One of the great joys of unravelling the skeins of history, I think, is definitely the process of linking causes with effects and understanding how something that happened several centuries ago led, however indirectly, to something that happened today. Alternate universes with “might have been” scenarios based on one change in the history we know are always fascinating. To think of how different Indian history would have been is a little intimidating; but without the British and the Portuguese landing in India in search of spices, would I have been an English-speaking, baptized but lapsed Catholic, fond of bebinca and the architecture of colonial Bombay? And would any of us ever have sat down to eat a humble aloo parantha?
John Keay’s history of the Spice Route starts us on the trail of “might have been”, asking and answering questions about how the spice trade changed the history of the world. Drawing on maps, ship’s logs, travelogues, histories, and other documents, he pieces together this long and complex story, starting from more than a thousand years before Christ and continuing until the late eighteenth century, when spices finally became commonplace; as Keay says, the end of the mystery has finally come in our time, when we can pick those once-rare commodities off supermarket shelves. Lost the mystery may be, but his narrative remains alive to it, of what these strange, exotic substances were, where they came from, and how they travelled the world.
Keay sets out the background to his narrative with the Banda Islands of Indonesia, whence came nutmeg and mace, two of the rarest of spices. These islands he compares, quite directly, to paradise; an untouched Garden of Eden in his writing. But, we are aware, if this is the Garden of Eden, there must be a fall. The entire book leads up to the history of how that fall came about, when the Dutch laid the islands waste and spilled blood savagely all over them, in their quest to control the trade routes.
It starts out quietly enough, with Keay painstakingly taking us through piecemeal, fragmented accounts of trade routes so early that they are only sketchily mapped out and no particular names are associated with them. We know only the Egyptians and the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Greeks. Perhaps the only specificity here is Pliny, who comes in for a good deal of witty snark from Keay.
But as the marked routes extend and start to link continents to each other, Keay gives us a taste of the violence of greed, as it focuses on controlling the trade and rivalries start to come up, and other concerns, such as those of religion and its dissemination, come into play. The Portuguese in Kerala, under Vasco Da Gama, are particularly brutal. And slowly, as the trade routes of the world are mapped out and discovered, as continents are rounded, oceans crossed, and the very globe itself circumnavigated, the famous names appear on Keay’s pages — Columbus, Magellan, Alberquerque… until the power finally shifts to the hands of the British and Dutch East Indian Companies.
Nobody could accuse this book of not being scholarly enough; it is erudite, precise in its wit, and highly readable, but never self-indulgent. Presenting its reconstructed history lucidly and intelligently is its paramount aim. Its points of view are simultaneously cultural, sociological, economic, and historical, approaches that it perfectly balances, while always retaining some measure of lyrical fascination with the spices themselves. But this is a dense book, which is why it is hard to summarize Keay’s narrative; each page, if not each paragraph, brings forth a new name and a new voyage of discovery, a new account of some spice and a new route attempted. It is not, therefore, a fast read; I must have taken three weeks over it.
Still, it was three weeks very well spent. To understand in some measure exactly how the world changed because of the yen for bits of dried vegetable matter and how globalization and its discontents are not entirely new to humanity, you could do no better than this engaging history.