“Spice: The 16th-Century Contest that Shaped the Modern World” by Roger Crowley

Detail of “Figure of the Five Islands Where Grow the Cloves, and of Their Tree”, Antonio Pigafetta (via Princeton Library) Detail of “Figure of the Five Islands Where Grow the Cloves, and of Their Tree”, Antonio Pigafetta (via Princeton Library)

Although it is the Silk Road that captures most of the contemporary attention and discussion, it was in fact spices, not silk, that drove Western Europeans to seek routes to Asia. “Lightweight and durable, spices” writes Roger Crowley in his new history (appropriately entitled Spice), “were the first truly global commodity … they could be worth more than their weight in gold.” 

And it was, for the most part, not China, Japan or India that was the object of Western fever dreams but a handful of tiny, now relatively obscure islands in what is now Indonesia:


Five microscopic volcanic islands – Ternate, Tidore, Moti, Makian and Bacan – were the only places on the planet where clove trees grew. Four hundred miles south another three islands – the Bandas – were the unique source of nutmeg.


The Moluccas, he writes, “were destined to become the epicentre of a sixteenth-century great game that literally shaped the world.”


Spice: The 16th-Century Contest that Shaped the Modern World, Roger Crowley (Yale University Press, May 2024)
Spice: The 16th-Century Contest that Shaped the Modern World, Roger Crowley (Yale University Press, May 2024)

This story, whether framed as the “Age of Discovery”, the rise of Western imperial oppression and exploitation, the birth of globalization or even, as Amitav Ghosh has it, the origins of the climate crisis, has been told a number of times before. Crowley structures his account very much in the “Age of Discovery” tradition—the actual voyages figure heavily—but limits his discussion to the six decades between 1511 (the capture of Malacca by the Portuguese Afonso de Albuquerque) and 1571 (the Spanish founding of Manila and the start of Manila Galleon, which closed the final leg in the global network of trade links) and, for the most part, the Spanish voyages across the Pacific. Vasco da Gama, Columbus, Balboa have at most cameos.

It’s a story that bears periodic retelling as perspectives and priorities change. But it’s also just a good (if rarely salubrious) story and Crowley tells it page-turningly well, and through extensive use of primary sources, lets the protagonists tell much of the story themselves. (Crowley has been here before in his well-received Conquerors: How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire, published almost a decade ago,)

Crowley sets the scene with a brief intro to the Portuguese arrival in the Moluccas in 1512, and a discussion of the cartographic wars: Portugal and Spain had, in the waning years of the 15th-century and with the Pope’s concurrence, divided the world up between them; but there was no agreement as to where the dividing meridian ran on the Pacific side of the globe. In the end, it wasn’t logic or cartographic science that mattered but possession and the Portuguese were ensconced in the Moluccas, and the Spanish weren’t.

It was the Portuguese adventurer Magellan—who had been with Albuquerque in Malacca, but who had since gone over to the Spanish—who set out to dislodge his erstwhile countrymen by sailing west in 1519 rather than east. Magellan’s story is told in greater detail (and considerably more snark) by Felipe Fernández-Armesto in his 2022 book “Straits”. Magellan seems to have been an unpleasant man, and a little bit of him can go a long way; readers are unlikely to be very disappointed that Crowley has him despatched by Lapulapu in Mactan relatively quickly. Crowley gives about as much space to the remainder of the expedition, now led by Elcano, and their time in the Moluccas, a period often treated as a mere coda to Magellan’s dramatic demise in the Philippines.

One of the strengths of Crowley’s book is that he covers a great deal of material that other books—in their rush to circumnavigate the world or find the way back east across the Pacific—skim over. A lot happened between Magellan’s death and Andrés de Urdaneta’s discovery of the “tornaviaje”.

Magellan’s expedition limped back to Spain without him. Crowley follows this with a section on the ill-fated delegation of the Portuguese Tomé Pires to Ming dynasty China, before switching back to the main Spanish narrative with Loaísa’s return expedition across the Pacific in 1525. It was a disaster. Of the 450 who set out, only 105 made it to face off with the Portuguese in Malacca; one of them, however, was Urdaneta, destined for great things, but still a teenager. But the Spaniards had several more failures, which Crowley recounts, before Urdaneta’s navigational triumph four decades later.


Crowley includes a sidebar on the English attempts to find an Arctic route, but which lead instead to trading relations with Muscovy and the first English joint-stock company, a model copied in the later and far more successful East India Company.

The main narrative winds down with the almost informal founding of Macau and the Urdaneta arriving back in Mexico after finding a way back across the Pacific. The Spanish never dislodged the Portuguese from the Spice Islands, but instead monopolized trans-Pacific trade that was in turn fueled by American silver. Ironically, despite all the jostling—the book is subtitled “The Sixteenth Century Contest that Shaped the Modern World”—it was the Dutch, not the Spanish, who pushed the Portuguese out. But first in, last out in the end: Macau remained under Portuguese control until 1999.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.