Even those people who’ve only dreamed of visiting Zanzibar have usually heard its nickname ‘The Spice Island’. Just the word conjures up heady, exotic aromas and rich, exciting flavours. But for those who like hard facts to go with their romantic fantasies, here’s a rundown of Zanzibar’s spice heritage in more detail:
What are spices?
Spices are best described as the dried parts of aromatic plants whose qualities are perceived through smell and taste. As well as their more obvious function in flavouring food, spices have a profound effect on health, affecting many functional processes of the body. Because they act as anti-oxidants, they are essential in the preservation of foods.
The History of Spice
The use of spices is almost as old as human history itself. As far back as 2600BC, there are records of the Egyptians feeding spices obtained from Asia to labourers building the great pyramid of Cheops, to give them strength. Long before the 6th century BC, when Confucius advocated the use of ginger, the Chinese were obtaining spices from the tropics. Europe imported them before Rome was founded.
As the Portuguese conqueror Vasco da Gama’s men came ashore in Western India in the 15th century, their battle cry was,“For Christ and spices!” Spices were the first luxury goods to appear in the European economy. Plants such as pepper, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg grew naturally only in the tropics – principally the islands of the Indonesian archipelago and the coastal regions of India.
Such places were, to the Europeans of the middle ages, as remote as the reaches of outer space. The use of spices as seasonings in food was a status symbol – the exotic nature of spices, only obtainable in far-off, unknown lands, was an emblem of the wealth and prestige of anyone who could afford to use them.
This symbolic value appears also in the use of spices beyond meals and banquets. They were presented as gifts of state, and were bequeathed in wills together with other heirlooms. Rents and debts could even be paid in spices rather than gold.
The hunger for spices in Europe led to desperate and brutal competition between the major trading powers to control the shipping routes that brought spices to their markets. Dutch, Portuguese, English and Spanish governments dispatched intrepid merchant companies to the Far East in search of the elusive source of the spices for which their citizens were clamouring.
Many never returned, shipwrecked, lost or murdered in the unknown, uncharted waters of the world’s oceans. But eventually, the European powers gained control of the production of spices, obtaining the spice plantations of the Far East by simple force, and wresting domination of the spice trade from the Arabic merchants who had been supplying spices to the rest of the world for centuries before.