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Books: Tales from the Land of Zanj

William Dalrymple investigates the spice trade
Empires of the Monsoon by Richard Hall,

HarperCollins, pounds 20

In the autumn of 1487, two Portuguese spies set off on the caravan route from Alexandria across the deserts of the Wadi Natrun to Cairo, then one of the two richest cities of the Islamic world. Disguised as Arab merchants dealing in jars of Neapolitan honey, the two agents travelled to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea. There they separated, one heading to the port of Zaila on the African mainland, the other taking advantage of the winds of the southwest monsoon to catch a dhow to the Malabar spice coast of India. The two spies would never see each other again, and neither would ever return home. One died in mysterious circumstances; the other, searching for the legendary empire of Prester John, broke through as far as Ethiopia, only to find himself forbidden ever to leave.

Their mission was, however, a notable success in one important respect. The senior spy, Pero de Covilhao, was able to pass on to two Portuguese Jews the map he made of the Indian Ocean. This map got back to Lisbon and proved that if a Portuguese galleon were able to round the Cape, sail half way up the east coast of Africa, then head north east, nothing would stand in the way of a fair sailing to the riches of the spice coast of India.

As a direct result of de Covilhao's espionage, on 18 May 1498 Vasco da Gama succeeded in reaching the Malabar Coast at the end of what Richard Hall calls "the longest sea voyage in history". It was an epic achievement. The first, Atlantic stretch of the journey alone involved being out of sight of land for three times as long as Columbus had been on his crossing to the New World. Economically, the pioneering of the trade route was an extraordinary breakthrough: what was bought in Calicut for a ducat could be sold in Lisbon for a hundred ducats. As one worried Venetian realised, "if these voyages should continue, and they seem easy to accomplish, the King of Portugal can call himself the King of Money".

The Venetian was right to be worried. The creation of the Portuguese empire and re-routing of the spice trade resulted in the impoverishment of its ancient masters: the Middle Eastern caravan cities and, above all, the western power that formed the trade's final terminus - the Republic of Venice.

The Portuguese had not come merely to trade. They came to conquer, to attempt to destroy Islam and to convert the peoples of the Indian Ocean to what they regarded as the one true faith. On his first voyage, Vasco da Gama let loose his guns on the African port-city of Mozambique and the Indian port of Calicut. On his second he indulged in an orgy of sadistic violence, bombarding towns, torturing prisoners, and massacring women and children.

The peoples of the Indian Ocean had no defence against European cannon, and no warships to match the Portuguese caravels. Even when the Ottoman Turks transported wood from the Balkans to the mouth of Red Sea and put together a special fleet to take on the newcomers, the Ottoman ships proved defenceless against Portuguese broadsides. In less than a decade the Portuguese had completely destroyed a free-trade network that had existed with very little violence for thousands of years.

Empires of the Monsoon is a panoramic study of the history of the Indian Ocean, and the destruction of its traditional trade by colonial Europe. The narrative ranges from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, from Northern Italy to Eastern China, and stretches from the emergence of Islam to the present day. Its major achievement is to weave into a coherent whole the histories of a kaleidoscope of civilisations and peoples.

Richard Hall is a journalist by training, not an academic, and his book does not aim at any particular profundity of analysis; its principal object is to interest and entertain. Rarely, however, has the dry dust of economic history been brought more vividly to life; and there can be very few studies of trade routes to touch it for narrative pace or for epic sweep.

Empires of the Monsoon reads like some mediaeval Book of Wonders, rich with exotic improbabilities. We learn of the African warriors of the Land of Zanj who collected the testicles of passing merchants; the solidified fluids of a sperm whale's stomach, which the Chinese valued as an aphrodisiac; of the 11,000 eunuchs of Abbasid Baghdad; and the Madagascan flightless bird which stood ten feet high and laid eggs more than a foot long.

It is all gripping stuff, dizzily ambitious in its scope and full of some of the oddest facts imaginable. As an icy January gives way to a grim, grey English February, this is just the book to curl up with and dream about the spice shores of Malabar.