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SPICE by Roger Crowley Kirkus Star


The 16th-Century Contest That Shaped the Modern World

by Roger Crowley

Pub Date: May 14th, 2024
ISBN: 978-0300267471
Publisher: Yale Univ.

An engaging study of the first era of globalization, focused on the spice trade.

British historian Crowley has written a series of well-regarded, popular books about European history, including City of Fortune, Conquerors, and Accursed Tower. In his latest, the author keenly dissects the 16th-century contest between Portugal and Spain to capture the lucrative spice trade, even though it meant traversing the globe. Their competition, writes Crowley, was “a great game that literally shaped the world.” In the early 1500s, a trickle of nutmeg, cloves, and mace had found its way to Europe and sparked huge demand, but their origin was a mystery. Exploratory voyages led to a small archipelago known as the Moluccas, located in what is now eastern Indonesia and the only source of the spices at the time. In 1494, Portugal and Spain had divided the southeast region of Asia—with no regard to the Indigenous populations—with a north-south line via the Treaty of Tordesillas. However, there was no concrete way to judge longitude or effectively enforce the treaty. Both the Portuguese and the Spanish sought to build on the region's existing trade networks as well as export spices back to Europe, and the silver mined from Spanish-controlled mines led to a vast expansion of commerce. In short, Europe and Asia had become tied together, and in a span of less than 80 years. The narrative could easily have become lost on the vast canvas, but Crowley, a consummate storyteller, has the experience to keep control of it, and he capably juggles the large cast of characters. He also peppers the book with illuminating maps and illustrations, creating a fascinating examination of a significant period in world history.

Crowley has the knack of turning fragments into a mosaic, and his latest book is another colorful, sweeping saga.