The 15th to the 17th Century

Wars for control of the spice trade break out.

As the middle class grew during the Renaissance, the popularity of spices rose. Conflict developed over who would dominate the prosperous trade. Wars over the Indonesian Spice Islands broke out between expanding European nations and continued for about 200 years, between the 15th and 17th centuries. Spain, Portugal, England, and Holland all fought for control.

Portuguese traders reached the East by sailing south around Africa and across the Indian Ocean. Their Spanish rivals searched for another route to the spice-growing regions. In 1519 Spain sent Ferdinand Magellan on a voyage to sail west around the world. Magellan died in the Philppines, and his crew lost four of his five ships. However, the remaining ship brought back so much pepper and other spices that the trip was a financial success.

Meanwhile, Holland had begun to prosper by supplying ships and crews to the Portuguese. In the beginning of the 16th century, the Dutch gained control of shipping and trading in northern Europe. By the end of the century their influence had expanded, and they entered the spice trade, overtaking Portuguese control. They made many expeditions to the East Indies and set up new deals with local rulers.

By the early 17th century Dutch control was more complete. Holland conquered the city of Malacca in 1641. This conquest also brought them control of the Malay Peninsula and nearby islands. In 1658 they gained control of the cinnamon trade in Ceylon. In 1663 they established exclusive trading rights in the pepper ports along the Malabar Coast of western India. By the end of the 17th century more Indonesian Islands fell under Dutch control, giving Holland unchallenged rights to the Asian spice trade.

When prices fell, the Dutch plotted to keep profits high by burning cinnamon and clove trees. They soaked nutmeg in “milk of lime,” a solution they thought would prevent rivals from purchasing these seeds to grow their own trees.

France was a major power in the 17th century, but it did not play a large part in the developing trade because it did not invest in spice exploration. However, Frenchmen did help to break the Dutch hold on the market. They stole enough cloves, cinnamon, and un-limed nutmeg from the Dutch to begin plantings on French-controlled islands in the Indian Ocean.