The Spice Route

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 June, 2006, 12:00am

The Spice Route


by John Keay


John Murray, $144


Only a master writer of histories such as John Keay can proclaim spices 'a glorious irrelevance', then write a book about them. The Spice Route covers much previously charted territory, but it's one of the clearest explanations of the oldest example of global trade and its cultural and political ramifications. 'In ages past, when utility was paramount, the allure of spices lay precisely in their glorious irrelevance. Rare enough to imply distinction and distinctive enough to be unmistakable, spices unashamedly announced themselves as luxuries,' Keay writes. This book can be read as a primer on commodities trading. Such was Rome's appetite for spices that it ran an annual trade deficit of 10,000kg of gold, and only constant expansion of income from conquest could sustain its addiction. China, doing business since the first millennium with merchants as far off as Syria, avoided an early potential clash with the west by quitting the sea trade in the 15th century. In the end, commercial realities debased the whole business and the luxury status of spice was spent, but not before the Dutch swapped Manhattan for what is now Aceh.