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THE SCENTS OF EDEN by Charles Corn


A Narrative of the Spice Trade

by Charles Corn

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 1-56836-202-1
Publisher: Kodansha

 A lucid and comprehensive account spanning the nearly four centuries of international intrigue and bloody struggle for control of the vast riches of the Spice Islands. At the dawn of the 16th century, the group of islands astride the equator to the east of Java known as the Moluccas became the stage for the first major colonial conflict played out by the seagoing European powers, and as Corn (Distant Islands: Crossing Indonesia's Ring of Fire, 1991) ably relates, the prizes were the most valuable commodities on earth: nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and later pepper. The Spanish were the first beneficiaries of a cargo of spices brought by the remaining ship of Magellan's last voyage, but it was the Portuguese, urged on by figures such as the Jesuit Francis Xavier, who militarily first took control of the spice trade. Control over the region was finally wrested in the early 17th century by the tyrannical Dutch East India Company, responsible for the massacre of 14,000 of the 15,000 inhabitants of the Banda Islands, the richest spice-producing islands in the East Indies. The final section of Corn's study focuses on the merchants of Salem, who carried on a fantastically lucrative trade in pepper with the canny and often treacherous rajahs on Sumatra. As in most good history books, readers will be challenged by a wealth of revelatory arcana; for instance, unbelievably, until the mid-18th century botanists believed that plants native to one region could not be grown anywhere else; as part of the treaty eliminating England as a player in the Moluccas, Holland traded New Amsterdam- -later Manhattan--to the English for a tiny island two miles long and a half mile wide. This is as pleasurable and eye-opening a history as one would hope for, generous in its descriptions of exotic islands and exciting in its depictions of the men who made fortunes in their waters. (maps)