In the present day, most of us can easily find spices such as nutmeg, mace, and much more at our local supermarkets. It certainly wasn’t always that easy to obtain such exotic spices – and, thanks to this book, I’m never going to look at my spice rack in the same way again. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, originally published in 1999, shows how very difficult it was to even get to the “Spiceries” (the Banda Islands, volcanic islands in the Maluku province of modern Indonesia), let alone voyage home with a cargo full of the precious spices.
In 1616, an English adventurer, Nathaniel Courthope, stepped ashore on a remote island in the East Indies on a secret mission – to persuade the islanders of Run to grant a monopoly to England over their nutmeg, a fabulously valuable spice in Europe. This infuriated the Dutch, who were determined to control the world’s nutmeg supply. For five years Courthope and his band of thirty men were besieged by a force one hundred times greater – and his heroism set in motion the events that led to the founding of the greatest city on earth.
A beautifully told adventure story and a fascinating depiction of exploration in the seventeenth century, NATHANIEL’S NUTMEG sheds a remarkable light on history.
I first came across Giles Milton’s work about two years ago when I was researching for my books about the Stuart period, and I have to commend him for finding subjects that are not well-known at all and bringing them to life. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is a very well-researched, beautifully-written book, but it was mainly about the adventures and misadventures of the men who voyaged to the Banda Islands in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and focused a great deal upon the enmity between the Dutch and the English and their attempts to take control of the lucrative trade in spices.
There were many voyages, and many of them ended in disaster – some attempting to reach the Indies by heading into the Arctic (where they starved to death with their ship stuck in ice). Others tried to reach the Indies by going West like Columbus did, including Henry Hudson, who ended up finding rivers instead of a passage to the East. One assumes that had a bad end, too, since he was supposedly cast adrift by a mutinous crew and was never seen again.
Milton describes how deadly voyages could be, especially with onboard diseases such as scurvy, and in a time before refrigeration, malnutrition was a serious problem. The things they ate could make your stomach turn.
Readers should be aware that some sections make for grim reading. One of things that shocked me most was the violence with which these intrepid men had to contend. The native Bandanese were horribly treated, perhaps worst of all by the Dutch in, among other episodes, the Massacre of the Bandanese. The excerpt from a primary source Milton included struck me: “the Islands of Banda do utterly hate the very sight of theis Hollanders, sonnes of Whores,because they exceede in lying and villainy and desire to overcome all men’s country by trechery”.
I found it surprising that Nathaniel Courthope’s story didn’t really start until about 60% through the book, and his death occurs around 81% through, so I now understand the reviews I read in which some readers felt that the book’s title wasn’t the best choice for the book. A more fitting title would surely be something about the Dutch and English vying for control of these islands.
In all honesty, I hadn’t even heard of the Amboyna Massacre of Englishmen by the Dutch in 1623, until I read this. “The East India Company merchants were tortured with fire and water before having their limbs blown off with gunpowder.” There was a huge outcry over this atrocity at the time, with many pamphlets printed and, according to Milton, it may have even brought King James I to tears. The spilling of English blood at the hands of the Dutch made for good propaganda against the Dutch for English writer John Dryden, whom Milton states, “used the massacre to whip up anti-Dutch feeling, publishing his tragedy Amboyna, or The Cruelties of the Dutch to the English Merchants.”
This book certainly was informative, yet written in a thrilling style that keeps one turning the pages.
SCL rating: 4