The Spice Route
© 2005 John Keay
Spock was right. Having a thing is often not as pleasant as wanting a thing. It is not logical, but it is often true. Such was the case with the spice trade, which so tantalized the west that it spurred on a new epoch in human history and fell victim to its own success. For centuries, spices tantalized civilizations across the Old World, uniting them in pursuit. Romans wrote with alarm about the mound of gold and silver being lost to the east in the pursuit of clouds of incense and strange-tasting food. For the west, mystery was a key component in their appeal; they always arrived via streams of middle-men, and no one seemed to know they were were ultimately sourced. (Their guesses based on hearsay could run wild, like Herodotus’ Histories. ) Although none of the pined-for substances mace, cinnamon, etc) had preservative powers, they did add subtle and exotic tastes to food that made them attractive even to China, closer to the source. Keay fellows galleys, cogs, and carracks across the seas and through time, beginning with the Roman Empire and moving through medieval conflicts between Christian and Muslim traders before ultimately arriving in the globalized world that the spice trade helped create.
The spice trade’s history is worth considering because of its legacy; its traffic was more than mere goods and services. They were utter obsessions to both the European and Arab worlds, and the drive to find them — to control them, even – spurred on the Age of Discovery and the beginning of a global economy. Because of the antagonism between the Christo-Islamic political spheres Europeans embarked on great adventures to find quicker and better sea routes to the ‘spice islands’; they engaged in brutal wars, both against on another and whatever poor souls lay in their way. (Hungry, desperate men with guns don’t make for ideal guests, let alone neighbors.) Eventually Europe would win control of spice route trade points from the Arab world, and conquer the spice sources directly. The competition was such — first between Spain and Portugal, and then even more furiously between English and Dutch trading companies — that the spice trade fell victim of its own success. So many ships were traveling from Europe to the indies — around Africa, around the Americas, through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf — that markets were glutted. A warehouse in England might have a half-decade worth of surplus peppercorn, and this in the age of Sail! The wooden road that now linked Europe, Asian, and American shores brought much more with than spices: it brought competition. Spices now had to contend with regular supplies of coffee, chocolate, chili peppers, tea, sugar — an entire banquet of new and exotic tastes. The mysterious allure of spices had been lost in discovery, and now they were an old pleasure fading against new possibilities, both in Europe and in Asia. Just as the spice trade united the classical world, Islam, China, and renaissance Europe through the ages, its pursuit led to an Earth increasingly united in trade. The age of Discovery came not from scientific or religious idealism, but sheer appetite.
Keay uses his prior research into China and India here to good effect, drawing on Roman, Arabic, and Asian primary sources to delve into the Mediterranean powers’ search for those goods from afar. Although this is a text heavy with details, they don’t weight down the narrative too much. The only real limitation of the book is the complete lack of maps, which is problematic considering how large a role geography plays here. I largely read this to introduce myself to Keay’s writings, and will definitely try more of his histories.