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

nathanielBy Giles Milton

Quality Paperbacks Direct, London (1999)

What a story!

Full disclaimer: maybe because of the dyslexic nature of my brain, the profusion of names, places, events and time-lines, this wasn’t always an easy read, it proved in many cases quite challenging, so the task of keeping up with the complex events here presented made it possible that when I finished the book I felt immensely proud of myself.

I’m a very picky reader, especially when it comes to nonfiction, which for the past decades has proven to be my soft side.

Giles Milton presents *just* some aspects of the amazingly complex spice trade that shaped the world’s economy, political geography, diplomacy and of course: food.

Focusing on the trade of nutmeg, we begin our journey in 1553, an expedition to the Spice Islands. Although technically the “Spice Race” began much earlier with the Venetian merchants, the narrative here is focused on the ruthless and destructive relationship between the Netherlands and England that is both the English East India Company and the Dutch East India Company.

Both nations had the most powerful naval fleets of their time, explorers, and merchants, highly skilled and ambitious captains, who forged fortunes and shaped their countries’ fates.

nutmeggIt is possible that only y about a 5th of the book is entirely dedicated to the nutmeg itself, and apart from a brief mention in the prologue, it is not until page 202 when Nathaniel Courthope appears, but make no mistake, for those are the true stars of this epic story.

The books presents a vast amount excerpts from diaries, private correspondence, legal documents and sources from historical archives that help both the author and the reader to recreate and understand the institutional and human aspects of England’s maritime trade and naval power.

Things as they happened.

…”a handful of settlers where hardly what Coen had in mind…a motley crew much giving to drinking and whoring”. p268

dutchecWhen we think about great sailors and explorers we seldom ponder about the real conditions they had to deal with in order to fulfil their goals.

Attacks, bad weather, food contamination, mutinies, disloyalty… those were only a few of the “normal” occupational hazards.

Another significant aspect the book reveals is the way English and Dutch engaged with the rulers and inhabitants of the Indonesian archipelago where nutmeg was both cultivated and naturally available. The “Spice Islands” or Moluccas weren’t desert islands, and the relationship between merchants and their crew with the natives was very often cruel.

When the Dutch joined the spice race they started a campaign of sabotage against the established trade agreements between the governors of each island and the English, tensions soon escalated and for many years made each other’s businesses difficult, unfair and unstable.

It is no surprise that the book sides heavily on the English’s side, but this is more than a patriotic statement, the argument is supported with many examples of events in which the Dutch were unnecessarily cruel to the English, prisoners were grotesquely tortured, expeditions sabotaged, captains killed, cargo stolen and ships sank.

tortureAmboynaI will end this by mentioning two crucial facts that happened as a result of the Anglo-Dutch conflicts that led to the Amboyna massacre where Nathaniel Courthope was killed and his men captured, tortured and executed.

After much political tension in 1654 to sign the Anglo-Duch war was terminated by the peace treaty of Westminster and on Monday 8 September 1664 Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of Manhattan signed away the Dutch rights to Manhattan.

“King Charles II was delighted “You will have heard of our Taking New Amsterdam, he wrote to his sister in France…. We’ve got the better of it an ’tis now called New York.”

Nathaniel’s death robbed England of its Nutmeg but it gave her the biggest of apples (which was eventually lost too).

Complex, rich, enlightening… so many lessons to be learned.

This book will make you think twice about all the things that had to happen so you could grate a nutmeg.


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