Source: F. Rosengarten, Jr. 1969. The Book Of Spices, p. 23-96, Jove
Publ., Inc., New York
A Brief History of Spices
The relative calm of the mid-nineteenth century marked a temporary respite in the intense and prolonged struggle for supremacy in Far Eastern trade, especially in silks and spices, a military-economic competition that had been dominated successively by the Romans, Arabs, Venetians, Portuguese, Dutch, and English.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century the United States, having achieved stature as a national power, for the first time plunged into the world spice trade. The British taxes and trade restrictions of colonial days no longer obstructed American commerce. Well-built New England privateers, dependable and seaworthy vessels that had been tested and proved during the Revolution, became
available for peacetime assignments. The stage was set and the timing right for the rapid development of the budding Yankee merchant marine. Schooners, sloops, brigs, and fast clippers set sail from such ports as Salem, Boston, Portsmouth, Bath, and New London, bound for the Orient. They traded American salmon, codfish, tobacco, snuff, flour, soap, candles, butter, cheese, beef, and barrel
staves for such Eastern commodities as tea, coffee, textiles, indigo, and spices (pepper, cassia, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger). En route, there was bartering for sugar and rum in the West Indies. The most remunerative trade, however, was in spices, and especially in pepper.
These long voyages were fraught with danger. Added to the hazards of storms at sea, shipwrecks, and assaults, from Barbary, Arabian, and Malay pirates were repeated seizures by French privateers. Trade was so imperiled that in 1798 the United States authorized the arming of American merchant vessels to fight off such attacks.
Between 1800 and 1811 Salem enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the Sumatra pepper trade, because of its aggressive shippers, swift vessels, and capable mariners. Salem, then the sixth largest city in the United States, for several years paid an average of 5 percent of the nation's total import duties, of which pepper formed an important part.
The first successful commercial pepper voyage from Salem was completed by the schooner Rajah, of 120 tons, which left Salem on "a secret voyage for ports unknown" in November 1795, returning eighteen months later to New York with a full cargo of bulk pepper taken on at Benkoelen in southwestern Sumatra. On this one voyage the ship's owners, Peele and Beckford, made a profit of seven hundred percent, thanks largely to the skill and cunning of the shipmaster, Captain Jonathan Carnes, on the dangerous 26,000-mile round trip. He was able to buy a large amount of pepper cheaply from the native rulers on the coastal areas of Sumatra and avoid the higher prices charged by Dutch merchants in Batavia, Java, for limited quantities of the spice.
The success of the Rajah stimulated other Salem merchants, notably the Crowninshields, to plunge into the pepper trade. In 1799 two Crowninshield ships, the America and the Belisarius, brought back to Salem sizable cargoes of pepper from the Coromandel Coast of southeastern India. The region most favorable for buying up large quantities of pepper, however, was Achin, on Sumatra's northern coast. By 1805 the Rajah and the America had each completed five trips to Sumatra, bringing back over twelve hundred tons. of pepper on which duties of some $175,000 were paid to the United States Government.
Most of the enormous quantities of pepper imported by this small New England port of Salem had to be re-exported directly to such European ports as Stockholm, Gothenburg, Hamburg, Copenhagen, and Antwerp or were transshipped to Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore for processing and distribution by other American merchants and exporters. The largest single cargo on record for one of the Salem pepper fleet was of just over one million pounds (five hundred tons) of pepper, brought from Sumatra to Salem in 1806 by the Eliza, a sailing ship of 512 tons.
Except for three years when the British blockaded American ports during the War of 1812, the Salem pepper trade flourished from 1797 to 1846, reaching its peak in 1810. After 1846 an overproduction of spices brought a gradual decline in its economic importance until the final demise of the Salem pepper trade following the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.
In its half century of supremacy Salem is reputed to have produced some of America's first millionaires, one being the shipping entrepreneur Elias Derby, who made his fortune in the lucrative India and Far Eastern trade although he himself never went to sea.
Modern spice trade (nineteenth and twentieth centuries) Compared with tea, sugar, and other tropical products, the spice trade played a minor role in the economy of the British Empire. The Dutch
retained their position as the leading spice producers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To do this their imperialistic system in the Dutch East Indies had to be tempered. A more benign form of government was instituted following the publication in 1860 of a novel entitled Max Havelaar, by E. Douwes Dekker, a former Dutch colonial officer in Java. In this book, written under the pen name "Multatuli," meaning "I have endured much," Dekker disclosed the brutal and inhuman treatment of the native laborers and peasants in the Dutch East Indian colonies. This powerful exposť had a profound effect on public in opinion Holland, which in turn forced government reforms.
The important spice-producing regions of Java and Sumatra, which were scientifically developed, were destined to remain under Dutch control until World War II.