A Spicy History of Humanity ; the Quest for Spices Drove Exploration around the World

Article excerpt

On a shelf in one of my kitchen cabinets, I have a small jar of much-traveled cloves that have crossed the Atlantic twice in the international moves I have made over the past decade. As their numbers have dwindled over the years since I bought them, back in the last century, they have been transferred from their original pasteboard box to the rather spiffier glass jar. At the rate they are disappearing, they may well last another couple of decades. They are not, in short, a big deal in my household.

But I have new respect for those cloves since reading Jack Turner's "Spice: The History of a Temptation." For he demonstrates that it was cloves - 60,060 pounds of them, to be precise - that funded no less historic a human enterprise than Ferdinand Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe.

Recent years have seen the flourishing of a new genre of history: the book focusing on some object of material culture considered a window on the larger pageant of human history. Thus we read about "salt" or "cod" as having "changed the world," or about the ordinary lead pencil, or the manufacture of chemical pigments, or even the color mauve. "Spice" continues that tradition.

Turner locates spices at the confluence of some major currents of the human experience: life and death; God and religion; sex, love, and food. It was the desire for spices as much as the desire for gold and silver, he argues, that motivated the great voyages of discovery of half a millennium ago. "The Asian empires of Portugal, England, and the Netherlands might be said with only a little exaggeration to have sprouted from a quest for cinnamon, cloves, pepper, nutmeg, and mace, and something similar was true of the Americas.... For the sake of spices, fortunes were made and lost, empires built and destroyed, and even a new world discovered. For thousands of years, this was an appetite that spanned the planet and, in doing so, transformed it."

Magellan, Columbus, and Vasco da Gama are the heroes of the adventure story of the spice trade. But the history of spice has other sides as well. Those who risked their lives in the spice trade were motivated by what Turner calls "the idea of spice," an idea derived from a reading of Christian theology that saw spices as literally the fruit of an earthly paradise. It was an idea reinforced by the fact that so many spices came to medieval Europe via the markets of the Bible lands of the Middle East.

Spice has another, much worldlier, set of associations, too. Someone at an airport newsstand looking for a spicy novel to read on the plane is not thinking of cinnamon and nutmeg. …