Sunday, July 19, 2009

More on the Clove Route

Cloves (Eugenia Caryophyllata) are mentioned in Chinese texts by the early Han Dynasty (3rd century BCE), which recommended chewing clove buds to freshen the breath before an audience with the emperor.

However, it was not until the 3rd century CE, that we hear from K'ang T'ai of some vague information as to the source countries of cloves. They are stated to come from the islands of Ma-wu somewhere to the east of Fu-nan, a name generally associated with the ancient kingdom of Cambodia. The Liang-shu states that Ma-wu was to the east of Toupo (She-po, Chu-po). This latter state has been mentioned in this blog as a main rival of Sanfotsi.

The 7th century monk I Ching (Yijing) states that cloves came from Kun-lun, which during this time was synonymous with the Sanskrit toponym Dvipantara, meaning broadly the insular Southeast Asian region. I Ching though seems to be referring to the area south of the Philippines.

From about this same time, we also hear from the Arabic letters of the Mihraj, the king of Zabag (Sanfotsi), who mentions the two rivers of his kingdom that irrigate aloes, nutmeg and camphor. This seems to be mainly an allegorical representation since nutmeg is found only in eastern Indonesia and the southern Philippines, while aloes are found only in the islands further north and on the mainland.

Al-Mas'udi and other Muslim writers seem to indicate that the Mihraj controlled the trade in spices like cloves and nutmeg, which came from the same general region. Europeans thought that exotic eastern spices like cinnamon and aloeswood came from the Garden of Eden. Jean de Joinville in the 13th century includes cloves among these spices that were traded into Europe from Egypt but coming originally, so he thought, from the Terrestrial Paradise. The latter location during this time was considered part of the domains belonging to Prester John.

We have to wait until the Sung Dynasty sources to find much more detailed information about the clove trade and the routes taken by cloves, related spices like nutmeg and mace, and another related trade item, sandalwood.

Clove trade during the Sung Dynasty

Chau Ju-kua (Zhau Rugua) states that cloves and nutmeg were produced in two kingdoms that belonged to the southeastern empire of Toupo, which I have described previously as centered in the Cotabato region of Mindanao (southern Philippines).

Trading ships from Toupo headed to China, according to Sung Dynasty sources, used the following course:

  1. Starting from Toupo, two weeks heading northwest before reaching Poni
  2. A week northwest arriving at Mai (Mindoro)
  3. A few days northwest to Sanfotsi (Central Luzon)
  4. From Sanfotsi, ships could head due north for Quanzhou or northwest for Canton.

Click on image for larger view of area between the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands in the central South China Sea. This area was dangerous for medieval shipping and was avoided due to the many shoals, reefs, rocks and low-lying islands. Ships from Quanzhou (top of map) during the Sung Dynasty sailed the Western Ship Route to reach Chiao-chih (Tonkin), Chan-ch'eng (Annam, northern Vietnam), Chen-la (Khmer empire, South Vietnam and Cambodia) and destinations further south and west. The Eastern Ship Route sailed due south from Quanzhou to Sanfotsi (Luzon), Mai (Mindoro), Toupo (Mindanao) and to the clove and sandalwood sources in Maluku and Timor further to the south.

Of course, this is the shortest route from the sources of cloves and nutmeg to the ports of South China.

During the Spanish Galleon trade, Central Luzon, i.e., Manila was the main entrepot for the clove trade to all of Asia. Portuguese and Asian traders carried cloves and related spices from Manila to ports extending from India to Japan. And there is indication that this was the case before the Spaniards came as well. Pigafetta reported Luzon trading ships as far south as Timor trading in sandalwood, and noted that a boat on the island of Samar was loaded with "cloves, cinnamon, pepper, nutmegs, mace, gold, and other things."

During the Sung Dynasty, cloves were offered as official gifts by Sanfotsi, Toupo, Butuan, Champa and the Chola empire. Whether these periodic "tribute" missions, generally undertaken at the ascension of a new monarch, can really indicate the totality of the spice trade is questionable. There are indications of a more regular yearly "unofficial" trade going on that was not clearly documented.

The large number of cloves offered as gifts to China by Champa is quite interesting.

Cloves as Official Gifts during Sung Dynasty

Champa97750 jinLi Pai
Champa98650 jinLi Chao-xian
Sanfotsi98850 jinPu Yao-tuo-li
Toupo99210 jinPu Ya-li

Champa101130 jinPu sa-duo-po
Sanfotsi101730 jinPu Mou-xi
Champa101880 jinLuo-pi-di-jia


Sanfotsi115630 jin

Notice that all envoys except two have the titles Pu (Apu) or Li (Ari). Possibly Bu-lu-die-di-jia has an error for "Pu" in the first syllable.

In the blog post, "On the Titles Ari and Apu," I mentioned the large number of Champa envoys that used what I suggested was the Sanfotsi royal title Ari, which was found in Chinese texts in the form "Li" 李.

I speculated that there may have been intermarriages between Champa and Sanfotsi royals that could account for the apparent use of the title in Champa. Now, I have come across some more information that could help explain the contacts between the two countries.

In the Song hui-yao ji-gao (宋會藥輯稿), the Champa envoy Bu-lu-die-di-jia (布祿爹地加) is said to have stated that Champa had "fled" to Fo-shi country -- apparently referring to the flight of the country's rulers. Later in the work it is stated, and alluded to also in the Sung-shi, that the Champa king Yang-tuo-pai (楊陀排) whose reign began in 990 CE, was born in Fo-shi country.

There has been much scholarly discussion over what name "Fo-shi" was meant to transcribe. Paul Pelliot had suggested that Fo-shi was the Chinese rendering of Sanskrit Bhoga, while Georges Coedès thought it should instead by Vijaya.

In interpreting the aforementioned linkages between Champa and Fo-shi in the Song hui-yao, it is generally suggested that incidents refer to the temporary relocation of the Cham capital from Indrapura to the city of Vijaya after the invasion of the Vietnamese emperor Lê Hoàn.

However, there is a possibility that Fo-shi is actually an island kingdom located to the southeast of Canton mentioned by I Ching, which has been discussed previously in this blog. The Song hui-yao uses the term Fo-shi-guo (佛逝國) with the word "guo" possibly indicating another country (other than Champa). The text also mentions Sanfotsi, so it could be that Fo-shi refers to the original old country within the new Sanfotsi empire. In any case, the name "Fo-shi" is not used by other Chinese texts for the city of Vijaya in Champa.

We could propose that these events, as interpreted here, led to intermarriage between the royal familes in the two regions faciliating the trade in cloves, and also the use of the title Ari by many Champa envoys.

Sandalwood trade

Pigafetta mentions Luzon ships loading sandalwood from Timor during Magellan's circumnavigation voyage.

His note is important not only because it indicates how far the Luzon kingdom was trading to the South, but also due to the close link between the sandalwood trade and that of spices like cloves and nutmeg.

According to the Canton Stories (Pingzhou Ketan) of Zhu Yu (1118-9 CE), Sanfotsi had established a monopoly on the sandalwood trade:

In recent times Sanfotsi established a sandalwood monopoly and the ruler orders merchants to sell to him. The product's market value increases several times. The subjects of that country do not dare sell privately. This is an effective system. The country is right in the center of the Southern Sea. Ta-Shih [Perso-Muslim] countries are far to the West. Chinese bound for Ta-Shih reach Sanfotsi and repair their ships and exchange goods. Distant merchants congregate here and therefore it is considered the most prosperous place.

According to Chau Ju-Kua, the main source of sandalwood was Ti-wu, the Chinese name for Timor (also Ti-wen). Official sandalwood gifts to the Chinese emperor throughout history are thought to have almost exclusively originated in Timor. As with cloves, Chau Ju-kua states that Sanfotsi acted as an entrepot of sandalwood. He further states that sandalwood together with cloves were shipped from Sanfotsi to Nan-p'i (Malabar). Muslim texts generally agree with the Chinese sources as they list sandalwood as one of the products traded in Zabag.

During the Yuan Dynasty, sandalwood was said to come from a location known as Min-to-lang situated in the "East Ocean" mentioned together with well-known kingdoms like Butuan and Sulu. Some have speculated that this name could refer to Mindanao or Mindoro, but it is far from certain.

During the Ming Dynasty though, it is clear that Luzon was involved in the sandalwood trade. Pigafetta states: "All the sandal wood and wax that is traded by the inhabitants of Java and Malaca is traded for in that region [Timor]. We found a junk from Lozon there, which had come thither to trade in sandal wood."

According to a Brunei navigator who spoke with Legaspi during the Spanish invasion of the Philippines, the Luzon and Brunei trading ships dealing between the Manila Bay and points southward were considered "Chinese junks" because they acted as middlemen selling Chinese goods.

During Spanish times, Manila also acted as an entrepot of sandalwood, although unlike the situation with cloves where it had acted as the main trading source for Asia, it competed in the sandalwood trade with Batavia due to Dutch influence in Timor.

The route of cloves and sandalwood from their source lands to ports in South China was a natural one, the shortest route, and the one described in medieval texts using the Eastern Ship Route to avoid the treacherous shoals, reefs, rocks and islands of the central South China Sea.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Junker, Laura Lee. Raiding, Trading, and Feasting: The Political Economy of Philippine Chiefdoms, Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2000, 192-8.

Lach, Donald F., and Edwin J. Van Kley. Asia in the Making of Europe: Volume III, the Century of Advance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, 37.

Ptak, Roderich. China's Seaborne Trade with South and Southeast Asia, 1200-1750. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998.

Wade, Geoff. "Champa in the Song hui-yao" ARI Working Paper, No. 53, 2005,