The Spice Trade Route
Posted by tahirfarrath on October 19, 2009
There is strong evidence that trade with the Spice Islands themselves is truly ancient. Thus, the history of commerce and trade is in the history of spices and America would not have been discovered were it not for the European desire to break the Arab traders’ monopoly on spices. Spices have its first recorded use by the Assyrians (circa 3000 BCE). Almost a millennium later, the remarkable Egyptian Ebers papyrus (dating to 1550 BCE) lists spices used for both medicinal and embalming procedures. All these point towards the ancientness of the trade between the Middle East and India, China, South-east Asia and the Spice Islands of Indonesia. By the first century BCE, the Arab traders were making direct voyages to India and the Chinese were making voyages throughout the entirety of the Malay Archipelago to trade in the Moluccas. In effect the Spice Route had become an almost entirely maritime trading route.
With Muslim expansionism, the westward flow of spices almost dried-up completely with only a few Jewish traders (who could dwell in both the Christian and Muslim worlds) bringing-in tiny amounts of very expensive spices. This had a dramatic effect on Europe which ultimately led to Europe’s ‘Age of Discovery’ and the finding of the New World. So the history of chilli spread world-wide from South America – its native home. Hence, the Portuguese also brought chillies to West Africa and African slaves to Brazil. But, just as the Portuguese brought Asian spices Westwards to Europe they also took chillies Eastwards with them and by the 1520s chillies had spread to Indonesia. What is amazing is just how quickly chilli peppers spread across the Old World. From Christopher Columbus’ first revelation of this new spice in Spain during 1495 to the appearance of chillies in china (probably prior to 1542) took less that 50 years!
In the Malay archipelago, the orang asli (original people) also had their own problems and Malacca fell to the Portuguese.
The Sejarah Melayu (Malay annals) were commissioned by Sultan Alau’d-din II, not long after the fall of Melaka to the Portuguese in 1511. Malay historical works (sastera sejarah) had prospered as a courtly narrative tradition between the late thirteenth century and the early nineteenth century.
Tuhfat al-Nafis (the precious gift), however, was not commissioned by a ruler, but emerged out of the writer’s own initiative to “trace genealogies, expeditions, dates and most important of all, the narrative of the Malay and Bugis Kings and of all their children”. This was started around the 1860s and finished in the early nineteenth century.
These two works were compiled by male court dwellers, and being relatives of the rulers, they were well versed with developments in the two courts. The official scribe could pick and choose to relate a story as he saw fit, yet could not offend the royal patron who commissioned him to write the history of kings. But he would imply that the Sultan violated an established custom, and erred in his decision, or he would raise doubts about the legitimacy of a claim.
As it were, the Malay aristocrats saw themselves losing power to the military might of the Bugis clan. As the covenant between the Malay-Bugis was broken time and again, a Malay princess played a large part in making way for the Bugis to launch themselves in Malay politics.
Interestingly, the Bugis seem to feature prominently in the Malay Archipelago.