The spice empires

What happened after that is well known. As Arab power declined, that of Europe rose. European navigators set out to discover the mysterious lands where spices grew. Vasco da Gama sailed round Africa, finding a route to the ‘Indies’ the Arabs couldn’t block; after him came a host of explorers –  Portuguese, Dutch, French, English. Unable to compete against Western seafaring and military technology, the Arabs and their co-religionists retired, leaving the field to the Europeans. The new masters of the trade fought amongst themselves for dominance. Every spice island and trading post was a prize worth any number of lives, for spices had lost none of their value over the centuries; indeed, if anything their value had increased. Monopolies were fiercely protected. The Portuguese and Dutch tried to prevent the export of nutmeg from the Moluccas; Pierre Poivre, a French colonial official, risked his life to smuggle nutmeg and clove seedlings from those islands to Mauritius. His name, translated into English, is immortalized in the nursery-rhyme that begins

peter piper picked a peck of pickled peppers

Huge European fortunes were amassed in pepper, cinnamon and cloves; wars were foight and unspeakable atrocities committed for the sake of the trade; and by it Europe acquired her vast world-spanning empires, which she held to until the middle of the twentieth century. 

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