The history of spices

 Egypte, around 2500 BC

The first descriptions of herbs and spices come from Ancient Egypt. The 100,000 labourers who worked building the pyramids in approximately 2600-2100 BC were given onions and garlic to keep up their strength.

Besides their use as a food source, herbs and spices also played an important role in the mummification of the bodies of the pharaohs. Because they believed that the spirit would later return to inhabit the body, the ancient Egyptians did everything they could to preserve the body as well as possible. This involved (amongst other things), cleaning out the abdominal cavity and rinsing it with spices. For this they used cumin, anise, marjoram, nutmeg and cinnamon.

Several cultures from the same period are also known to have used herbs and spices as medicines, incense and perfume. The ancient Greeks, for instance, used a wreath of laurel to crown winners of events at the Olympic Games.

Spices in the bible and the Qur'an

The use of herbs and spices is described in various accounts in the Bible. The Queen of Sheba is said to have given King Solomon extremely valuable gifts, including gold and precious stones, but also herbs and spices. After receiving these gifts, King Solomon became involved in the trade in herbs and spices, through which he became a very wealthy man.

Another well-known story from the Bible that is related to the spice trade is the story of Joseph and his jealous brothers. The brothers were extremely jealous of Joseph, because their father loved him more than any of his brothers. One day, they decided to murder him. One of his brothers, Ruben, could not bring himself to kill him, so he suggested they put Joseph in a dry well, with the intention of taking him out later. Just at that point, a spice caravan passed by, and the brothers decided to sell Joseph as a slave. They told their father Jacob that a wild animal had attacked Joseph, and in order to lend credibility to the sad news, they dipped Joseph’s coat in goat’s blood and showed it to their father.

Joseph eventually ended up in the royal court in Egypt, where he rose to prominence because he could interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams (about the 7 years of abundance and the 7 years of famine). Thanks to Joseph’s interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dreams, the land was spared famine. His brothers were also affected and came to Egypt to buy grain using silver – and spices.

Besides Judaism/Christianity, Islam also makes mention of the spice trade. Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, married the wealthy widow of a spice merchant. The trade in spices went hand in hand with proclaiming Islam.

The monopoly of the Arabs around 1000 BC

During the thousand years before the birth of Christ, the Arabs had a monopoly on the trade in herbs and spices. This was based on the control that they had over the transportation of spices from East to West. This primarily took place using donkey caravans, until donkeys were replaced by dromedaries in around 1000 BC. These one-humped camels, that required little in the way of food and water, could carry up to 200 kg and, at a rate of 3 km per hour, could cover about 35 km a day. 

Originally, the Arabs bought cinnamon from Chinese or Javanese merchants. They retained their monopoly on nutmeg and cinnamon by telling the most bizarre stories to the ancient Greeks and Romans. One of the legends is that large birds of prey used the cinnamon sticks to build their nests. These nests were found at the top of steep cliffs that were inaccessible to humans. The Arabs supposedly laid out large pieces of donkey meat near the nests in the hope that the birds of prey would take them up to their nests. As the nests were not built to bear the weight of the meat, they would fall to the ground. As soon as this happened, the trick was to pull out the cinnamon sticks from the nest as quickly as possible, before the ferocious birds of prey killed you. Not only the scarcity, but also the danger involved in “harvesting” the spices made the high prices asked by the Arabs seem acceptable. It was only in the first century AD that the learned Roman Pliny debunked these tall tales.

End of the Middle Ages: the era of European explorers

MarcoPolo is a name from history that is certainly worth mentioning with regard to the spice trade. Born in Venice in 1256, his father and his uncle were wealthy merchants. The Far East held a particular fascination for his family, as testified by the many journeys that he made through China, India and Asia over a period of 24 years. Once he returned to Venice, he was taken prisoner during a battle, and, while in captivity, told his adventures to his cell mate, who wrote them down and published them as “The Adventures of Marco Polo”, a poetic account of what he had seen and experienced. This book encouraged many others to discover the spice route – partly due to the many indications of where to find things, but also because it revealed many of the Arabs’ tall stories for what they were.

In the 15th century, there was a veritable boom in voyages of discovery. The sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope was discovered for the first time by Vasco da Gama. Da Gama reached India by travelling around the southernmost tip of Africa, returning with a ship full of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and pepper. In addition, he had managed to get the Indian rulers to sign a trade agreement. (Cloves and nutmeg were first mentioned in ancient manuscripts from India. There is a legend that people in the royal court were required to chew on cloves before speaking to the emperor because of their breath-freshening effect.)

Columbus attempted to find the western route to the East. Contrary to what he expected, he did not arrive in India, but landed on one of the islands near Cuba. He travelled back to Spain in order to return as quickly as possible, this time with 1500 men in order to establish Spanish rule in the New World. Columbus took (amongst other things), allspice, vanilla, potatoes, peanuts and cocoa beans back with him to Europe.

The 16th century: the first Dutch ships sail to Asia

 In the 16th century, the Netherlands began to play an important role in the spice trade. The route to Asia was mapped out under the direction of Jan Huygen van Linschoten. He had worked for the Portuguese for many years, and, due to his experiences there, could chart out the route exactly. Today this would be called industrial espionage!

In 1595, the first four ships departed for Asia. The route was correct – the ships arrived in Asia – but half the crew did not survive the journey.

The Amsterdam had sprung a leak and had to remain behind. In order to prevent the competition from seeing the new technique that had been used to build the ship, it was decided that it should be burned.

 The 17th century: the founding of the VOC

After the first successful voyage to Asia, merchants in the Netherlands were unstoppable, bursting with self-confidence. They pooled their money and sent another 22 ships to Asia. As a considerable sum was necessary to build the ships and to pay the crews, they decided to pool their resources and, under the leadership of Johan van Oldenbarneveldt, founded the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (United Dutch East India Company/VOC) in 1602.

To many, the VOC is known for its unsuccessful voyages, but this misconception should be cleared up, because, in fact, the majority of the ships returned to their home port unharmed. This can be seen by all the products that we still use in abundance today: various spices, textiles, coffee, tea and sugar have become an integral part of our culture.

The economic impact of the VOC was also enormous. Between 1602 and 1799, most jobs in the Netherlands were either directly or indirectly related to the VOC. One thinks of the carpenters involved in ship-building, the people who worked in the yards, in the warehouses and the offices, not to mention the thousands of sailors, who bore the risks associated with the long, dangerous voyages. Besides being robbed by pirates or the competition, the weather was a dangerous unpredictable factor during the voyage. Sometimes it had its advantages, though, like for instance the fact that the winds blow predominantly towards the East in summer and predominantly towards the West in winter, a factor that could be taken into account when planning the voyages.

International spice trade in the 18th century

In a very short time, the VOC grew to be a very powerful, prosperous organisation that operated internationally. Unfortunately it had to be disbanded as a result of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780 - 1784). The British had taken over just about all the Indian trading posts, making Asia inaccessible to the Dutch.

America was relatively late in getting involved in the spice trade, but once they entered the race in the 18th century, they quickly caught up, proving to be highly successful. The first ship owners became millionaires in the shortest time.

 Verstegen and Fair Trade

Fair Trade is important to us at Verstegen. This is why Verstegen has signed an agreement with a partner in Papua New Guinea that means that it pays more than the market value for vanilla beans. Our partner is using this contribution to set up a little school where farmers can learn even more about vanilla, thereby eventually supplying us with a better quality vanilla. At a later stage, other training projects will be set up and a contribution will be made to the health of the community. Verstegen benefits by being able to buy increasingly better quality vanilla, but the most important thing is that the farmers’ standard of living increases, so that they and their families can have a better future.

In Indonesia too, Verstegen has found a partner.

On the island of Ambon, a Dutch/Ambonese family is setting up a small company for the processing of nutmeg and mace. The buying of land, the building of sheds that meet Dutch standards and the laying of contacts with farmers is in full swing. The intention is to teach the farmers how to work hygienically, and how they can supply a good quality product. The farmers receive a higher price, jobs are created and the local community is supported. Street lights have already been placed and the primary school has received a contribution.

More of this kind of project will be started in future. In the mean time, with all the other products that we buy, we demand that child labour not be used under any circumstances. In this way, Verstegen is practising corporate social responsibility on a number of fronts.

 Verstegen Spices & Sauces B.V. Spices

By combining high-quality herbs, spices and other raw materials, new mixes and sauces are regularly produced in the test kitchen at Verstegen Spices & Sauces B.V.. You can season your food in two shakes with these ready-made products, which guarantee success.

And you are not alone in doing so: the herbs and spices of Verstegen Spices & Sauces B.V. are used in many products such as snacks, sauces, soups, salads, meat, meat products, vegetable mixes, marinades etc. These products can be bought ready-made at the supermarket or (for instance) the butcher’s. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that a tasty product often contains herbs and spices from Verstegen. This also applies to many foods that you eat in restaurants, because many chefs and cooks also use herbs and spices from Verstegen Spices & Sauces B.V.