"Spice and the Devil's Cave"
by Agnes Danforth Hewes (Mrs. Laurence Ilsley Hewes) (1874-1963).
New York: A. A. Knopf, 1930. Copyright not renewed. [Newbery Honor Book, 1931]
"Spice and the Devil's Cave" is set in the 1490's. It is a story of the spice trade, and of Portugal's search to find a new sea route to India by going around the "Devil's Cave" -- the Cape of Good Hope. Cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and other spices that people today buy in any large grocery store, with little thought of their source, were a valuable, sought-after resource. The possibility of a new trade route was enough to shake empires. Hewes says "of all the varied streams of history that have poured thru Syria, the one that has most attracted me is that of trade, especially the trade that brought the Occident and the Orient together. From the first time I saw a string of camels come in from Damascus, the romance of trade laid hold of me." (Girlhood in Syria, p. 21)
In writing about the Middle East, Agnes Danforth Hewes wrote about a world she knew, one she and her mother were born into, in which she had spent her childhood. I was able to find some details about her in "A Girlhood in Syria", a collection compiled by her daughter, Mary Calhoun Hewes Dosch (Edinburgh, Printed by G. Wilson, 1967). According to "Girlhood", Agnes Danforth Hewes was born in Tripoli, Syria, on March 30, 1874. (The Davis family genealogy website gives her birthdate as 30 MAR 1872 and her sister Helen Danforth's as 1 NOV 1874, so there may be some question about this birthdate.) Agnes' parents were medical missionaries: Dr. Galen Bancroft Danforth, and Emily Reynolds Calhoun Danforth. Sadly, Emily and her husband both died young: Galen on July 9, 1875, of a tropical disease, and Emily on January 13, 1881. After Galen's death, Emily was in poor health. According to Agnes, "I was left entirely to the care of my dear good kind nurse and to the other house servants... So, naturally, I grew up speaking Arabic." Her maternal grandmother, Emily Pitkin Reynolds Calhoun, was away visiting America with her husband, missionary Dr. Simeon Howard Calhoun, and other members of the Calhoun family. Rev. Calhoun died in Buffalo, NY, on December 14, 1876. Agnes' grandmother, Emily Pitkin Reynolds Calhoun, returned to the family home in Abeih, Mt. Lebanon, Syria, to care for her daughter and granddaughter. Agnes writes "When my grandmother returned to live with my mother, she found a little granddaughter who couldn't answer her English -- or shall I say American -- greeting!" (Girlhood in Syria, p. 20-21) From then on, Agnes was brought up by her maternal grandmother at Abeih.
A family friend wrote of a visit to Abeih: "What a walk that was! You know the whole setting of the picture -- the rugged mountains, the steep zigzag path, the flowers and verdure of May, the wide expanse of sea in the background, that in the gorgeous sunset seemed verily the 'sea of glass mingled with fire.' [As we climbed the rugged path] ever and anon we stopped to rest, sitting down on some projecting rock and looking back upon the glorious sea and sky in the West that seemed the very gate of heaven..."
Agnes Danforth Hewes was deeply inspired by her childhood home. "My fairy godmother's priceless gift to me was to let me live my first twelve years in Syria. That, in a nutshell, is my feeling about Syria! That is why I wrote my first book, because I loved Syria so much -- its magnificent brilliant scenery, its dear warm-hearted people, its customs come down from the Bible times, its beautiful dignified speech, its rich historical background -- that I wanted American children to love it, to see it with my eyes. I felt as if no one could afford to miss knowing my Syria. I feel so still." In later years, when readers commented on the vividness and accuracy of her descriptions of Syria, she declared that the land of her birth was "written in my heart."
What makes "Spice and the Devil's Cave" particularly interesting is the mixing of cultures that Hewes describes. One of the main characters in the book is a Jew, Abel Zakuto, who lives in Lisbon. A major theme in the book is the shifting treatment of the Jews under Manoel I of Portugal. Because of his interest in exploration, explorers Bartholomew Diaz, Vasco da Gama, and the youthful Magellan meet at Abel's house to exchange the latest news about "the Way of the Spices"; Nicolo Conti, a young Venetian shipbuilder, offers his assistance; and there a young girl, from a Muslim background, finds shelter. These entwined cultures -- Jewish, Portuguese, Venetian, and Muslim -- are generally treated by Agnes Danforth Hewes with respect. Portuguese and Venetians express their dismay at the expulsion of the Jews; da Gama, originally proposing to bring Christianity to the East, returns with a greater appreciation of other religions and cultures.
During her life, Agnes Danforth Hewes travelled far from her beloved Syria. She apparently graduated from Elmira College, New York, which has been characterized as "the mother of women's colleges." She married Laurence Ilsley Hewes of New Hampshire in 1901, and had several children between 1902 and 1916. Her first book, "A Boy of the Lost Crusade", appeared in 1923. Twelve more historical novels for young readers followed, several of them dealing with exploration and expansion along early trade routes, and the clash of eastern and western cultures. At some point, Agnes Danforth Hewes moved to San Francisco, California, where she died on September 30, 1963.
Agnes Danforth Hewes left us an example of tolerance and a heritage of historical interest in "Spice and the Devil's Cave" that is still relevant. Some of her other books, such as "Two oceans to Canton; the story of the old China trade" (New York, A.A. Knopf, 1944) and "Jackhammer; drill runners of the mountain highways" (New York, A. A. knopf, 1942) were not copyright renewed and could potentially be republished online.