For millennia, spices were valued as highly as gold and silver — sometimes higher. Their lucrative trade drove world leaders to wage wars, inspired the Age of Exploration, established vast empires, and helped to create an early form of globalization. Malaysia played a key role in the Spice Trade.
With spices so plentiful and easily accessible today, it can be hard to believe how prized and closely controlled they once were. Pepper was (and is) the most popular and sought after spice. It was so highly valued that there was a time when you could pay the rent with it and the Goths listed it amongst their ransom demands when they defeated Rome. Other spices such as cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg were also highly valued. In fact, the Dutch sold Manhattan (New Amsterdam) to the British in return for a tiny, nutmeg-rich island.
As a gateway to the Spice Islands, as well as a producer of spices, Malaysia became a key entrepôts (trading post) of the Spice Trade. Merchants and traders came from China, India, Arabia, Timor, and Venice to exchange luxury goods and exotic spices. In an attempt to break the Arab-Venetian monopoly on the spice trade, the Portuguese deposed the Malay rulers and colonized Malacca in the early 1500’s. They were quickly succeeded by the Dutch and then by the British, who established a duty-free port on Penang Island.
Inevitably, this worldly hub exchanged more than just goods and spices. Travelers from around the world exchanged ideas, languages, architecture, art, cuisines, and religions. Some established permanent outposts, made homes for themselves, and became locals.
Today, you’ll hear and read the phrase “Malaysia, Truly Asia.” It’s true that many cultures have been welcomed and accepted into Malaysia, creating a fascinating mix, but it’s not quite a melting pot. Somehow, Malaysia has found a way to integrate and intermingle without losing the distinctly individual identities involved. There is indeed a degree of fusion, but I see it as more like a quilt than a stew.