No one knows when mankind discovered that spices enhanced the taste of cooked food but even 6000 years ago they were considered valuable enough to travel in the pyramids with the Egyptian Pharoes to their after life.
At around 3000 BC there were four eivilisations... The Egyptians the Mesopotamians in the fertile crescent of Syria the Harrapans in India and the Chinese.
Trading was undertaken by tribes of nomads who learned to cross the deserts of Arabia to make contact with India and China.
From the western merchants the Arabs bought gold silver copper textiles wool dates olive oil and wine. These they exchanged in the East for precious stones ivory perfumes and silks. Slaves and spices went in both directions. Some spices such as bay leaves coriander cumin and sesame were indigenous to the Mediterranean. From India came amongst others cardamoms ginger mustard seeds peppercorns turmeric and saffron. Whilst from China came the wonderful world of aromatics such as cinnamon bark clove fennel nutmeg mace and star aniseed.
The Arabs cornered the spice market and became immensely wealthy in the process. To protect their monopoly they kept their spice routes a closely guarded secret. They said cinnamon bark came from the nest of a great man eating horned eagle the size of a horse atop a single high mountain peak. Mediterranean buyers believed this sort of tale and paid outlandishly for their spices.
The Romans enjoyed spicy cooking and they brought the use of garlic salt pepper cumin and cloves and many others to Britain for the first time. Indeed it was Romes excessive spending that contributed to the decline of their empire. Gold and silver was demanded in payment for pepper and saffron by the Arabs and it was they who were the next to own an empire which eventually stretched from Spain to Bangladesh whdst the control of the northern Mediterranean came into the hands of the merchants of Venice and Genoa. For more than 700 years the italians and the Arabs were able to name their own price for precious spices. Pepper for example was used in place of money itself. In 1200 in England a sheep could be exchanged for 75g of pepper and it was used to pay debts and (peppercorn) rent.
At the end of the 15th century the nations on the edge of the known world began to develop ocean going galleons in which to conquer lands and explore the earth. The scientists of the day calculated that the earth was not flat and the traders decided that if that was the case they could find their own spice routes and cut out the Venetian and Arab middle men. Kings financed them. The Portuguese were first to sail around Africa and they were installed in India by 1497. Before long they circumnavigated the world.
Such journeys the equivalent of todays space travel could last years the outcome unknown the hardship unimaginable the odds against survival itself slim but for those who succeeded honours rewards and riches were unlimited. The Spanish had the unopposed monopoly of the Americas where they discovered the potato the turkey tobacco and 1500 species of chilli. The Dutch found the East Indies and nutmeg mace cloves and ginger. They also found India and eventually the English got there too. Within a century they found themselves in possession of the subcontinent and equally importantly of the spice routes. Ironically Britain had by then lost its spicy palate in favour of sugar and despite successions of sahibs and menisahibs going out to India and returning with a taste for curry it was not until the 1960s that the nation developed its passion for indian food.