Spice Wars: The European Fight for the Spice Trade

Find out all you need to know about one of the first truly global conflicts—the battle for the spice trade.

Jul 10, 2024By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History

spice trade wars european fight


The spice trade was arguably one of the first conflicts which engulfed the majority of the globe. Spice wars were fought between three major European players at different times—the English, the Portuguese, and the Dutch, although the French and Spanish also had their part to play.


The Spice Trade in the Ancient World

Map depicting the locations in Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, art by Abraham Ortelius, 1597, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Even before the major European players came to dominate the spice trade in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, a trade in spice had been going on for centuries, predominantly between African and Asian nations. Indonesian sailors in particular established trade routes and Indonesia would come to be known as “the Spice Islands” in the Early Modern Period, when trade started booming with European nations. These routes were generally between Indonesia and other kingdoms in and around Southeast Asia, with evidence of trade with Chinese merchants from as early as 1500 BCE.


With North Africa also becoming involved in the spice trade, ancient Greek and ancient Roman merchants got a taste for the goods that the trade could offer. Merchants from Persia and North Africa reached the Mediterranean, and exotic spices such as black pepper began to appear in the villas of wealthy Greeks and Romans.


The Medieval Spice Trade 

Calicut, India, from Civitates Orbis Terrarium, 1572, Source: Wikimedia Commons


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So why did the spice trade from the ancient world seemingly shut down until the Early Modern Period? One theory is after the rise of Islam dominated the Iberian peninsula from the 7th century CE until 1492, Arab and Ottoman traders held sway over the major trading routes and controlled what came in and out of Europe via the Red Sea and the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea via the Atlantic Ocean.


It was not until 1498 that the biggest factor came about which opened up the spice trade. The Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, became the first person to successfully navigate around the Cape of Good Hope (in modern-day South Africa) to reach India. This opened up a whole new trading route—once ships could sail past the perilous Cape of Good Hope and head onward to India, they could get their spices from the source—particularly spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, and cardamom.


It was also around the turn of the 15th century—thanks to discoveries of Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas—that the Early Modern Period began. Developments in technology and trade would see the beginning of the European spice trade, and ultimately, the spice wars.


The Portuguese in India

Vasco da Gama, c. 1525-50, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Thanks to Vasco da Gama’s successful circumnavigation and his arrival in India (he landed in Kerala, South India), the spice trade opened up to the European powers.


Naturally, Portugal was the first European nation to profit from this expedition, and they quickly established colonies in Southern India, especially on the western coast. Areas such as Goa on India’s southwest coast still have a heavy Portuguese influence, which can be seen today in its historic architecture.


The Spanish Influence

Ferdinand Magellan on his ship, after Jan Van Der Straet, 1589, Source: The British Museum


Portugal’s neighbor, Spain, who had had more success sailing west with Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas in 1492, also began to turn their attention eastwards to get in on the spice trade. In 1519, King Charles V of Spain sent explorer Ferdinand Magellan to sail westward around the world. Sadly, Magellan lost his life in what is now the Philippines (which, in the early 1540s were named after the Spanish monarch, King Philip II). However, even though Magellan had died, and four of his five ships had been lost, his remaining ship brought back huge quantities of black pepper and other spices to Spain, thus rendering the trip a financial success in Charles V’s eyes.


The Dutch in Control

The Noord-Nieuwland in Table Bay, 1762, likely 1762, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The third big European player in the spice trade was Holland (now known as the Netherlands). Back on European soil (or rather, waters), the Dutch as a nation had begun to boost their economy by supplying ships to Portugal in the 16th century. As a result of their ship-building skills, the Dutch grew as a European power and eventually gained control of shipping and trade across northern Europe. Eventually, they decided that they wanted to expand their seafaring powers and also wanted in on the spice trade—and this is where the conflict really begins.


The Dutch Monopoly Over the Spice Islands

Map of the Spice Islands, by William Blaeu, 1630, Source: The Old Map Company


In the early 17th century, it was abundantly clear that the Dutch wanted to take control of the spice trade, and would do so at any cost. In 1607, they forged an alliance based on the trade of cloves with the Sultan of Ternate in the Spice Islands. Two years later, they occupied the Banda Islands (which they would hold until 1623), which gave them control of the nutmeg trade.


The Dutch adopted the classic colonizer mentality in order to oppress Indonesian locals and spice growers in particular. They forged many treaties and attempted to trade spices for items that the native islanders did not even need, such as knives.


One notable figure from the Spice Wars was a Dutchman named Jan Pieterszoon Coen. He was the Dutch Governor-General of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and a particularly brutal man. In order to keep the spice trade locations in the Spice Islands as secret as possible, he almost wiped out the native population of the Banda Islands. He decided to establish Jakarta (the capital of modern-day Indonesia) as the global center of the spice trade.


The Dutch did have a monopoly over spice during the early years of the 17th century. However, when the English East India Company was formed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in 1600, they provided serious competition for the Dutch.


The people of the Banda Islands continued to sell nutmeg and mace to English merchants, which infuriated Coen. In response, he had almost the entire population of the Banda islands either deported or killed and replaced them with slaves the VOC had captured.


The Dutch vs. the Portuguese

Peace negotiations with the Portuguese in Angola, 1657, Wikimedia Commons


It was not just the native population that the Dutch would oppress. They realized that they could expand their control over the spice trade further north, and some pivotal moments during the Spice Wars came in the form of confrontations between the Dutch and the Portuguese.


In India, the Dutch took many 15th-century Portuguese settlements by force, thus establishing a monopoly on the Indian pepper trade. Later, during the rise of the British Empire, these Dutch settlements would be taken by the British.


However, the Portuguese did have one more trick in their arsenal. Like the Dutch, the Portuguese had taken advantage of slavery—wherever they went, slaves followed, or so it seemed.


Following Vasco da Gama’s travels south of Portugal, around the Cape of Good Hope, and up past the Horn of Africa, the Portuguese established colonies at key strategic points, often with ports so that they could trade cargo, refresh their crews, and stock up on supplies for the perilous journey to India, the Spice Islands, and beyond.


One of these key stop-offs was Angola, in the southwest of the African continent. The Portuguese Empire colonized Angola (and Mozambique) where they could gather up slaves. Some of these would be traded back in Europe, others would travel with the merchants on the ships and be forced to work on spice plantations in Asia.


The Portuguese were one of the major slaving nations, and it has been argued that their seizure of Angola was a turning point in European attitudes towards Africa, eventually culminating in the Scramble for Africa in the 19th century.


Jan Pieterszoon Coen, by Jacob Waben, c. 1610-34, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Realizing the importance of having colonies in Africa for their strategic needs, the Dutch also established colonies around modern-day South Africa—which is why the Dutch language is not too dissimilar to Afrikaans. As well as for trading purposes, the Dutch colonies in South Africa helped sailors in the long term.


Realizing that many were dying from scurvy and rickets due to a lack of vitamin C, the Dutch established colonies in South Africa, where they used slaves (as well as Dutch farmers) to grow exotic fruit trees so that the sailors could replenish themselves on the way to the Spice Islands. If it was not for these Portuguese and Dutch colonies in Africa, it is highly unlikely that the European spice trade would have boomed as much as it did during the 17th century and beyond.


The End of the Spice Wars

Bowls of spice, photo by Agnieszka Stankiewicz, Source: Unsplash


While spices are still in demand today, the spice trade of the early modern world did eventually come to an end. There are various reasons why, although the general consensus is because of the settlement of the Americas.


From the Americas came potatoes, coffee, and tobacco—all of which were in much higher demand than exotic spices. New trading routes across the Atlantic to the Americas had opened up, meaning that sailors were no longer required to undertake the perilous journey around the Cape of Good Hope in order to reach the Spice Islands.


In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Dutch and English East India Companies collapsed. As a result, the centralization of the spice trade, which had been solely based in Southeast Asia came to an end. The similar climate of Central America meant that spices could be grown there, too—thus making it easier for European merchants.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.