The ancient Spice Route

by Mark

The ancient Spice Route

Malaysia’s exotic history is intricately intertwined with the history of the ancient Spice Route. With its strategic crosswinds location at the heart of Southeast Asia, Malaysia was an ancient maritime base pivotal to the trade routes from Europe, the Orient, India and China. The maritime hub was located in the southeast state of Malacca. Here, a thriving seaport arose to became the place where East and West met. It would establish Malacca’s position as the most influential port in Southeast Asia. Thee traders from around the world brought more than just business to the shores of Malacca. They would leave a legacy that dramatically impacted the course of the country’s history, culture, religions, traditions… and its cuisine.


Spices are today plentiful and easily available, but in ancient times they were rare and precious, worth their weight in gold. Highly Coveted for their preservative properties which made them key ingredients in medicine, perfume, incense and flavouring these spices were sought after by the rich and the famous. Records show Malaysia’s early beginnings as a spice route probably date from around 300 BC, when merchants and traders from India and China stopped along the Malaysian coast to trade. By 400 AD, Malacca had established itself as a key port on the spice Route. Merchants bearing silk and porcelain from China textiles from India, sandalwood from Timor, frankincense, myrrh and other fragrant resins from southern Arabia, converged on Malacca to exchange these for the spices in great demand such as clove, nutmeg and pepper.
For 2,000 years the network of sea lanes christened the Spice Route because of Southeast Asia’s precious spices was the link between the Mediterranean and the Far East. This was early globalisation, when merchants travelled to unchartered frontiers in their quest for fame, fortune, power and glory. But with this maritime mercantilism of spices and exotic cargo sailed something else. Inside these Chinese junks, the Spanish galleons and the Arab dhows that plied this ancient sea route, new ideas and religions were spreading. Islam took root here, as did a profusion of languages. Malacca became a great centre of languages (with over 80 believed to have been used to conduct trade), and perhaps the richest seaport in the world in the 1500s. This was too tempting a prize to be left alone and the great powers of the West cast their eyes on Malacca… aiming to win this prize for themselves.


At the beginning of the 16th century, the eastern spice trade was routed through Egypt, which had embraced the Islamic religion. Non Muslim vessels were not allowed to dock at Arabian ports. This meant that European vessels manned by Christian traders and sailors were not welcome there. Desperate for an open trade route between India and the Far East, the Europeans set sail to search for their own trading ports for the lucrative spice and silk trade of the Far East. The Europeans arrived in Malacca in the early 16th century, and transformed the history of the spice trade, and the history of the country, forever. The first Europeans to land in Malacca were the Portuguese who captured the city in 1511. They were followed by the Dutch, and then the British, who monopolized Asia’s prized commodities until the European industrial age in the 19th century. In 1941, while still under British rule, Malaysia was temporarily colonized by the Japanese during World War 2. In 1957 Malaysia gained her independence from the British and is today one of the most modern and developed countries in the Far East. While the thrust of its economy is now largely dependent on manufacturing, it has not lost its historical link with the spice trade.One of Malaysia’s major exports is pepper (mainly from Sarawak) and this King of Spices still accounts for over a quarter of all modern spice trade. Also, exotic spices remain the mainstay of Malaysian cooking with cumin, coriander, nutmeg and cloves very much a part of the potpourri of Malay, Indian, and Chinese dishes.While many may not know of Malaysia’s spice history, the popularity of exotic cooking from the Far East marks a new modern chapter in the continuing global appeal of these spices.


C-Right 2014 by Langkawi Gazette

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