Spice Route in the 15th Century

The Spice Route in the 15th century refer to the network of sea routes that linked the East with the West. They stretched from the west coast of Japan, through the islands of Indonesia, around India to the lands of the Middle East, and across the Mediterranean to Europe.

Spice Route in the 15th Century
Spice Route in the 15th century

It is a distance of over 15,000 kilometres and, even today, is not an easy journey. From our very earliest history, people have travelled the Spice Routes. These journeys were not undertaken purely in the spirit of adventure – the driving force behind them was trade. The Spice Routes were, and still are, first and foremost trade routes.

Since ancient times, trade has had an important role in human life. When we buy something we are trading, exchanging one item (usually money) for another. However, our purchase is the final link in a long chain of buyers and sellers: from the supplier of raw materials, to the manufacturer, to the wholesaler, to the shop.

The journey of the goods between all these links in the chain is what is called a trade route. In the case of the Spice Routes traders formed these links by buying and selling goods from port to port. The principal and most profitable goods they traded in were spices – giving the routes their name.

Common spices traded in the 15th century

Exchange of goods and knowledge

Around 2000 BC, spices such as cinnamon from Sri Lanka and cassia from China found their way along the Spice Routes. They exchanged other goods too – cargoes of ivory, silk, porcelain, metals and dazzling gemstones. They brought great profits to the traders who risked their the dangerous sea journeys.

But precious goods were not the only points of exchange between the traders. More important was the exchange of knowledge: knowledge of new peoples and their religions, languages, expertise, artistic and scientific skills. The ports along the Spice Route (aka Silk Roads) acted as melting pots for ideas and information. With every ship with a cargo of valuables on board, they also carried fresh knowledge over the seas.

Perhaps it was their strangeness and rarity that gave them great medicinal and spiritual values. From ancient times, priests burned spices as incense in religious ceremonies, purifying the air. They also added them to healing ointments and to potions drunk as antidotes to poisons. To hide the many household smells, people burned spices daily in their homes. They were used as cooking ingredients very early on.

Traders made considerable profits from spices. They were small and dried, and consequently could be transported easily. The wealth of the spice trade brought great power and influence. So, over the centuries, countries fought bloody battles to win control of it.

Learn more about the 15th century and deep dive into the Middle Ages and castles.

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