Food Lifestyle

Eat Your View: Sea Monsters and Early Spice Traders

Eat Your View: Sea Monsters and Early Spice Traders

By Robert Turner

As we all begin to cook more at home and experiment with different recipes and ingredients to spice up our meals, let’s take a quick look at the early history of the spice trade. Be warned: horrible sea monsters lurk here.

Without spices, foods can be pretty boring. Spices are so abundant these days that it’s hard for us to imagine what life and food was like in the Middle Ages. Meat and other foods then, without refrigeration, weren’t always fresh, so spices were needed to disguise the failing quality of the food.

Many spices, like cinnamon or nutmeg, were rare and worth their weight in gold, quite literally, during the Middle Ages. A pocket full of pepper could make you a rich man. That made for a terrific incentive for young, adventurous souls willing to risk life and limb. Many struck out across the sea in search of these valuable spices during the Age of Exploration, from the 15th century to the early 17th century. Columbus and Magellan were both in search of a faster route to the Spice Islands and the riches that they promised.

It took a great deal of courage to board a tiny (by today’s standards), leaky, wooden ship to travel from Europe around the bottom of Africa and on to India, Indonesia and the South Pacific where the spices were, a trip that could equate to 25,000 miles or the circumference of the earth. If storms at sea didn’t smash your ship against rocks, diseases like typhus or malaria could get you. You had roughly a 50/50 chance of ever returning.

Arab traders first dominated the spice trade between Europe and southeast Asia, and they carefully guarded the secret sources of the spices they sold for hundreds of years. To protect their business and market share, and to discourage competitors, they spread fantastic tales of dangerous and faraway places where the spices were located. Stories were told of mythical beasts, strange human-like creatures of enormous size, man-eating cannibals and tribes of Amazon women warriors that existed in these far-off distant lands in the southern hemisphere.

The spice cassia, stories told, grew in shallow lakes guarded by winged dragons, and cinnamon grew in deep glens infested with gigantic, deadly poisonous snakes. Horrible sea monsters waited for unsuspecting sailors in the Arabian Sea, the route to India.

Sea Monsters in a 1590 map by Abraham Ortelius

Early sailors and spice traders were well aware of these stories, and so whales, giant squid and other ocean creatures became mermaids and horrible beasts in their imagination, and fear and panic could spread quickly through the ship. Sea monsters made their way onto many old maps as very real and true things.

I’m a collector of rare, old maps and I have several maps from the 1500s and 1600s that show the known world at the time and the early sea routes around the globe, and many of them show sea serpents, mermaids and cannibals in the otherwise blank regions of the map—often described simply as “terra incognita.”

As fearful as a journey around the world may have been, the payoff was enormous if you made it back, and it created a great deal of wealth for early investors. This gave rise to another kind of sea monster.

In the introduction to my recent book, I reference how, in the year 1602, spice traders gave us the earliest example of a powerful, multi-national food corporation. It all started with a small business enterprise called The Far-Distance Company (a very cool name for a company, by the way), which eventually grew and consolidated into The Dutch East India Company.

The Dutch East India Company was the first multi-national food corporation in the world, dealing mainly in high-value spices and tea from faraway places. It was also the first publicly traded stock corporation in the world, the first to be listed on any official stock exchange where an average citizen could buy stock and invest in a company. It was the first corporate-led global corporation and, at one point, the most valuable corporation ever formed. It was the Google or Microsoft of its day—only much bigger. The company’s might and power in corporate history dwarfed any corporate entity that we know of today. It was all-powerful.

The company came heavily armed and with a fleet of military ships. In its search for high-value spices, many native groups were relocated or simply wiped out and replaced with slave labor. The company was also known to burn or destroy trees and crops on islands that were not under its control in order to reduce or eliminate supply to a potential competitor.

The Dutch government gave the Dutch East India Company a monopoly on the spice trade, and it opened the door for globalization as we know it. Its corporate logo, using the letters VOC (from the Dutch language and spelling of United East India Company), became the first worldwide company brand and logo, easily recognized by peoples around the world—much like an apple with a bite out of it is today.

But it was much more than just a brand identity; it represented power. In foreign ports and colonies, the company possessed quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, negotiate treaties with foreign states and kings, imprison, hold trials and execute convicts, mint its own money and coins, and establish colonies or take over existing colonies by force from its competitors. Most of these hostile corporate take-overs were aimed at established Portuguese ports in Africa and Asia, but hostilities were also directed toward other competitors from France and England.

Dutch East India Company benefitted from a new class of citizen investors that gave it the capital to build ships, hire crews and labor, purchase trade goods and launch military conquests. The capital investment helped the company finance the “Spice Wars,” which began in 1602 and lasted another 60 years. It was investor financing and corporate capital that allowed the company to capture and take control of the important ports of India and the East Indies and eventually dominate the spice trade.

With its increasing importance and growing number of foreign posts and offices, the company became the world’s first true trans-national corporation based on the importing, processing and distribution of food products, and it wielded more power and military might than most nations at the time.

The Dutch East India Company set the stage for an empire in the food industry. Like most multi-national corporations today, the company took advantage of opportunities and became involved in other lucrative ventures like the silk and porcelain trade, but its primary business was always food additives and flavorings. This was the humble beginnings of the multi-national food corporation, where your spices come from today. But it all started with an intrepid group of seafarers willing to risk confrontation with horrible sea monsters—a spicy story you can discuss over dinner tonight.

Robert Turner is the director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit

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