Welcome to the Land of Spice

History has proven that the Southeast Asian archipelago was once one of the drivers of globalization which played an important role in the world economy. Its strategic location connects to ‘the land above the winds’, namely China, India, and the Middle East to Europe. Southeast Asia is also the source of sought-after and most valuable commodity: spices. It is estimated that in the course of time and on a worldwide scale, 400-500 plant species have been used as a spice. For Southeast Asia the number is close to 275 species. No commodity has played a more pivotal role in the development of modern civilization than the spices (Parry, 1969; Rosengarten, 1973). In a period when Europe had no knowledge of sugar, tea, coffee, chocolate, potatoes or tobacco, Oriental spices already supplied flavour and pungency to bland foods and drinks, and fragrancy to mask a multitude of unpleasant odours. So indispensible were spices, both politically and economically, as well as culturally, that monarchs sent expeditions in search of them, merchants risked life and fortune to trade in them, wars were fought over them, populations were enslaved, the globe was explored, and revolutionary changes were brought about by the ruthless competition (Prosea, 1999).

Thus, the charm of clove, nutmeg and mace had become major commodity that boosted major development of international trade in Southeast Asia. Clove tree (Eugenia aromatica, Kuntze) is a plant native (endemic) to the island of Ternate, Tidore, Moti, Makian, and Bacan. While nutmeg and mace are obtained from the nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans, Linn), endemic to the island of Banda. No less important, aromatic spices from the sap of the plant, that is endemic tree of Sumatra: incense (Styrax benzoin) and camphor (Dryobalanops aromaticum). Some other key commodities such as cinnamon (Cinnamomum burmanii), pepper (Piper nigrum) are produced in Sumatra. While sandalwood (Santalum album) and candlenut (Aleurites moluccana) grow in the eastern islands of the archipelago. These spices have attracted foreigners to the archipelago.

The earliest evidence which proved that Southeast Asia had an important role in the Indian Ocean trades came from a Greek astronomer named Claudius Ptolomaeus who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 1st century AD. He wrote Guide to Geography, which was ancient maps that contained the name of a town called Barus. This appeared to be an ancient seaport which was very important in Sumatra and the world. The name of this ancient metropolis is a reminiscent of aromatic spices which was precious and constantly hounded by foreign nations (Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Arabic, Chinese, Hindustani): kapur barus or camphor (Guillot, 2014). Other evidence of ancient spice trade stemmed from Terqa, a site in Mesopotamia (now Syria), where archeological excavations found remains of cloves in a vase in a modest house in 1721 BC (Liggett, 1982). Another ancient source also mentioned that in the 3rd century AD, high-ranking officials of Han dynasty must chew cloves before facing the emperor in order to have a pleasant mouth odour (Turner, 2011). Although some Chinese sources before 14th century AD knew that the origin of cloves were from Molucca islands, there was only one record dated 1350 AD which actually wrote that Chinese jungs sailed from China to the area. Collection and shipping of spices to the western hemisphere were handled entirely by mostly Malays, Javanese and Bandanese. Traders from Malay, Arabic, Persian, and China, bought spices from the archipelago, then taken by ship to the Persian Gulf and distributed throughout Europe via Constantinople – with a price up to 600 times higher (Turner, 2011).

Spice trade in the Southeast Asian archipelago left a significant traces of civilization in the form of relics of historical sites, cultural rites, and gave birth to a variety of cultural products that are inspired by its abundant natural resources. It appeared that in the past, people from different nations gathered to the archipelago not only for trading, but rather to build a civilization (Rizal, 2015). To mention a few, seaport of Barus in North Sumatra (Tumanggor, 1999; Guillot, 2001), kingdom of Tarumanagara (Djafar, 2010), Srivijaya (Wolters, 1967), Majapahit (Djafar, 2012), Syailendra dynasty, Kahuripan (Susanti, 2010) to trading countries such as in Banten (Reid, 2014), Mollucas (Andaya, 1993), and Sulawesi – all of which state-formation derived from economic policy, mainly from exporting spices.

Based on this historical account, some experts laid an argument which questioned why the terminology of spice route are less appreciated than the silk road. While maritime silk road is oftenly associated with the spice trade, spice route substantively did not involve silk as major commodity. But rather, spices remained the largest part of trade from across the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and the coast of Greece and other Southern European region. Along with the spice trade, simultaneously it generated inter-cultural understanding, exchange of knowledge, language, skill, and even religion, among various people who came from many distant places. Therefore, Southeast Asia as the land of spices have become a great melting pot of various concepts, ideas and praxis; and the Spice Route had been the means of transfer, from one place to another.

Close Menu