Spices in South Africa's History

Bartholomeu Dias Route to India 

It could be said that South Africa as we know it today came about because of spices. In the mid-1400's, Bartholomeu Dias became the first European explorer to discover the southern tip of continental Africa. In so doing, he discovered a water route from his native country of Portugal to the Far East. This gateway between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans activated trading between Europe, India, and the Spice Islands, initially by Vasco da Gama in 1497, then later by the Dutch East India Company.

Convinced that they had to find a way to control the source of the spices, the Dutch got their act together. In 1602 they formed the Dutch East India Company (the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC), an association of merchants meant to reduce competition, share risk and realise economies of scale. Other European countries also formed East India companies - everyone from Portugal to Sweden to Austria had a go - but none was ever as successful in the spice trade as the VOC.

In 1652 the Dutch East India Company established a revictualling station at the Cape of Good Hope, a headland in the southwestern part of South Africa to provide fresh produce for its merchantmen plying the eastern trade routes. By 1670 it was the richest corporation in the world, paying its shareholders an annual dividend of 40% on their investment despite financing 50,000 employees, 30,000 fighting men and 200 ships, many of them armed. The secret of this success was simple. They had no scruples whatsoever.

Malay slaves brought to South Africa were often used in the kitchens of early settlers and were instrumental in including spices in the dishes that they conjured up on a daily basis. Spices are essential to traditional South African cooking where it is combined in many different ways to create the most interesting variety of flavours and aromas.

For centuries obtaining spices involved an immense effort. Today most spices are readily available from supermarkets or specialist shops. Some knowledge of the different aromas and flavours imparted by various spices is important in order to use and combine them with maximum effect.

The spices we use today come from the fruit, seed, bark or root of a variety of plants. The quantities and combinations of spices used in various dishes impart the specific flavour of each dish. The spices and herbs listed on this site are the ones used most often in traditional South African cooking.

Category: Spices & Herbs

Sub-Category: History