The Taste of Conquest

by Michael Krondl

Mr. Krondl presents a history of the three European cities that most directly benefited from the spice trade: Venice, Lisbon, and Amsterdam. Each one enjoyed its own golden age. Venice began the process around 1100 AD, importing spices from the East Indies via Alexandria. They represented the last leg of a long journey: after harvesting, the spices were brought to a local port, where they were purchased by merchants who brought them to emporia along the Indian coast. There they were purchased by Muslim merchants who shipped them up the Red Sea and sold them at ports along the northern coast of Egypt in the Red Sea. Then they were brought by camel to Alexandria, where the Venetians bought them. It could take several years for these spices to travel from harvest to table; fortunately, the primary spice, pepper, did not spoil easily and, if kept dry, would last for years.

Venice grew wealthy from this trade. Most European food was bland, and spicing it up always improved the taste. People will spend a lot of money on their food, and that money was spread all along the trade routes. However, when the Portuguese found the way around the southern tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean around 1500, they wiped out the Venetian trade. Aggressive, violent tactics locked up the market, shutting out the Muslim traders who had fed the pipeline to Venice. Thus, Lisbon ended up harvesting the wealth of the spice trade. Although the Portuguese had shown great determination and ingenuity in developing the trade routes to the East Indies, their operations in the East Indies were clumsy and inefficient. Thus, when the Dutch merchants began plying the same trade route, the greater efficiency of their operations (combined with even greater violent ruthlessness) quickly put the Portuguese out of business. The greatest Dutch outrage was the attack on the single island in the entire world that produced one important spice. They simply wiped out the indigenous population (several thousand people) and set up their own farms. This, however, was more attributable to the vicious local Governor-General than to the Dutch East India Company. With a solid corner on the spice trade, the Dutch enjoyed the immense wealth that had previous gone to Venice and Lisbon.

Ultimately, though, the Dutch lost their spice empire to the depredations of the English and the Spanish, both of whom preyed upon Dutch merchant ships. Moreover, new spices from the New World (primarily chili peppers, but also some others) provided competition to the primary spice of the East Indies (pepper). That competition drove down the price of spices and ultimately reduced the spice trade to just one more business like any other.

I read this book to pursue a hypothesis that I have been developing: that trade “rationalizes” a culture, in the sense that merchants must operate under the remorselessly logic laws of the marketplace, which in turn forces a more intense form of rationalism upon them. I would therefore expect that societies for whom trade is a primary occupation would show greater rationalism. While this book provided some tidbits to support that hypothesis, and nothing to undermine it, all in all it failed to provide the kind of answers I was looking for. Further research will be necessary.