The most important of all mediaeval trades was in spice. Pepper, ginger, nutmegs, mace and cloves, and other eastern products like silk, camphor, opium, frankincense, myrrh, and indigo, were brought out of the unknown by Levantine merchants. Wealthy Europeans would pay very high prices for flavours and preservatives to relieve their winter diet of salt beef. In the fifteenth century difficulties arose as Europe's gold and silver were drained eastward in payment.
A party of Europeans-the Polo family of Venice-spent many years at the court of Kublai Khan of China between 1272 and 1295. Marco Polo's marvellous book of travels was, however, regarded as a collection of lies.
During the years when Henry V. of England was campaigning in France, a Portuguese cousin of his, Prince Henry, attacked the Mohammedan Moors of North Africa in what they called Bilad Ghana, "the rich land," from which they drew much of their wealth. After twenty years of feeling their way down the African coast, the ships that Henry sent
out from Sagres began to tap the gold, ivory, and slaves of equatorial Africa. Bilad Ghana became " Guinea ": the new gold was called " Guinea gold."
Many years after Henry's death, Bartholomew Diaz rounded the tempestuous Cape of Good Hope in 1488. Calicut, the great port of Southern India, was reached in 1498 by Vasco da Gama, who drove his crew of cut-throats to make the voyage out and home in seventeen months: two-thirds of the crew died on the way. Lisbon now took the place of Venice as the spice distributing centre.
The Portuguese, under Almeida (d. 1510) and Albuquerque (d. 1517), organised an eastern dominion with its capital at Goa, fortresses on the coasts of Africa and India, and trading connections all the way from Brazil and the Guinea coast to Japan. For a hundred years they held the gorgeous East in fee, European interlopers being treated as pirates. They wanted trade, not colonies, and they left South Africa alone.
Their voyages drained much adventurous blood, and the little kingdom suffered defeats from the Moors in North Africa, and was conquered by Spain in 1580. Then Spain's English and Dutch enemies, between 1590 and 1620, forced their way East and established themselves in Surat and Java respectively. The Dutch and English fought each other only a shade less fiercely than the Portuguese, or than all three fought the Arabs, and later the French.