The Spice Route

The global spice trade in Asia through the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean which connects three major continents (Asia, Africa, Europe), has left significant traces of civilization. In the course of history, Indonesia has played a significant role in the world economy due to its strategic position in one of the busiest maritime routes in the world. Its strategic location connects East Asia, South Asia, 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 spice. For Southeast Asia, the number is close to 275 species (Prosea, 1999). No commodity has played a more pivotal role in the development of modern civilization than the spices (Parry, 1969; Rosengarten, 1973). So indispensable were spices, it had influenced the world’s politics, economy, and culture. Inevitably, heavy traffic from East Asia, South Asia, Middle East, Europe, and vice versa crossing the Southeast Asia archipelago, so-called the Spice Route, has transformed into a means of cultural exchange and intercultural understanding that brought together various ideas, concepts, knowledge, and experience, between people across nations.

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. 

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).

Close Menu