‘Measuring by the bushel’: reweighing the Indian Ocean pepper trade


  • Sebastian R. Prange

    1. University of British Columbia
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    • This article was written during the author's tenure as Isobel Thornley Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. It was first presented at the I.H.R.'s seminar in the Economic and Social History of the Premodern World, and subsequently awarded the Pollard Prize 2009. The author is grateful to the convenors and participants of the seminar for their probing questions and valuable comments. The author is also grateful for the advice of Daud Ali, William G. Clarence-Smith and Luke S. Clossey, and for the helpful comments of the examiners of his Ph.D. thesis. Any errors of fact or interpretation remain, of course, his sole responsibility.


Of all the oriental spices, black pepper was the most important until the eighteenth century. The historiography of the pepper trade is characterized by a strong focus on Europe in terms of both its economic significance in the ancient and medieval periods and the struggle for its control in the early modern period. This article, by contrast, seeks to situate the pepper trade firmly in its Asian contexts. It examines the Indian Ocean pepper trade from three perspectives. First, it places the trade in its supply-side context by focusing on the Malabar coast as the primary source of pepper. Second, it examines the relative importance of the different branches of Malabar's pepper trade and highlights the central role played by Muslim mercantile networks. Third, it considers the reconfiguration of these pepper networks in the sixteenth century in the face of aggressive competition from the Portuguese. In their sum, these arguments advocate the need for rethought balances of trade and a reweighted scholarly focus on the pepper trade in its global dimensions.