“He who controls the spice, controls the universe.” -Baron Harkonnen (Dune)
Beginning with biblical times and even during the reign of the Egyptian kingdom, trade routes used in order to obtain spices from their native regions in Southeastern Asia came about. These coveted aromatic substances were often linked to paradise or the Garden of Eden in many people’s minds. Spices traded worldwide can be traced back to the Malay Archipelago or “East Indies.” The trade routes known as the “Cinnamon Route” and the “Clove Route” attracted Arabian/Muslim, European, Asian, and African traders alike. Southeast Asia played a big role in the global spice trade with its production of spices such as cassia and cinnamon. As a result, spice traders left a lasting mark on Southeast Asia.
There are disputes about exactly where some of the old spice routes were, but most of them can be traced with study of historical works. The “Clove Route” can be traced from Maluku and the southern Philippines north to South China and Indochina and then south along the coast to the Strait of Malacca. From there, cloves went to Indian spice markets and areas further west. Cinnamon trade began in the north in the cinnamon-producing regions of north Indochina and south China. The route most likely went from South China spice ports southward during the winter monsoon down the Philippine corridor. The route likely curved southeast at that point to Java to pick up different varieties of cinnamon along with cassia, aloeswood, and benzoin. From southwest Indonesia, the voyage then went across the great expanse of the Indian Ocean to Africa. These routes are described in detail in Chinese records and Indian literature as places of wonder.
Muslims slowly began to convert locals in Southeast Asia, speeding up the spread of Islam. Indians also shared their Hindu beliefs with natives of the mainland, and both Islam and Hinduism are major religions in the area today. Once the Europeans discovered the valuable spices found in the Indies, Portuguese especially benefitted from this trade and spices became a part of every day European life. This also invited European colonization and the introduction of new languages to the island such as Portuguese and English. These coveted spices that were traded were not only of great worth but were notably challenging to obtain. Besides obvious economic benefits for Southeast Asia, this trade and interaction with other countries brought about lasting cultural changes.
The diversity of the region is thanks in part to the attention their spices received from traders across the globe. With 300 and counting different ethnic groups on the island part of the region alone (where the spices originate from), it is impossible to say the spice trade didn’t leave a footprint on the cultural geography on the area. The valuable spices had notable influence on the rest of the world, and Southeast Asia still prospers in modern society, partly in thanks to its local resource.
“History of the Spice Trade, Page 3: The Ages of Conquest and Discovery.” Celtnet – Resources for the Celticist, Recipes, Medicine and Much More. Web. 9 May 2013. <http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/spice-trade3.php>.
“Spice Route History, Asian Trade Routes of Indian Ocean, South China Sea.” Asia Pacific News, Travel, Chat, Jokes, Lyrics, Food Recipes, Stars. Web. 9 May 2013. <http://asiapacificuniverse.com/pkm/spiceroutes.htm>.