Plants – and plant products – promoting global trade

You can listen to this page as an audio file.

Spices, Scents and Silk: Catalysts of world trade, James F Hancock, 2021. CABI.

I first encountered James Hancock’s work at the World History Encyclopedia site (e.g. his articles on Origins of World Agriculture, and Dynamics of the Neolithic Revolution) whilst undertaking research for another project. I was impressed by both his subject matter – plants-and-people – and writing style. The opportunity to appraise his latest book Spices, Scents and Silk was one I therefore welcomed. And I was not disappointed.

Technical stuff

After a listing of the book’s contents, the 1.25 pages of Preface is a most important read [and needs to be read before one dives in to the rest of the book] that not only gives an overview of the book’s structure, but also provides some background to the author’s vision. For example, although Hancock’s intention was to focus upon trade routes, not the rise and fall of nations, world events are occasionally reviewed to maintain the historical timeline of the main story. Notwithstanding the Eurocentric outlook to the book – which Hancock acknowledges (p. xiii), but which is probably inevitable because Europe was the end point of the trade networks considered – due consideration is given to the Eastern civilisations at the starting points of the trading routes and to the geographical and political dimensions relevant to those networks. After all, Spices, Scents and Silk is a global history, and Hancock’s telling of it reflects that multicultural and multi-faceted dimension.

The book’s 299 main text pages occupy 22 chapters, the first three of which “introduce the exotic luxuries that came to have the greatest impact on human societies” (p. xiii). The next 12 chapters “describe how trade routes evolved in antiquity to deliver scents, spices and silks to the Western world” (p. xiii). The final septet “discuss the Renaissance period after the Portuguese discovered the route around the Cape and Europeans began going after their own spices and silks” (p. xiii). The book ends with 23 pages of 2-columned Index (with entries for all 26 letters of the alphabet, from al-Abbas to Zoroastrianism).

After a ‘Setting the stage’ section – which makes for a nice degree of consistency – each chapter, apart from the first, is divided into several short, sub-headed sections. Rarely more than 1 page long, those sections break the book up into highly-readable chunks, and have intriguing titles, such as: Smoke of the gods in antiquity; War elephants and Red Sea travel; Zenobia grabs power; The Golden Peninsula; The Radhanites, medieval tycoons; and Raw silk around the Horn. References are included in-text in Author-and-year-of-publication style, and their citation details are provided at the end of the relevant chapter. Sources cited are a mix of books, web-sites, and journal articles (some of which are plant science-based, others are more history-oriented). Where more than one reference is used to support a statement, it’s nice to see them shown in chronological order – older/st cited first.

The text is a compelling narrative that’s well-written with some good phrasing – but I’m not sure if all of it was intended. For example, the humour in this sentence amused me: “Incredibly, a tooth has been recovered from one of the excavations that dates from 2500 BCE and its DNA reveals it came from a trader of likely Indian extraction [my emphasis]” (p. 108). Although the text of Spices, Scents and Silk introduced many words that were unfamiliar to me, I was surprised to see ‘snafus’ used (as in “bureaucratic snafus” (p. 143)). I assume that snafus is the plural of the initialism SNAFU,* which stands for ‘situation normal, all fouled up’ (although etymologically-speaking the phrase is actually more offensive than the version I’ve used here.

Spices, Scents and Silk is illustrated – with maps (lots of maps!), and mainly in black-and-white, but occasionally in colour (e.g. for the spices, frankincense, a cut silkworm cocoon, and the painted silk scroll depicting Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong (Emily Mark)). The only other non-map illustration – and also in black-and-white – is an image of a “flotilla of Queen Hatshepsut’s ships” (p. 51). There is also a single Table showing shares of the major European nations in the Levant trade, 1607-1784. What isn’t there, but would have been useful, is a list of illustrations along with the table of contents.

Scientific names are given for the plants (and for the all-important silk moth), and separately listed in the Index – as are their common names. However, a useful amendment for future editions of the book would be to add the common name in brackets to the scientific name’s entry in the Index (and maybe vice versa).

Spices, Scents and Silk is a big, bold history, which – although it is highly readable – is quite tough going because of all the dates, names, places, and events that are mentioned. Definitely, not a book to reads in one sitting!

What the book does

“This book tells the story of how scents, spices and silk catalysed world trade. It describes the central role that these exotic luxuries came to play in the lives of the ancients and how these products got into their hands. It traces the development of the great international trade networks that delivered spices, scents and silk and how the demand for such luxuries shaped the world” (pp. 2/3). I couldn’t put it any better than that.

Be advised, though, it’s not a pretty story. There’s much bloodshed and many instances of crimes against humanity as various groups fought to control the profitable trading routes and the riches that accompanied that control. Indeed, one of the most commonly traded ‘commodities’ along those financial highways was slaves. Be under no illusion, the trade in spices, scents and silk came with extremely high associated human cost, and shows people at their worst in pursuit of some of the best that nature can provide. Although it may have been a mediaeval view that spices originated in some kind of far-off paradise, the quest for these exotic products subjected many peoples to various kinds of hell as world powers colonized [i.e. stole land from the indigenous inhabitants] their way around the globe to monopolise their production, movement, and sale.

Personal overview of book

First things first. Spices, Scents and Silk is a book about plant products and the profound influence they’ve had in the history of human interactions – particularly of a trading nature; it is a book about plants, peoples and places. In terms of plants, the spices showcased are: pepper [specifically, black pepper], cloves, nutmeg, mace, saffron, ginger, and cinnamon, and the scents are the highly-fragrant frankincense and myrrh (Carmen Drahl). But, why silk, you may ask. Surely, it’s not a plant product? It is, because it’s the threads spun by the silkworm to construct its cocoon, which worm feeds exclusively on the leaves of the mulberry tree. So much for the plants.

The people dimension is provided by many groups of people whose names are reasonably familiar to many of us, such as the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Greece, Persia, and Rome, and more modern peoples such as the Venetians, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and English. But Hancock also includes a number of other groups who were extremely pertinent to the development of trade along, or control over, the trading routes for these precious plant products but who are largely forgotten by the majority of us nowadays, e.g. Phoenicians, Genghis Khan (Evan Andrews) and the Golden Horde (Kallie Szczepanski), Nabataeans, Xiongnu, Sogdians (Judith Lerner & Thomas Wide), Seleucids, and Parthians (Jona Lendering).

As for places, Hancock’s narrative takes in countries that range far and wide e.g. the Land of Punt, Indonesia, Ceylon, Japan, China, India, Africa, empires such as the Ottoman Turks, the Persians, and the Mongols. Cities that played important roles in the book’s story include Alexandria, Venice, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Marseille, Antwerp, Constantinople (Byzantium, Istanbul), Baghdad, and Palmyra. Finally, it is also a reminder of major events in the development of humanity that have helped to shape us, such as the Arab agricultural revolution, the international trade fairs of Champagne in the 12th and 13th centuries, and the Industrial Revolution.

The book’s scope is immense. In terms of timescale it extends from the 3rd millennium BCE to the modern day. Its primary geographical extent goes from east-west from Japan to Lisbon (in Portugal, western Europe), and north-south from the Russian steppes to the Cape of Good Hope, thereby embracing the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, and the waters around the Indonesian archipelago. The drama that unfolds within Spices, Scents and Silk takes place on a very big stage indeed.

I liked to think I had a decent appreciation of the impact of spices on humanity – after having read such tomes as Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton, John Keay’s The spice route, and Jack Turner’s Spice. I also thought I had a pretty good understanding of the importance of silk and the Silk Routes from Peter Coles’ Mulberry, and Fruit from the sands by Robert Sprengler III. And I was aware of the relevance of frankincense and myrrh in the earliest days of Christianity (Colin Schultz). But, having read James Hancock’s Spices, Scents and Silk, I now realise that I had a very limited view of the true scale of the relevance and impact upon humankind and its development of those plant-derived commodities. Quite simply, Spices, Scents and Silk has been a revelation to the role played by that trio of plant products in the story of people over thousands of years and embracing all of the then-known world. Hancock’s tome is a brilliant book (although it’s not perfect…).

If you thought global trade began in 1492 with Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas (Sarah Pruitt), you are in for a bit of a shock. Hancock contests that “international long-distance trade began when the ancient Egyptians’ lust for frankincense and myrrh led the pharaohs to send massive trade expeditions south-east to a place they called the ‘Land of Punt’” (p. 3) – and backs up that claim with evidence. That overland Incense Route wended its way for over 1000 miles, from southern Arabia to Alexandria in Egypt. The maritime Spice Routes (with their roots in the incense trade) extended for 9000 miles from Rome across the Mediterranean to northern Africa, then through the Indian Ocean to Indonesia and China. And the predominantly land-based Silk Route ran from China through Central Asia to the Middle East and on to Europe for approx. 4000 miles. All of these extensive trading routes were in existence long before 1492 CE (back as far as 1200 BCE for the Incense Route), and demonstrated the importance of economic relationships between Europe and the East. Although a search for access to the sources of spices was one of the goals of Columbus’ voyages that led to European discovery of the Americas/New World, Columbus is very much a minor figure in the book. Spices, Scents and Silk is therefore a timely reminder of the importance of Europe-East trading relationships and their primacy over Europe-Americas commercial exchanges.

As you’d expect, most of the focus in the book is upon spices and silk (and scents – although they’re not mentioned much after the first few chapters), but Hancock also recognises that as fashions and tastes change so too do the goods that are traded, and the destinies and fortunes of nations with it. Accordingly, there are significant mentions of cotton, sugar and tea (and opium…) towards the end of the book as the commercial interests of some of the major players in the spice trade turned their attentions westward towards the commercial opportunities of the New World, or concentrated on India and China.

One wag once wrote something to the effect that the trouble with history is that it’s one thing after another. It is, but that is compounded by the fact that many other things are also happening at the same time in other places, and these events may influence each other – if not at that time, then maybe in future. History is therefore not straightforward, and context – what else was going on at the time – is always important. That’s what makes it fascinating and nuanced; it isn’t a black and white, cause-and-effect, linear narrative, it’s a tangled web of interconnections with multiple shades of grey. Which is also what makes trying to write about historical events tricky to do. But, Hancock does a pretty decent job at detailing and documenting the long – and tangled – global history of trade in these precious plant products. So much so that it’s easy to agree with him that “International trade in spices, scents and silk pushed humans to explore and then travel to the far corners of the earth” (p. 1).

Intended audience?

As the publisher states, the book is: “Recommended for academics, students and general readers with an interest in crop and agricultural development, world trade, economic botany, history of food, and global economics and public policy, Spices, Scents and Silk offers a fascinating and insightful history”. To which readership I’d also add anyone with more than a passing interest in world history generally. From my reading of the book I’d say that it should work well for both a general audience as well as an academic one – which is no mean feat to have achieved – and is certainly a title I would have added to the reading list for the Plants and People course I used to teach.

Some reservations…


I have to mention the referencing. It’s there – and in-text (apart from Chap. 1 Introduction which, despite stating loads of facts, is reference-free) – but it’s a little inconsistent. In chapters 2 – 22 there are large chunks of text without any citation(s) – e.g. the first two paragraphs of pages 247, 248, and 249. And, what is the source for the silk production statistics in the third paragraph on page 279? Is it Herzig – who is referenced in the first paragraph on that page? Don’t leave readers to guess. Sadly, those instances are numerous and somewhat undermined the otherwise abundantly-evident academic rigour of the book. Although Hancock’s Spices, Scents and Silk is still a very worthwhile read, it would have been so much more useful if its sources were more assiduously stated and cited.

Hancock uses biographies or personal accounts a lot, so may cite the work at the start of a section, which is fine. However, after the first citing of such a reference, he then includes a lot of text – frequently several paragraphs – thereafter that maybe comes from that source but is not clearly stated in the text. For example, on pages 248/9 we have 5 paragraphs under the sub-heading Ralph Fitch. Ryley (1899) is cited as a source in the first paragraph, but there are no other citations within the following four paragraphs – each of which includes important facts about the gentleman. When you’ve worked out what – you think – Hancock is doing, it’s not so bad. But, I think it’s far better to state your sources for all statements and remove any doubts.

In other instances, the text is entirely occupied by quotes from the works of others. For example, on page 261 we have 30 lines, 27 of which are taken up by a two-paragraph quote from another author (which is acknowledged). On the face of it, that approach might appear to be a ‘lazy’ way to put a book together. But, if what Hancock wants to say has previously been said by AN Other – Krishna (1924) in this instance – then why ‘reinvent the wheel’ (as long as the source is cited, as it is here). And, as Hancock states in the Preface, “I quote others freely in this book, as I don’t believe in paraphrasing what others have already said” (p. xiii).** Like it or loath it, at least the author has justified this practice. Personally, and since the book’s subject matter is as much about the people as the plants, it’s nice to read the words of others as they help to flesh out the story.*** However, it’s not good practice, and one would advise undergraduates learning the craft of academic writing to avoid excessive use of quotes.

The missing spice?

In Chapter 2 – which is a very useful section on the natural history of the plant products featured in his book, Hancock’s defines his book’s “Top Ten”, which is: silk cloth, frankincense, myrrh, cinnamon, pepper, cloves, ginger, saffron, nutmeg, and mace, the items that “played a central role in the economies of both Eastern and Western civilizations” (p. 5). Interestingly, that choice of spices is somewhat at odds with the foremost five “premier spices” (p. 9) in Fred Czarra’s global history of spices, which are: cinnamon, clove, nutmeg and mace [counted as one since both are from the same plant], pepper, and chilli pepper. Whilst omission of Central and South America-sourced chilli suits Hancock’s thesis of South-East Asian/Indochina-originating spices and related trade routes [with his acknowledged exception of Mediterranean/Middle East-derived saffron], it might have been a good idea to clearly state why chilli was excluded from consideration in Spices, Scents and Silk. That becomes arguably more important given the eagerness with which chillies were adopted into the national cuisines (Mick Young) of many countries along the spice routes between Europe and SE Asia/Indochina after the Columbian Exchange of 1492 and their introduction by Spanish and Portuguese adventurers into that part of the world. Maybe that particular Atlantic-spanning, but still arguably global, trading route – and which developed as a result of a spice-sourcing seafaring sojourn by Columbus et al. (Marc Philippe Eskenazi) – is too recent and therefore doesn’t fit in neatly with the much older silk, spice and scent routes? Maybe. But its inclusion would have cemented the truly global nature of spice-inspired trade, and occurred at about the same time as the Portuguese were reaching the Spice Islands by sea, which event and its consequences occupy the final third of the book.

Non-silk transfer along the Silk Route

Cultural diffusion along the Silk Route is mentioned by Hancock, but largely in terms of religious thought with his inclusion of Manichaeism (from Persia in the 3rd century CE, west to Rome, and east to China) and Nestorian Christianity (from Constantinople in the 430s east towards China). Apart from a very brief mention of two-way movement of some millets – pearl and finger species from Africa to India, and broomcorn millet from China (and not specifically citing the Silk Route as its exchange pathway) – there’s very little inclusion of the major exchanges or movements of plant products other than amongst his Top Ten that also took place along that trading path. Had a little more of that side of things been provided it would have helped to underline the wider global significance of this particular commercial highway. For more on that side of things, may I direct interested readers to Fruit from the sands by Robert Spengler?

Final thoughts

I have learnt a lot about world history from a study of plants and plants-and-people interactions, notably from books such as John Perlin’s A Forest Journey, and Henry Hobhouse’s Seeds of Change and Seeds of Wealth. I’m pleased to say that I was able to add to that global appreciation from Spices, Scents and Silk. And what did I learn?**** Pretty much what the book’s back cover – and publisher’s blurb – tells me I would: “…the origins and early domestication and culture of spices, scents and silks and the central role they played in the lives of the ancients. … the development of the great international trade networks and … how struggles for trade dominance and demand for such luxuries shaped the world”. Whilst acknowledging that – to a greater or lesser extent – you could press into service almost any product plant or animal or whatever to suit your own particular perspective, when viewed in the context of its sub-title, Catalysts of world trade, Spices, Scents and Silk is a book that delivers a compelling narrative that supports what it claims, which is always a nice thing to see.


For those who don’t think they like history, a plant-based approach not only provides a suitable entrée into the study of that subject, it also emphasises why plants are so important to a proper understanding of people. Books such as Spices, Scents and Silk by James Hancock can therefore only help in giving humankind a sense of what it is and where it came from. And that can only increase the public’s botanical literacy. Manners may maketh man, but plants produceth people. And some of those plants that have contributed enormously to humans’ development are considered in Spices, Scents and Silk: Catalysts of World Trade. As Hancock observes, “Once the Western world discovered the intoxicating properties of these products, their procurement became a dominant force in the world economy” (p. 2).

* Whenever I see that phrase, my knee-jerk reaction is to think about the initialism FUBAR (which, and rather curiously in my view, is a 5-letter ‘word’ that’s acceptable in the game of Wordle…).

** Advice Hancock has taken very much on board because he’s quoted his own words – from elsewhere in the book – in this way; the first paragraph on page 146 is more or less identical to the bulk of the text in the second paragraph on page 122.

*** But, those quotes must be included correctly, which is why I have a query about de Orta (1563)’s cited text regarding three types of pepper on page 11. The sentence “If you do now want to believe me, believe in these three seeds, that one is of long, the other of black, the other of white pepper” appears twice, once in the middle of the quoted text, and again as the last sentence. Did de Orta really repeat this in his original text? Or is that an error that accompanied the translation of de Orta’s words by Sir Clements Markham? Or is this something that Hancock has introduced in reproducing the quote..? Unfortunately, and irrespective of whether the source is stated (as it is here) – or not – that particular puzzle remains unsolved…

**** For example, and more specifically, I learned: the average speed of a camel; which ancient city was known as both the ‘bride of the desert’ and the ‘city of palm trees’ [yes, there’s a clue in this latter nickname…]; the inspiration for Dutch Royal Delft Blue’s origin; why spoons and forks were invented (and by whom); the religious significance of purple-dyed clothing; that Constantinople was sacked by Crusaders – long before the better-publicised event of its capture by the Ottomans in 1453; that Japan was at one time the world’s second largest silver producer, after Spanish Peru; and that corpses of victims of the Black Death (Maria Spyrou et al. Nature (2022). were used in the first recorded instance of biological warfare, during the siege of Caffa (Mark Wheelis, Emerg Infect Dis. 8(9): 971–975, 2002; doi: 10.3201/eid0809.010536; Micheal Chimaobi Kalu) in the mid-14th century (!)…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: