Rice and Spice

LESSON 6: The spice trade, European domination and regional response

In this lesson plan, students will examine the economic imperatives that spurred Western imperialism and colonization of Southeast Asia, focusing on the lucrative spice trade in the context of the overarching scramble for critical resources. They will also investigate the relationships between the state and private economic interests such as the Dutch East Indian Company that were part of the imperial projects.

Subject History / Social Studies
Topic The spice trade in Southeast Asia from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries: How did the Europeans control
the spice trade and what was the local response?
Key idea From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, European powers pushed and fought wars to ascertain a
dominant position in the spice trade and secure economic, political and military power. This sparked local
response and resistance, and led to the decline of port cities.
Key concepts ‘Age of Commerce’
State-backed monopoly
Profit, supply and demand
Imperialism, mercantilism and colonialism
Level Lower secondary
No. of periods / lessons 1 period (1 period is approximately 50 minutes)
Facilities needed Sources and handouts for distribution
Prerequisite knowledge Students should have covered Lesson 5: Spice, rice and the economic histories of Southeast Asia

Learning objectives
By the end of the lesson, the students will be able to:

  1. Identify the major European powers that were involved in the spice trade from the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries.
  2. Explain the extent of European involvement.
  3. State the imperatives that motivated the European powers.
  1. Engage in the analysis of sources to extract information about the competing interests between the Europeans and local peoples, and look at maps to learn the extent of European involvement in Southeast Asia.
  1. Develop a basis for understanding encounters, conflicts.
  2. Appreciate the multidirectional flows of influence between Southeast Asia and the Europe.


Download the lesson plan for details on the talks and activities suggested below.

1. Introduction

This short presentation introduces the evolution of spice trade from free exchanges to monopolies and the impact of this change on the region.

2. Group work: Jigsaw activity

The students examine how the Portuguese, Dutch and British efforts to control spice trade in South-East Asia in the 16th and 18th centuries.

3. Conclusion: Synthetizing knowledge

Historian Immanuel Wallerstein argued in 1974 that Southeast Asia prior to 1750 was unimportant to European trade and the European impact on South-East Asia was minimal. Students reflect alone or in small groups if they agree or not with this claim based on the knowledge acquired in this lesson and the previous one.

Tip: Students should be aware that it is actually common for historians to disagree on issues because they may have access to different source, interpret events and sources differently.

4. Suggested home extension activities

Students write a report about why they would agree or disagree with Wallerstein’s claim and are encouraged to do additional readings
to enhance their understanding.