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Jakarta Post

Medieval Europe’s ‘divine obsession’ with Indonesian spices

  • Inforial

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta, Indonesia   /   Thu, July 20, 2017   /  09:02 pm
Medieval Europe’s ‘divine obsession’ with Indonesian spices Spice heaven: Two untitled manuscripts chart the Straits of Malacca, Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, islands that may refer to Maluku, the island of Madagascar and the smaller islands of Zanzibar and Pemba located off the east coast Africa. These were created by Portuguese cartographers Lopo Homen and Pedro Reinel circa 1519. The maps are taken from the book The Cartography of the East Indian Islands by David E. Parry. (JP/Arief Suhardiman)

Sebastian Partogi
The Jakarta Post/Jakarta

Medieval Europe’s irrational craving for South Asian spices has largely shaped Indonesia – and the world – as we know it today.

It is fair to say that people across the globe are more familiar with the Silk Road trade route than that of the Spice Trail. Aside from being a fascinating and complicated story, the Spice Trail has also left its mark on the contemporary life of Indonesia and the world.

Starting from a few centuries before Christ (BC), spices have been traded from South Asia to the Middle East and Europe through Arab and Chinese middlemen. Spices were essential to human life at that time, because it helped preserve foods and add flavors to it, while preserving the bodies of the dead among Muslims.

According to historian JJ Rizal, with technological advancements, particularly in cartography and astronomy, in the 15th and 16th centuries, European explorers such as the Italian Christopher Columbus and the Portuguese Vasco da Gama braved the unknown to discover for themselves the places from which these spices originated.

The purpose was to seize control of the commodities so that they no longer needed middlemen.

“Previously, the [South Asian] traders hid the maps to their territories so the Europeans could not find them,” Rizal said.

The expeditions were very aggressive, ambitious and, sometimes, delusional. Jack Turner writes in his book Spice: the history of a temptation ( 2004 ) that “for the sake of spices, fortunes were made and lost, empires built and destroyed and even a new world discovered.”  

He continues, however, that “to modern eyes, it might seem a mystery that spices should ever have exerted such a powerful attraction.”

Looking back, those European did have a reason behind the obsession.

“Due to the social structure of medieval Europe, which was highly feudalistic, all worldviews were dictated by that of the palace, kings and aristocrats. If you owned the expensive spices, you would be counted as part of the elites,” he explained.  

The European elite at that time did not only use spices to preserve foods; they also incorporated spices into their lifestyle to enhance the originally bland taste of their wines and to be used as fragrances — spices were even believed to have a potent power as an aphrodisiac.

He added that the potent power of spices had somehow been mystified through literature, Greek mythology and religious works, perpetuating the aspiration to own spices as a denotation of social class among Europeans.

“This is basically a public relations product; a communication construct that used fiction and mythology,” Rizal explained.

The abovementioned public relations practice of ancient times – similar to how we sell products today – could explain why explorers sacrificed even their lives for spices. Hundreds of da Gama’s crew died in a 1498 expedition.

Similarly, Giles Milton writes in his book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg ( 1999 ) that in 1527, Hugh Willoughby with his crew froze to death in around 1554 as they traversed the North Pole to find a shortcut to the “spiceries” of Southeast Asia.

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European traders eventually arrived in Indonesia in the late 16th and early 17th century, trading nutmegs, cloves and mace as their “trinity” of the most expensive and luxurious spices in Europe. No wonder: the spices were available only in the Banda Islands of Maluku.

During these centuries, many Indonesian kingdoms and sultanates had been able to turn their economic resources into intellectual ones by educating their people, thereby helping them to reach their glory days. The Sriwijaya kingdom in Sumatra, Banten province, as well as the Gowa sultanate in Makassar, South Sulawesi, were among them.

The glory days, unfortunately, did not last long. Around 50 years after the spices were discovered and cultivated in Europe, their worth declined steeply, forcing the Dutch to exploit other commodities, such as sugar and tea.

Furthermore, Dutch traders were given political authority by the Netherlands and soon found themselves involved in internal conflicts among local kingdoms as they lent local royals support under certain deals.

“Sultan Haji from Banten, for example, asked for the Dutch to support him economically to topple his father from power. Colonialism will never happen without the role of locals,” Rizal explained.

Rizal said colonialism then contributed to creating nationalism among Indonesians and the invention of the Indonesian language to unify the country’s independence pioneers.

The long history of spices that has shaped the country and many parts of the world deserves more recognition. 

In a bid to boost awareness of the Spice Trail, the Culture and Education Ministry has been involved in a number of programs, including bringing the route into spotlight during the 2017 Europalia festival, in which Indonesia will serve as a guest country.

Dubbed as the largest and most prestigious cultural festival in Europe, the event will run from Oct. 10 to Jan. 21, 2018, in Belgium and neighboring countries.

The Ministry’s director general of culture, Hilmar Farid, lamented the fact that — despite its historical significance in many areas such as education, nation building, trade and the creative economy — the history of the Spice Trail has gradually been forgotten by Indonesians.

“China has invested a lot to bring the Silk Road to international recognition. It is part of their diplomatic framing,” Hilmar said.

He added that Indonesian people should also learn about the knowledge system possessed by their glorious ancient kingdoms to look for clues on how to build the nation. Implementing connectivity in terms of physical infrastructure will not be enough, he said.

“We also need to boost our connectivity to our historical background,” Hilmar said.

A hundred secret spices

According to the 13th edition of the Plant Resources of South-East Asia (PROSEA) journal published in 1999 by the Blackhuys Publishers, Leiden, the Southeast Asian region is home to approximately 50 major spices, with the addition of other minor spices.

During the Spice Trail era, three Indonesian spices found only in the Banda Islands became the stars of the trade: nutmeg, clove and mace. Aside from this “trinity” of spice, pepper – which came from India to Indonesia – was also heavily traded at that time. Below are brief explanations taken from the journal about these four spices:

-- (Antara/Syifa Yulinnas)

NUTMEG AND MACE (Myristica fragrans)

Nutmeg most probably originated in Indonesia from the southern Moluccan islands, especially Ambon and Banda. The first record in Europe, in Constantinople, dates from 54 AD. By the end of the 12th century, nutmeg became generally known to Europeans. It is sold whole or grounded to be used mostly for savory dishes, pickles and ketchups. Nutmeg’s essential oils contain bactericidal, fungicidal and insecticidal activities, which was why it was used by Europeans to preserve food.

-- (JP/Markus Makur)

CLOVES (Syzygium aromaticum)

First cultivated in Maluku and New Guinea, cloves have been traded since China’s Han dynasty in around 200 BC. Stories about the trade and spread of cloves are full with intrigue and violence. Apart from pepper, no other spice may have played a comparable role in world history. Clove has been used to flavor food and for medical purposes. It suppresses bad breath and soothes toothaches while acting as a stimulant. Nowadays, more than 90 percent of cloves are used with tobacco to manufacture cigarettes.

-- (JP/Severianus Endi)

PEPPER (Piper nigrum)

Native of Western Ghats of Kerala State, India, it reached Indonesia as early as 100 BC, brought by Hindu colonists. Pepper has been used to flavor and preserve foods. The use of pepper for food has increased in the last few decades, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, thanks to tourism and industrial development.

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