The Bargaining Power of Spices

“Spices, once a source of power and diplomacy, lost value as colonialism and imperialism prevailed in the 19th century.”

Spices ruled Indonesia’s relations with the global imperial order between the eighth and 19th centuries. Nutmeg and cloves from the land of the Moluccas and Banda Islands; camphor, gold, and pepper from Java and Sumatra were travelling as far as Europe, China, and the Middle East via southern and northern India.

The power that spice wielded over imperial ambitions is dominance without hegemony, to use Ranajit Guha’s words as delivered in his work, Dominance without Hegemony: history and power in colonial India (1997). The allure of spices lay not only in their ability to create sophisticated flavours but also in healing and preventing diseases, enhancing the fragrance of perfume and cosmetics, and mediating spiritual incense. It shaped commercial networks that employed diverse mercantile actors from different geographies and beliefs, aided by the landscape of the ocean and vessels. The quantity and quality ruled economics, politics, and sovereignty. Spices were the reason for the multipolar characteristics of international relations in South and Southeast Asia until the Portuguese, the Spaniards, the Dutch, and the British distracted its ecosystem.

Spice and Multipolarity

The account of Vasco da Gama’s visits in 1498 and 1502 saw him named as the first European discoverer of the spice lands. By arriving at Kozhikode of the Calicut, for instance, da Gama brought back with him spices, among other goods. But before da Gama, there was an Italian sailor named Marco Polo who sailed across the Indian Ocean in 1291 that took him to South Vietnam (Champa) and the Malay peninsula, crossing the Malacca Strait to arrive in Sumatra, where he spent five months. What was surprising was that upon his journey was that he was aware of the 12,700 islands that connect the Indian Oceans, relying upon earlier maps produced by the Greek and Muslim travellers. Throughout the next centuries, not only did the number of European spice expeditions increase, as revealed in the imperial role of the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British, but also as found in semi-independent merchants’s accounts such as Pigafetta’s, Nicolai de Conti’s, and Magellan’s. Moreover, Chinese power such as the Ming dynasty delegated its most talented admiral, Zheng He, to conduct spice diplomacy.

The ruling period of spices was abused by the greed of European capitalism. The multi-layered and multi-centred character of spice-related foreign affairs, which allowed the balance of economic circulation between the oceanic trade and sovereignty players in the Indian Ocean, was disrupted by the character of a centralised power hegemony and monopoly of goods imposed by armed Imperial companies like the Portuguese, the British, and the Dutch. So, it was not an exaggeration when Freedman said that “Desire, fashion, and taste move empires” in his book, Out of the East: Spices and Medieval Imagination (1949), considering that hegemony in the region resulted in the control of a monopoly of the spice trade, rule over its networks and the producers of the land which the South and Southeast Asians’ multipolar sovereignties had never before experienced.

Capitalism and colonialism were a fast-growing trend. Intrusion and warfare arrived like a hellfire from one town to another. European hegemony was fully hatched in the 18th century when most of southern India’s fabric of economy and politics was under the rule of the Dutch and the British. In the 19th century, most of the regions across the Indian Ocean fell under colonialism. With this development, spices could still function as bargaining power, especially as an anti-imperialist form of diplomacy. The intensification of the intrusion of imperialistic law and regulation triggered the establishment of a spice-based diplomatic tradition. At least, that was what was displayed by the multipolar Sultanate in Indonesia known as the Aceh Darussalam Sultanate (1516-19011).

Bargaining power

Collection of osmanlı arşivi (Ottoman archives) on anti-imperial spice diplomacy from Aceh

“A Hand of Pepper” is the infamous legendary story kept alive in the memory of elder Acehnese, academics, and Aceh’s history lovers. During the Portuguese invasion of the Indian Ocean, the Acehnese Sultan sent an emissary to Constantinople to seek Ottoman military aid, with tons of various spices, particularly pepper, as gifts and tributes through the Indian Ocean spice routes.

The spice routes were recorded from Aceh to the Maldives and Calicut of Kerala, and the flow of pepper exports was initiated by the leading commerce agency network of the Gujaratis and the Turkish merchants who sailed to the Ottoman ports of Jedda, Suez, and Aden (Reid, 2014). The spice routes of Kerala were heavily disturbed by the Portuguese, and the procurement of pepper from spice ports in Pidie and Pasai was at its climax, enabling heavier loads of pepper to be exported through the Red Sea.

The emissary took over two years to arrive, causing the bestowed pepper a great loss in number. He had wandered over land and sea, surviving on spices to live, so that when he reached Sultan Selim II, there was only a handful of pepper to present. The Ottomans under the rule of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent responded to the emissary by sending galleys, weapons, and Turkish mercenaries to Aceh in 1564 to assist in fighting against the Portuguese.

The spice trade engineered the wheel of economy and sovereignty across the Indian Ocean in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, capitalist colonialism and imperialism in the 19th century lowered the value of spices to such a level that they were no longer able to be used as bargaining power. Numerous times, sovereign kingdoms in Sumatra offered land and islands that grew spices in exchange for military aid. The Aceh Sultanate had sent such a proposition to the British in 1811, the Ottomans in 1854-1872, and the US consulate in Singapore in 1890s. Spice anti-imperialism diplomacy continued until the early 20th century.

KITLV 36C22. Branch of Coffee, Pepper, Cloves, Chocolate, and indigo for dyeing blue.


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