Spice, and the ‘Age of Discovery’

5 min readJul 10, 2022


Ambition and futility — the human condition

Photo by Paolo Bendandi on Unsplash

The three most famous of the Iberian maritime explorers — Columbus, da Gama and Magellan — all had one thing in common; they didn’t set out to discover anything at all, but rather to find a route to Asia and thereby dominate the spice trade.

It is difficult for us now to understand how compelling spices were to Europeans in the 15th and 16th century. They came from lands of mystique, they had tantalising favours, and they were attributed powers of healing and arousal. They were desired. Then, as now, there was money to be made out of desire.

The spice trade from Asia to Europe had gone on for millennia, and generally followed a route from Asia to India, crossing the Indian ocean on Arab vessels, travelling overland to Alexandria and then taken by boat to the epicentre of the spice trade — Venice. This had been going on since Roman times.

The Spanish weren’t too happy about this. At each step of the route the price increased and the infidels got richer at the expense of the Christians. By the time the spices got to the Italians it was already exorbitantly priced, and then they marked it up again.

Columbus proposed he could get to Asia more simply by sailing west. It was accepted that the Earth was round by that time, although Columbus was grossly underestimating its size (which the Egyptians had calculated circa 200BCE, to the remarkable accuracy of ~1% — but see comment by B Koure). When he returned from the Caribbean, and for a number of expeditions that followed, he continued to maintain he had reached Asia, passing off flavourless bark as cinnamon and chillies as a new pepper (and why they are still called peppers in the US).

On Columbus’ return, the Portuguese reminded the Spanish of a treaty ratified 10 years earlier that granted Portugal all lands South of the Canary Islands. That meant that the Caribbean belonged to Portugal, and they started to make arrangements to send a fleet there to back up that claim. Perhaps surprisingly, the dispute was resolved diplomatically before they did. In 1494 the Portuguese and Spanish signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, endorsed in a papal bull by the Vatican; they would share the world between them. Half each. Terra nullius (and arrogance) on a global scale.

The Portuguese were already trading in gold and slaves along the west coast of Africa. So, there was to be a line of longitude down the Atlantic 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands off the African coast; everything to the west of that would be Spanish, and to east Portuguese. The Spanish blundered by not then realising that South America bulged eastwards in the middle, and so Brazil and surrounding areas became Portuguese. No one asked the locals if they were selling.

This treaty energized the Portuguese, who decided they could sail further down the African coast and then across to India and so to spice riches. Vasco da Gama was the first (1497), and given that the Spanish hadn’t actually got to Asia, Portugal now had the upper hand. The Portuguese were delighted and sent a stronger second fleet that established a bloody naval blockade of Arab vessels to firmly control the spice trade and squeeze out Venice.

The Portuguese continued to press on eastward from India, overtaking Malacca (a very strategic position), and then eventually tracing a route to the Spice Islands.

The Spice Islands are a handful of rocky volcanic outcrops in far eastern Indonesia, made up of two archipelagoes — the North and the South Moluccas (about a weeks sailing apart). The North Moluccas was the only place anywhere in the world that cloves grew; likewise, nutmeg and mace in the South Moluccas. These spices, together with pepper (India), were the jewels of the spice trade and the most lucrative. The two main islands of N. Moluccas were Ternate and Tidore (they were constantly at war). The Portuguese established a post on Ternate and from there had control over these spices.

But the consternation was that if there was a line down the Atlantic then everyone knew it had to come back up again on the other side of the world, and the question was, where?

The Spice Islands were a long way East. So the Spanish claimed they were in the Spanish half of the world, and the Portuguese counter-claimed possession.

Magellan was a Portuguese nobleman and businessman who proposed to settle the matter by sailing the other way (west) like Columbus did, but this time down South America and either through a passage (if he could find one) or under the continent (if the continent stopped somewhere).

The King of Portugal wasn’t interested; Portugal already had control. So a frustrated Magellan crossed the border to Spain, and the Spaniards were very interested indeed. If this route was shorter then the islands were theirs under the terms of the treaty.

The Magellan expedition was a nightmare, but with endurance and perseverance he eventually found his way under South America and into the calm of an ocean he was relieved to call Pacific. He had no realisation of how big it was and spent harrowing months crossing it without adequate fresh food or water (being lucky to sail at just the right latitude to be assisted by ocean currents). Eventually, the expedition reached the Philippines, where Magellan pointlessly died by involving himself in a local dispute between tribal leaders.

What was left of the expedition carried on the search, and with local knowledge reached the Spice Islands and landed on Tidore, the rival island to Portuguese Ternate, establishing a Spanish presence there. Two rival superpowers occupying two naturally-rival islands about 2 kilometres apart at the end of the world — history and human nature in microcosm.

Two boats were left. One set sail back the way they had come but bad currents and winds forced them to return to the Spice Islands where the Portuguese captured them. The other set sail for Spain heading west and 9 months later reached its destination, whereby Spain claimed the islands. Of 270 men, 18 had returned.

None of this resolved the dispute between Spain and Portugal, they still accused each other of trespass. But it meant that the first circumnavigation of the world, and the horrors that it entailed, was in the pursuit of spice.

In 1529 the disagreement between the Iberian superpowers was resolved peacefully. To the dismay of Spanish merchants, the king of Spain sold his claim over the Spice Islands to Portugal.

He then spent the entire proceeds of the sale on his wedding.

So it goes.

Further reading: Jack Turner (2005) ‘Spice — the history of a temptation’ Vintage Books, Random House, NY




Science of cooking, eating and health. Retired neuroscientist.