Gold Spices

Published 13 Mar 2017

The period between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries was the time of great geographical discoveries and change of the world geopolitics. The Europeans discovered the unknown lands, islands, seas and oceans and made first round-the-world voyages. All these events significantly changed man’s idea of the Earth but the consequences of the discoveries were contradictory. On the one hand, they accelerated economic development in certain European countries but, on the other hand, the discovered lands with their indigenous population were turned into the colonies what considerably hampered their development for a long time.

These explorations have a number of causes which were directly related to those processes that occurred in West Europe. The increase of production, trade, and market created a severe shortage in gold and silver for coinage. It was supposed that precious metals were abundant in Asian countries, especially in India. Another commodity that attracted the merchants from the West and spurred the changes in the world history was spices.

The Europeans learned about spices from Arabic merchants. An elaborate mercantile chain brought spices to Europe already in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The raw materials came from countries at the eastern edge of the known world – that is to say, from countries bordering on the Pacific Ocean. The most of spices came from the Spice Islands and other island groups, which are now included in the Republic of Indonesia. The source of cinnamon was Ceylon; pepper grew in western India, but the choicest came from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Hence, spices had to pass through many foreign lands before they reached Europe. The complicated way spices had to cover made them extraordinarily expensive natural commodities. However, in the fifteenth century the way to Asia, which had been used traditionally, was disrupted in result of the conquest of the Middle East territories and almost the whole North Africa by the Osman Turks. There was a need for the water trade route to the eastern countries. Besides, the European merchants that searched for spices dreamt to get rid of the trade mediators (usually the Arabs and Chinese) and to establish direct contacts with the eastern spices markets.

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Thus the hunt for precious spices urged the Europeans to find new routes to Asia and Africa. The Portuguese took a dominant lead in development of seaborne eastern trade. The specific geographical position of the Pyrenean peninsula, its protrusion into the Atlantic Ocean and its nearness to African continent were the main prerequisites of Portuguese activity in the exploration process. Portugal’s success motivated other European countries to participate in trade voyages. Thus in Spain after the Reconquista (the expulsion of the Arabs) the great numbers of “unemployed” nobles became interested in new ways to earn wealth. They were eager to go into the furthest and most dangerous voyages to get the precious commodities. The destinations of spice traders got widened thanks to the exploration attempts by Portuguese sailors and included such South-East Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore (as they are known today).

Often the expeditions to some of these destinations resulted in accidental discoveries of new lands (as it happened with West Indies). The vegetable products of the Indies were almost insignificant to many Spaniards in comparison with the mineral products – the precious metals. As it was already mentioned the demand for gold and silver in Europe of that time was high. Gold and silver mining in the early days of the conquest was a simple affair of prospecting likely streams; but about the middle of the sixteenth century, immensely productive silver veins were discovered in Mexico and Potosí in what is now Bolivia. Various forms of crude mass production quickly took the place of the primitive washing process, and extensive plant was set up for extracting the silver from the ore, usually by a mercury amalgamation process. The typical silver miner was a capitalist and an employer of native labour, skilled and unskilled. Thus the land was being turned into the colony with cheap work force. The constant import of silver had disastrous effects on prices and on the economic structure of Spain as a whole. The economic theories of the time treated bullion as the most important and most valuable product of the Indies; the government sought by all possible means to encourage gold and silver mining and supported the establishing of colonies on the territory of Indies. Very soon such policy made Spain a monopolist in the trade to the colonies throughout most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The same was the policy of the Netherlands and Britain in regard to South Africa.

The age of exploration, provoked by the search for valuable goods, was naturally followed by commercial revolution. The sea-borne trade became commonplace. The feudal ruling class got expelled by the traders and merchants that set up a new social class, the bourgeoisie, which now controlled the state governance and policy in Europe. This shift caused the intensive economic development of European countries and allowed Europe to leave behind the Orient in terms of development. Thus the need in precious metals and such commodities as spices, the search for new ways to the Asian countries and desire to develop a network of direct relationships with the eastern markets all were the reasons for searching trans-ocean routes from Europe to Asia and invasion of the Spaniards into the Central and South America and the Dutch and British into African continent that laid the foundation for colonialism.


  • Silverberg, Robert. (1997). The Longest Voyage: Circumnavigators in the Age of Discovery. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press
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