The Spice Route; John Keay

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If you like big themes in history, this is a book you should pick up. I’ve read a couple of books by John Keay in the past, and he does good justice to history-telling. Needless to say, this is the history about the spice trade. The focus is on sea-trade rather than the silk route which was the overland trade route. And just the like the silk route was not exclusively about silk, the spice route is not exclusively about spice.

In The Spice Route, John Keay has spent considerable time on the origins; he brings in ample humour, intrigue and often changes the texture from a lofty to a specific event. The prose is dense but rarely unclear. The granularity of the matter can be jarring at times and makes you keep Wikipedia and Google Maps open in two tabs. The trivia, especially of the origin of words, people, and material, is interesting.

I was personally hoping for some more detail about the place of the Indian subcontinent in the history of the spice trade. While the geography often gets mentioned, I would have liked to see more specific historical references. The details are biased to Europe and South-east Asia.

By virtue of the trade and the diffusion of material around the world for a long time, and in complex ways, Keay explores the impact of this trade on society and the lives of people. The novelty, rarity of a spice, which inherently is of little worth, has within it, the capacity to affect the economy of different regions in almost opposing ways, is an interesting reflection of trade in contemporary times. At the end of the book, the sense of pride — this belongs to us — comes under scrutiny. What’s ours came to us many years ago from a foreign land; what’s theirs really moved from here to them ages ago.

After three or four chapters, the number of characters that enter the stage are too many. The places are plentiful and it can become a challenge to keep track. I found myself flipping back and forth a number of times.

To stay through the end of the book, you would need a good amount of interest in the subject. And while it’s filed under history, it’s really about economics, culinary interest, diffusion, and immense movement of ideas, people, and material for thousands of years.

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