The islands of the Indian Ocean today are the pleasure ground for sun-seeking Europeans, only a ten hour flight away. But it was not always thus. For centuries they were the dangerous waters through which spice traders sailed at the mercy of storms and trade winds, whilst evading the less natural dangers of pirates and men of war. The risks on these months-long journeys were high but the rewards were even higher.

So, as you relax on your sun-lounger and dabble your toes in the azure seas, contemplate the rich and dangerous past.  And should you be curious to know more, sample these books from our recommended reading list. They are all written with the same fast- paced, often humorous style that makes the stories compelling and accessible.


Scroll on to find out the books that expand upon the history of the spice routes. 


Arab Seafaring: In the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Early Medieval Times

By George F. Hourani

The classic work on the sea trade of the Arabs from earliest times to the Middle Ages and the arrival of the Europeans. A short, authoritative, and ever so slightly dry account.

The Spice Route: A History

By John Keay

An enthralling, yet brief history of the spice trade over 3 millennia; packed with eye-catching detail.  And a timely explanation of the oldest example of global trade and its cultural and political ramifications. points up the economic basis of historic trade wars.

Storm & Conquest : 1809 the battle for the Indian Ocean, 1809

By Stephen Taylor

The British Empire was in the ascendency post-Trafalgar. But the Royal Navy was far from unrivalled and the French fleet based in Ile de France (Mauritius) was a thorn in the side of trade routes to the East – something had to be done. The story and its cast of characters are brought vividly to life with all the nautical salt and pungency of a Patrick O’Brien novel.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How One Man’s Courage Changed the Course of History

By Giles Milton

Charts the competition between England and Holland for possession of the spice- producing islands of South-East Asia throughout the 17th century. Packed with stories of heroism, ambition, ruthlessness, treachery, murder, torture and madness, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg offers a compelling story of European rivalry in the Tropics.

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire

By Roger Crowley

Magnificently sweeping history of Portugal’s rise to world empire … Conquerors is a gloriously entertaining read … it reads like an epic, bursting with colour and excitement. Unlike many academics who have written about the age of European expansion, Crowley never wastes a syllable on post-colonial gobbledegook, but just cracks on with the action … prodigiously entertaining book. (Dominic Sandbrook Sunday Times)

The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco Da Gama

By Nigel Cliff

Da Gama’s opening up of the spice routes via the Cape heralded the new Age of Discovery. And its 100 year monopoly made Lisbon the world’s richest city. It also extended the ongoing battle for cultural and religious supremacy between Christian and Islamic faiths from the Mediterranean Sea across continents.



1421: The Year China Discovered the World

By Gavin Menzies

The remarkable story of the largest fleet the world had ever seen. The ships, some nearly five hundred feet long, undertook a two year voyage across the Indian Ocean followed the trade routes to East Africa on a friendship voyage before returning home and being expunged from history as China closed its borders.