“Spice and the Devil’s Cave” has been one of our all-time favourite books about explorers and the Age of Exploration. It’s a fabulous piece of historical fiction that won a Newberry Honor award in 1931, but, it’s a book that is rarely mentioned in lists of good books, which is such a shame.
The story is set in the 1490s, in Lisbon, Portugal, and revolves around Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, and Bartholomew Diaz who meet in the home of Abel Zakuto, a Jewish banker with a particular interest in navigation instruments and charts. The Portuguese explorers are searching to find an all-water route to India in hopes of bypassing the Arab trade monopoly on spices and the European middleman, Venice. While the book entwines several explorers into the story (including John Cabot, Columbus, Prince Henry the Navigator), it is the voyage of Vasco da Gama sailing down around the Cape of Good Hope, which the explorers refer to as the Devil’s Cave, that is central to the plot. But the author, Agnes Danforth Hewes, has cleverly included more than just exploration in this great book. There are also pirates and spies, persecution of the Jews, tension between Venice and Portugal, Arab threats, and even a smidge of romance. It’s such a cleverly constructed book that left us wondering about what was fiction and what was fact. That’s what I like about a good historical fiction. True, they can’t ‘teach’ you history, but they certainly make you interested enough in the time period to search out more information.
Oh and before you read this book, we recommend that you read “I Challenge the Dark Sea” by Olive W. Burt, which is about Prince Henry the Navigator. It’s not as thrilling as “Spice and the Devil’s Cave” but it sets the scene perfectly for it. It outlines Portugal’s initial exploration of the west coast of Africa and introduces Bartholomew Diaz, whose voyage first sights the Devil’s Cave.
Soooo many good books, and only one lifetime to read them all in.