over the spice trade. “Your Petitioners think it necessary for the Security and Protection of their Trade and Possessions in the East-Indies as soon as possible to to [sic] enlist a Number of Men to serve as Soldiers in India for the Term of five Years” (Thomas Morton 1789). This example shows how, while the British were in possession of the East Indies, the British were worried that other European powers would come and try to take control. The spice trade influenced the growth of empires and change of political borders greatly. The map above shows the colonial expansion of European powers during that time period. Notice how several of the arrows showing the spread of empires head towards the East Indies, because that’s where spice were produced. This shows how the spice trade affected political borders, because European powers were all expanding to the areas where they could best control the spice trade. The spice trade also spurred many wars during Big Era 6, mostly for political power over the areas that supplied spices. “… Europeans …were also in conflict with each other. They competed for trade in Asia and the Americas, and their efforts to establish markets, conquer, and drive out competition, often led to clashes. These commercial and political rivalries led to wars…” (Spice it Up 2). The passage explains how European powers warred for trade in Asia and power over markets and lands. This also contributed to the changing of political borders. Development in political power was created through the spice trade, mainly in swapping of political borders and wars for domination.
To sum up, the spice trade had a major hand in the development of the modern world of Europe, majorly affecting areas such as economy, culture and politics in a large variety of different ways. As hard as it is to believe, those insignificant little peppercorns had a major hand in shaping the world we live in today.
“Exploration and Empires, 1400-1700.” Web. 13 Sept. 2015. <http://media.maps101.com/SUB/history/WD_ExplEmp1700.gif>.
Morton, Thomas. “Transcript Raising Soldiers for India.” Raising Soldiers for India CO 77/26, Ff. 104-5 (1789): 1. Web. Sept.-Oct. 2015.
“Crash Course: World History – Episode 09: The Silk Road and Ancient Trade.” WatchDocumentary.com. Web. 12 Sept. 2015.
“The Price of Spice.” 13 Sept. 2015.
“Student Handout 3.1—Spice It Up.” World History for Us All. 13 Sept. 2015.