Late Medieval Routes
In the late Middle Ages, the major spice emporiums were on the Malabar coast of India, notably the city of Calicut (Kozhikode). There one could find the black pepper and ginger from the Kerala backlands, but also spices shipped in from sources further east, notably cinnamon from Ceylon and the glorious spices of the Indonesian archipelago - long pepper from Java, cloves from the Moluccas and nutmeg from the Banda Islands - shipped to India via the Malay port of Malacca.
The Malabar spice emporiums were visited primarily by Arab and Gujurati merchant ships, which could proceed west via the Red Sea route, or the Persian Gulf route. The Red Sea route was dominated by the power of the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt. The Persian Gulf route passed through the dominions of the rival Il-Khanate of Persia and, after a period of anarchy in the late 14th C., its successor state, the Timurid Khanate. The choice of route depended in part on the safety and stability of the path - outbreaks piracy, warfare and fragmentation. But it also depended on the commercial relationships on the purchasing end. Through the 14th and 15th Centuries, the Egyptian-Persian rivalry almost exactly mirrored the Venetian-Genoese rivalry on the Mediterranean end. The Republic of Venice had a close symbiotic relationship with Mameluke Egypt and was the prime beneficiary of the Red Sea route. Conversely, the Republic of Genoa tended to throw in its lot with Il-Khan/Timurid Persia and were the main reapers of the Persian Gulf route.
(1) Persian Gulf Route spice ships from India would touch ports like Muscat to reach the main station on the island of Hormuz. From Hormuz, it could be continued up the gulf to Basra (Iraq), and from there carried by shallow boats in the delta to Baghdad. Alternatively (if Iraq was in disarray), it was carried by caravans overland across Persia to the Persian capital of Tabriz. There were several delivery options to the Mediterranean:
- (a) The Levantine route: from Baghdad, it carried up the Euphrates then overland via Damascus to the Levantine ports of Beirut, Tyre, Acre, Jaffa and Gaza, where it would be picked up by Italian merchants. However, as this route crossed the often warring frontier between the Persian khanate and the Mameluke sultanate, it declined in importance as the Middle Ages advanced.
- (b) the Cilican route: from Tabriz or Baghdad, it was carried overland via Aleppo, to the Cilician port of Laiazzo. Unlike the Levantine, this Cilician route was usually entirely within the Persian khanate or its allies (Armenian Cilicia), thus avoiding Mameluke dominions. This route was dominated by Genoese traders.
- (c) the Black Sea route: overland through Armenia to the Black Sea port of Trabzon. It was usually thereafter shipped via Kaffa and Constantinople and thereon to Europe. This was again almost exclusively dominated by the Genoese. The advantage of the Trabzon route was that it touched with the Genoese Crimean port of Kaffa, which was a clearing house for the Danubian precious metal trade. Gold from Hungary and silver from the mines of Bohemia and Serbia were shipped down the Danube river to Genoese Black Sea stations such as Maurocastro, and thereon to Kaffa. At Kaffa, metals would be sorted - gold was shipped back to Genoa, while silver would be forwarded to Trabzon and the Asian trade.
(2) The Red Sea Route spice ships from India might touch Yemenite ports like Shihr and Aden, before entering the Red Sea. The ultimate destination was the great entrepot of Alexandria, where the spices would be picked up primarily by Venetian merchants. There were various options for reaching it:
- (a) Suez route - the spice ships would sail all the way up the Red Sea to port of Suez, and carried overland to Alexandria. As the northern part of the Red Sea was sometimes tricky to sail, it was preferred to offload earlier.
- (b) Nile route - spice ships would unload at ports like Quseir on the mid-Egyptian coast, where they would be transferred overland to river barges on the Nile, thereafter upriver to Alexandria.
- (c) Hejaz route - spice ships offloaded on the mid-Arabian coastal port of Jeddah, where it be carried overland via Mecca by caravan trains to Levantine ports like Gaza and either picked up there or shipped to Alexandria for collection.
Connection to other trade
The spice trade was primarily a one-way trade. By and large, European goods had little vent in Asian markets, as a result there was little cargo going the other way. Spices had to purchased in Indian markets primarily with precious metal. In the global connections of the time, Europe was a primary producer of silver which was largely lacking in Asia and carried a premium. So much of the flow of spices from Asia to Europe was matched by a reverse flow of silver the other way. Acquiring the silver for the Asian spice trade involved an intense competition between the two main European commercial powers of the age, Venice and Genoa.
Silver production was concentrated in the mines of Central Europe (a trade eventually dominated by High German families like the Fuggers, Welsers and Hochstetters). To get their hands on the silver necessary for the Asian trade, Italian traders offered to swap gold. Sources of gold were scarce in Europe. In the 14th C., Hungary struck on a rare gold find at Kremnica, and Genoese merchants cultivated the Danubian trade via the Black Sea to get their hands on it. But for the most part, gold came from Africa, particularly from the Sudanese gold-producing centers like Timbuktu and Gao, carried by the trans-Saharan route to northern cities like Ceuta (before 1415), Fez, Tlemcen, Tunis and Alexandria.
For African gold, the Italians sold timber and slaves to North African Muslim states, a trade which alarmed the Pope and resulting in repeated fulminations against both cities for "supplying the enemy" with what were essentially materials of war: timber often went into warships, and slaves were mostly destined for the mamluk armies of North Africa. Timber was acquired by the Venetians from the coasts of Dalmatia, and by the Genoese from the Dniester trade. Slaves - principally Slavs, Georgians, Circassians and others, many, if not most, Christians -were acquired from the frequently chaotic dominions of the Golden Horde, via the Black Sea ports of Genoese Kaffa and Venetian Tana. The Italians could also supply Asian luxuries, such as silks, acquired from Persia and China via the Silk Road (which connected to the Black Sea route).
In the late 13th-early 14th centuries, Genoa gained the upper hand in the competition with Venice. As the Genoese squeezed the Venetians out of critical places like Constantinople, Tana and Laiazzo, the Black Sea, the Persian Gulf spice route, the Danubian gold trade, the Crimean slave trade and the Silk Road came under increasing Genoese dominance, leaving the Venetians scrambling for crumbs at the table. In the 1280s, the Genoese broke the old navigational barrier of the Straits of Gibraltar and began running regular galleys around the Atlantic Ocean to Bruges, opening a new market for spices in hitherto undertapped northern Europe.
Genoa's fortunes were soon reversed. The exhaution of the Hungarian mines, the collapse of the Il-Khanate into anarchy, the fall of Laiazzo to the Mamelukes, and an increasingly hostile Golden Horde were devastating blows to Genoese trade. The rise of the Timurids, and the restoration of order in Persia, brought a brief respite to Genoese fortunes (reportedly, Genoese colonists in the Pera district of Constantinople hung Timurid banners from the walls of the city on hearing of the approach of Timur's army).
By this time, the Venetians had recovered their footing, improved their naval power in the east Mediterranean and forged a new, close relationship with the Mamelukes, shutting the Genoese out of Alexandria and the east Mediterranean ports. As the 15th Century progressed, Venice went from strength to strength, while Genoese prospects went from bad to worse. The gradual encroachment by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th C., both on the Balkan side and Anatolian sides, setting up a warring frontier against Timurid Persia, further squeezed the Genoese position and snipped the once-invaluable Black Sea route. By the time the Turks seized their remaining Black Sea strongpoints: Constantinople in 1453, Trabzon in 1461 and finally Kaffa itself in 1475, little remained of the Black Sea route. With the Genoese knocked out, Venice attained a virtual monopoly on the spice trade in Europe via the Red Sea Route.
Well before Kaffa fell, the Genoese were already looking for other partners, and another way to get back to the Asian trade. With Venetians prowling the east Mediterranean, the Genoese began to look west, as a way to get back into the game. Already in 1291, the Genoese brothers Vandino and Ugolino Vivaldi set out down the west African coast in the search for a sea route to India that would sidestep Mameluke-Venetian monolith. The search for gold proved another lure. After the opening of the Flanders trade, Italian emigrants and merchant adventurers had flocked to Portugal, Castile and Morocco. The prospect of undercutting the trans-Saharan route at the root prompted Prince Henry the Navigator to launch the Portuguese age of discoveries, sending ships down the African coast in an effort to reach the fabled "River of Gold" - i.e. the Senegal River, which was rumored to be navigable and to reach into the heart of gold-producing Mali Empire. In the end, the Portuguese did not go far upriver, but they did set up a trading fortress at Arguin island, promptly leased to Genoese traders, to siphon gold at the early stage of the trans-Saharan route.
In 1291, the
Venice, during this time, was scrambling for crumbs at the table.
Its dominance of the Black Sea meant
Alexandria was a large clearing house for the gold trade, picking up trans-Saharan gold from ports like Tunis to the west, but also from gold producing regions in the upper Nile. The value of Alexandria to Venetian traders was thus doubly important, as both spices and gold could be picked up there, the gold returned to Europe to swap against Central European silver, and promptly sent out again.
The Genoese were a less enviable position. Although they had capitalized on the Danubian gold boom while it lasted, it had less ready access to steady African gold. The period of Persian anarchy in the mid-14th C. had complicated Genoese fortunes. In the 15th, they faced the gradual encroachment by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th, both on the Balkan side and Anatolian sides, setting up a warring frontier against Timurid Persia, rending the once-invaluable Black Sea route. The Turks eventually seized their old Black Sea strongpoints: Constantinople in 1453, Trabzon in 1461 and finally Kaffa itself in 1475, and set up a warring frontier against Persia, snapping the old route.
There was vigorous competition in European markets for merchants competed fiercely for silver
The choice of trade routes always depended on a variety of considerations. First and foremost was the security of the route. A path that was littered with disorder and danger - pirates, raiders, warring states, etc. - would tend be avoided in favor of another.
The establishment of the Mongol Empire in the 13th C. introduced a Pax Mongolica from the Mediterranean to China, introducing security on several trade routes through Central Asia, most famously the Silk Road. In the case of spices, the Mongol era increased the attractiveness of the Persian Gulf-Black Sea route. The Mongol Il Khanate controlled the area from the Black Sea shores (Trabzon, etc.), through Mesopotamian cities like Baghdad and down the Persian Gulf to Hormuz. It also erected a warring frontier across Syria, thus snipping the whose ports were owned by the Mamelukes The Levantine ports
In the 15th C., the major spice emporiums were located on the Malabar coast of India, notably the city of Calicut (Kozhikode). There one could find the black pepper and ginger from the Kerala backlands, but also spices shipped in from sources further east, notably cinnamon from Ceylon and the glorious spices of the Indonesian archipelago - long pepper from Java, cloves from the Moluccas and nutmeg from the Banda Islands - shipped to India via the Malay port of Malacca.
empire and its successor state, the Il Khanate,
Levantine ports depended on passage across the hostile frontier between the Mameluke Sultanate andthe Syrian frontier between the hostile
allowed the development of multiple trade routes through Persia and Central Asia, most famously the Silk Road. But the breakdown of the Mongol empire and the increasing disorder in its successor states, during 14th and 15th C., rendered some of the older routes too dangerous and obsolete.
In the spice trade, the Persian Gulf route suffered most from the breakdown of the Mongol Il-Khanate in the mid-14th C., turning the passage through Mesopotamia (Baghdad, etc.), now a warring frontierland, complicated and dangerous. The Timurids empire restored some semblance of order in the beginning of the 15th C., but only briefly.
The Red Sea route, by contrast, passed nearly through a single power - the Mameluke Sultanate. Although centered in Cairo, the writ of the Mameluke sultan ranged across the Red Sea to the sharifs of Mecca who ruled the Hijaz and kept a watchful eye on the Rasulid rulers of Yemen and the sultans of Aden.
The second consideration was cash. European goods did not have much vent in Asian markets, which were used to more sophisticated Asian goods, e.g. coarse European cloth did not compare favorably to Indian cottons or Chinese silks. As a result, carrying trade goods on the outward journey, in the hope of selling them on Asian markets to raise the money to buy spices rarely worked. The spice trade was a cash trade - that is, merchants going east usually had to bring with them the gold and silver needed to purchase spices. So the spice trade set up an intensive hunt for silver and gold in the Mediterranean. Here again, the Italian city-states took the lead and competed fiercely.
Silver was the easiest - relatively scarce in Asia, but relatively abundant in Europe. There were repeated silver strikes in Central Europe (Bohemia, Serbia and Tyrol) in the late Middle Ages. Italian spice merchants took to buying up as much silver in Europe as they could to trade against spices in Asia.
Gold, by contrast, was relatively rare in Europe (although there was a significant strike in Hungary in the early part of the 14th C.). But gold could be obtained from Africa, from at least two outlets - from Moroccan ports like Ceuta, the endpoints of the Trans-Saharan trade from Mali, and from the Egyptian port of Alexandria, which was connected by the Nile to the gold mines of the Sudan. Italian spice merchants were eager to get their hands on this gold - not to send to Asia, but rather to swap it in European markets for the silver they needed for Asian spices. Spices and silver went hand-in-hand.
Consequently, Alexandria had a double importance for the Venetians - not only as spice port, but as a gold port. The Genoese, back in the early 14th C., when the Black Sea route was working, had enjoyed a similar symbiosis: Hungarian gold and Serbian silver were shipped down the Danube to the Black Sea, sorted in Kaffa - the gold sent back to Genoa to trade on European markets, the silver forwarded to Trabzon for the Asian spice trade. But the Hungarian and Serbian mines were soon exhausted and the Black Sea route snapped shut by war and disorder.
In the course of the 15th C., as Venetian fortunes rose dramatically, Genoese fortunes fell just as dramatically. With Alexandria, Venice acquired a virtual monopoly on the spice trade and the gold, shutting out nearly all their Italian rivals. As a result, Genoese traders, along with other disappointed Italians, like the Florentines, shut out by the Venetians, gradually began shifting their attentions to the western Mediterranean. They not only sought to tap the gold from the Moroccan ports, but also the gold that was beginning to emerge in Lisbon, from the sea route established by the Portuguese to the Akan goldfields of Ghana).
But perhaps more than the gold, they were also intrigued by the whole Portuguese discoveries enterprise. The Italians had long fantasized about a direct sea route to the spice markets of Asia - a couple of Genoese adventurers, the Vivaldi brothers, had even set out in 1291 to find it. The Portuguese had been inching down the African coast through the first half of the century. Maybe they could be nudged to take a larger leap and breakthrough to India? The stars seemed aligned when the ambitious King John II of Portugal took the throne in 1481. With the instincts of a merchant and an appetite for wealth, John II set down the sea route to Asia as the new objective. The Portuguese had the ships and nautical expertise, the Italians could offer their capital, their expertise and their distribution networks. Together, they could break the Venetian monopoly.
These military developments also changed the fortunes of the competing Italian city-states - most notably, the rival republics of Genoa and Venice. In the 14th C., the Genoese seemed to be doing better - the Genoese practically owned Kaffa, they were the stronger party in Trabzon and Constantinople and enjoyed privileged connections with the Mongol Il-Khanate. The Persian Gulf and Black Sea route, then at its height, was practically a Genoese monopoly. The Venetians, by contrast, had thrown in their lot with the Mamelukes, which gave them privileged access to Alexandria and the Mameluke-owned Levantine coast. But these were relatively slim pickings, as the Mameluke-Mongol warring frontier across Syria had basically snipped the Levantine route, and the Red Sea route did not seem to offer the stability or ample ports enjoyed by the Persian Gulf-Black Sea.
But the 15th C. turned the tables around. The collapse of the Il-Khanate and the resilience of the Mameluke Sultanate worked to Venice's advantage. And things only got worse for the Genoese as the Ottomans seized their old Black Sea strongpoints: Constantinople in 1453, Trabzon in 1461 and finally Kaffa in 1475, and set up a warring frontier against Persia, snapping the old route. The course of the 15th C. saw the near wholesale transfer of the spice trade away from the Persian Gulf and towards the Red Sea route, giving Venice, with its privileged access in Alexandria, a near-monopoly on the European end of the spice trade.
The Malabar spice emporiums were visited primarily by Arab and Gujurati merchant ships, which then carried the spices across the Arabian Sea to ports like Aden and Jeddah in the Red Sea, From there, the spices were carried overland by caravan trains to the Mediterranean ports, notably Alexandria, where they were picked up by Venetian merchants for distribution in Europe.
The principal Asian spices were black pepper and ginger from the Kerala region of India, cinnamon from Ceylon and from further east, in the Indonesian archipelago, long pepper from Java, cloves from the Moluccas and nutmeg from the Banda Islands.
via one of two routes: the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf.
- (1) The Syrian route: overland, via Damascus to the Levantine ports (Beirut, Tyre and Acre, etc.) or, slightly further north, via Aleppo, to the Cilician port of Lajazzo, where they would be picked up by Italian merchants.
- (2) the Black Sea route: from Baghdad, overland through Armenia to Trabzon and thereafter shipped via Kaffa and Constantinople to Europe. The advantage of this route in the 14th C. is that most of it was covered by one state - the Il-Khanate.
The traditional advantage of Persian Gulf route was that it conjoined with the Silk Road coming across Central Asia (Tabriz, Samarkand, etc.) from China. But the breakdown of Pax Mongolica in the 14th C. had made the Persian Gulf route dangerous. The restoration of order in Persia under the Timurids did not last very long. The fall of Constantinople and Kaffa to the Ottomans only complicated it further. As a result most of the spice trade was transferred to the Red Sea route. 
The Red Sea route had the advantage of a single power - the Mamulke Sultanate of Cairo - controlling, directly or indirectly, both coasts of the Red Sea, and thus ensuring a modicum of protection and pacification.
- Lane, F.C. (1973) Venice: a maritime republic Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
The principal Asian spices were black pepper and ginger from the Kerala region of India, cinnamon from Ceylon and, much more easterly, long pepper from Java, cloves from the Moluccas and nutmeg from the Banda Islands, which were usually collected at Malacca. From their places of production, these spices were shipped to major spice emporiums on the Malabar coast of India, such as Calicut
dominated by the Republic of Venice, whose merchants practically monopolized the Mediterranean end of the 'Red Sea route'.
These were picked up from major spice emporiums (notably Calicut) on the Malabar coast of India by Arab and Gujurati merchants, shipped across the Arabian Sea to ports like Aden, or further along in the Red Sea. From there, the spices were carried overland by caravan trains to the Mediterranean ports, notably Alexandria, where they were picked up by Venetian merchants for distribution in Europe.
The long chain of middlemen and customs authorities along this route, each taking a cut of the profits at every step, pushed costs high. John II of Portugal calculated that a direct sea route to the spice markets of India - one direct trip, without middlemen, carrying more tonnage - would allow him to move spices at a much lower cost, outcompete the Venetians and retain the entire hefty profits of the spice trade for himself.
The spice trade was merely a means to build up the royal treasury. John II's successor, King Manuel I of Portugal, was a more traditional monarch, happy in the company of high nobles, with a more Medieval outlook, including an eagerness to spread religion and pursue 'holy war'.
Portuguese Indian Ocean War
The conflict erupted in late 1500 with the opening of hostilities between the Portuguese armadas and the Zamorin of Calicut, and quickly widened to encompass other powers, such as Kilwa Sultanate, the Gujarat Sultanate, the Bijapur Sultanate, the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt, the Venetian Republic, the Ottoman Empire, and many others.
It did not start off as a war of conquest, but as a commercial war, in which the Portuguese sought to seize control of the spice trade. It was primarily fought at sea. There were no great territorial conquests - the Portuguese focused on establishing and garrisoning a collection of strategic key posts around the perimeter of the Indian Ocean, from which the Portuguese navy could be projected over its expanse and control all shipping. As many (but not all) of the Portuguese principal opponents were Muslim states, an element of religious war came into play.
In the 1480s, when King John II of Portugal, devised his plan for opening a sea-route to India, he thought primarily in terms of personal enrichment. An ambitious and centralizing monarch, John II sought to break the Portuguese crown's dependence on the feudal nobility, and concentrate power in the king's hands. To this end, John II needed to build up the royal treasury. His attentions were drawn to the immense profits of the spice trade.
The spice trade in the 15th C. was dominated, on the European end, by the Venetian Republic, who, by their long-standing relationship with the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt, had privileged access to the spices arriving in Alexandria from India via the 'Red Sea route'.
conducted primarily by the 'Red Sea route', which was
- Lane (1973: p.286)
- Subrahmanyam (1997: p.55)