The spice trade began in the Middle East over 4,000 years ago. Initially, the spice trade was conducted mostly by camel caravans over land routes. The Silk Road was an important route connecting Asia with the Mediterranean world, including North Africa and Europe.
Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the great civilizations of China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia, and Rome.
In the 15th century, the spice trade was transformed by the European Age of Discovery. By this time, navigational equipment was better and long-haul sailing became possible.
Rich entrepreneurs began outfitting explorers in hopes of circumventing Venice by discovering new ways to reach the areas where spices were grown. There were many voyages that missed their targets, but several of them ended up discovering new lands and new treasures.
When Christopher Columbus set out in search of India, he found America instead, and brought back to Spain the fruits and vegetables he found, including chiles (he called them ‘peppers’, and the term ‘chile pepper’ persists to this day). (Spice Road)
It was not until 1487 that Bartholomew Diaz set off on the voyage that finally reached the southern tip of Africa. By rounding the Cape of Good Hope, Diaz proved that the Atlantic and Indian Oceans were not landlocked, as many European geographers of the time thought, and rekindled the idea that a sea route to India might indeed be feasible.
In 1497 King John’s successor, Manuel I, appointed Vasco da Gama to lead a pioneering voyage to India. The fleet consisted of four ships, two of which had been specially constructed. These were square-rigged ships of shallow draught weighing about 200 tons.
The flagship, St Gabriel, was captained by Vasco da Gama, and the St Raphael was under the command of his brother Paolo da Gama. Berrio Nicolau Coelho commanded a lanteen-rigged caravel of about 100 tons, and the fourth ship was a store ship. they rounded the Cape of Good Hope. (Winser; BBC)
On Christmas Day 1497 the three remaining ships were sailing northwards along the east coast of what is now South Africa and called the country ‘Natal’. By January 11, 1498 they were exploring the mouth of Copper River (‘Rio Cobre’), named after the copper ornaments worn by the local population. (Winser; BBC)
As spices became more common, their value began to fall. The trade routes were wide open, people had figured out how to transplant spice plants to other parts of the world, and the wealthy monopolies began to crumble. (Spice Road)
The development of ocean travel in the 16th century brought with it an increasing knowledge of wind patterns. The phrase ‘trade wind’ is ancient. Deriving from an old use of ‘trade’ to mean a fixed track.
It is applied to any wind which follows a predictable course. Since such winds can be of great value to merchant ships making long ocean voyages, the term becomes understood in the 18th century to mean winds which support trade. (World Heritage Encyclopedia)
Then, the captain of a sailing ship seeks a course along which the winds can be expected to blow in the direction of travel. During the Age of Sail the pattern of prevailing winds made various points of the globe easy or difficult to access. Back then, some ships could only sail downwind. (Silk Road)
The Portuguese recognized the importance of the trade winds in navigation in the Atlantic Ocean as early as the 15th century. They learned, in order to reach South Africa, they needed to go far out in the ocean, head for Brazil and around 30°S go east again.
Following the African coast southbound means upwind in the Southern hemisphere. In the Pacific Ocean, the full wind circulation, which included both the trade wind easterlies and higher-latitude Westerlies, was unknown (to Europeans) until Andres de Urdaneta’s voyage in 1565.
By the 18th century the importance of the trade winds to England’s merchant fleet for crossing the Atlantic Ocean had led both the general public and etymologists to identify the name with a later meaning of ‘trade’, ‘(foreign) commerce’. (World Heritage Encyclopedia)