I’ve written a lot about the participation of Asian nations in Silk Road trade, but what I haven’t considered enough is the effect of the Silk Road on Europe. The Silk Road and its spice trade played important parts in shaping early modern Europe, and it was no less than the price of pepper, cinnamon and cloves in the mid-fifteenth century that forced the Portuguese and the Spanish to the seas to find a route to Asia. A route to Asia that didn’t involve the Mediterranean or the Black Sea, that is.
Beginning with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Muslim traders controlled both of the major sea ports that brought Silk Road goods into Europe – Cairo and Constantinople and were soon to wrench Kaffa away from the Genoese twenty-two years later. With the control of all three ports, the traders and their financiers started charging higher and higher overhead fees for the passage of goods, which drove up the cost of goods to European consumers. There may have been a bit more than profiteering going on as well, because the higher import fees were being levied on the Christians who had unsuccessfully defended the remains of Byzantium against the Ottomans – a sort of Silk Road tribute to the victors if you will.
So in the mid-to-late fifteenth century the Portuguese and the Spanish begin funding massively expensive ocean expeditions to try to avoid the Muslim taxes on spices and Silk Road goods. In 1492 Columbus winds up in the West Indies and in 1498 the Portuguese – sailing in the correct direction – landed in Kerala, India. Within a decade, Vasco de Gama, Almeida, Albuquerque and other Portuguese pioneers had negotiated treaties with local rulers and set up trading posts to buy and sell black pepper, cinnamon and other spices at four sites in Southern India. With ports at Malindi, Mombasa and Mozambique in Africa they ran a vast spice empire that moved Asian spices from India, Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific directly around Africa to Lisbon for further distribution into Europe.
The seafaring Dutch were at first the principal partners of the Portuguese in transporting spices and other trade goods from Lisbon to the rest of Europe. Although Charles V was born in Ghent, as Holy Roman Emperor, he increased pressure on the growing Protestant population in the Netherlands – in part a Spanish possession. This caused unrest in the region and helped lead to the Dutch Revolt. Eventually, the Dutch were excluded from their part in this trade, and took to the seas on their own – forming the Dutch East India Company. Within a few decades, this company came to dominate the seafaring spice route, and until its demise in the late 1700s moved two and a half million tons of Asian trade goods into Europe and sent almost one million Europeans to work in Asia.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Europeans loved their spices and paid dearly for them. A pound of cinnamon cost 24 pence and a pound of ginger half that; black pepper was about 18 pence per pound. With the average wage of a master carpenter being about 8 pence per day, one would have had to work 3 days for a pound of cinnamon and a little more than 2 for pepper. With 96 teaspoons in a pound, these purchases would probably last for 2-3 months in an average sized family, but still one can see how expensive spices were at this time. Anyone who could afford them, even if it was a stretch for their household income, considered spices a necessity. This was not only because food tastes better with added flavoring, but also to show to others in the community that they were well-off enough to afford spices (conspicuous consumption) and to harness the medicinal benefits offered by spices that I’ve written about in other posts.
The culinary creations enjoyed by the people of late Medieval and early modern Europe with Silk Road spices were well worth it. I am lucky to be married to a man who loves to dabble in historical cookery and am treated to these dishes on a regular basis. Recently he cooked a lamb stew from 17th Century Europe that had culinary relatives in Persia, Uzbekistan and even Mongolia. More accurately stated perhaps, the Persian dish gave rise to the European, Uzbek and Mongolian dishes. He started with a wonderful stock from Hugh Platt’s Delightes for Ladies from 1602 that combined currants, dates and almonds with onions, white wine, mace, black pepper, parsley, mint, bay and rosemary on a chicken and lamb base. The Levantine fruits, parsley, mint and mace make this a sweet treat to build a stew on. The completed stew goes on to add more onions, chestnuts, nutmeg and cloves for a rich, deep, filling stew.
So changes in traditional Silk Road maritime routes in the Mediterranean and Black Seas in the fifteenth century sent the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and eventually the rest of Europe to sea. The Dutch Revolt was the first in a series of struggles for succession that shaped early modern Europe, and the dissolution of the remnants of Byzantium sent the Greeks into Europe and opened intellectual doors that had long been shut – paving the way for many of the innovation and rediscoveries of the Renaissance. A victory for the Ottomans was the first in a long line of changes in the global spice trade that eventually led to the end of the Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley)