Spice: The sixteenth century contest that shaped the modern world
Roger Crowley

Spice: The sixteenth century contest that shaped the modern world

Columbus did not seek to discover the Americas. Magellan never intended to circumnavigate the world. Their ill-defined goal was the Indies – heavily influenced by Marco Polo’s travels - the aim to track spices back to their source and cut out the Islamic middle man. Spices were the engine of the world economy, the most extensively traded of all commodities. For Europeans they represented riches on an unprecedented scale. By 1511 the Portuguese had identified a group of tiny islands in the Malay Archipelago – the Moluccas – as the only place on earth where the most highly valued species, cloves and nutmeg, could be found.

The Moluccas were destined to become the focus of intense rivalry for the spice trade – first between Portugal and Spain, later with other European maritime powers, that led to contests with the Ottoman empires and contact with China and Japan.

The competitive attempts on the spice islands, driven by sophisticated sailing ships, increased skills of navigation and information gathering, and fast-firing cannons, gave a definitive shape to the planet’s seas and continents. In the process Europeans proved that the world was spherical, spanned the Pacific Ocean, created Manila, the world’s first global city, and linked up the oceans – ‘the world encompassed’ in Drake’s phrase. While the great land empires of China and India remained aloof, the spice voyages created maritime empires across distances unmatched in human history and gave birth to world trade. It shifted Europe from the margins to the centre: its maritime empires would dominate the planet for half a millennium.

Spice is the story of six crucial decades, 1511-1571, from the Portuguese conquest of Malacca to the founding of Manila  – a defining moment, when the world ‘went global’.  It is a narrative of epic sweep that now defines every aspect of our lives, and the relationship with the great empires of the East, particularly China, that has returned to obsess us. It is big history in the fullest sense of the word.

The book encompasses a huge geographical terrain – from the coasts of Spain and Portugal to the vastness of the Pacific void, Macau, Nagasaki, the spice islands and the Arctic seas and provides multi-dimensional narratives: the fierce competition between European states, anthropological encounters between different peoples, extraordinary maritime feats, brutal sea battles, sieges and shipwrecks, personal tales of endurance, the growth of European capitalism, scientific developments in navigation, ship-building and cartography.  

Spice builds on Roger Crowley’s strong reputation for writing gripping, well -researched narrative history of the highest order.


Book Details:

  • Author: Roger Crowley
  • On Submission
  • Rights Sold
    • United Kingdom: Yale University Press
    • Portugal: Presença
    • Korea: Cum Libro
    • China: Social Sciences Academic Press
Roger Crowley

Roger Crowley

Roger Crowley was born in 1951 and educated at Cambridge University. As the child of a naval family, early experiences of life in Malta gave him a deep interest in the history and culture of the Mediterranean world. After finishing school he spent his summers pottering in Greece; after university the Mediterranean bug took a more serious turn with a year spent on and off teaching English in Istanbul, exploring the city and walking across Anatolia with friends and donkeys. In recent years he has made return trips to the Greek-speaking world, including two visits to Mount Athos, spiritual hom...
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