Nathaniel's Nutmeg

Nathaniel's nutmeg is an extraordinary read, and has an odd connection with my previous blog post for Sex and the City. I've recently been watching a fascinating series on BBC2, The spice trail, which explores the history of the spice trade. This encouraged me to finally read a book that's been sitting unread on my shelves for some time - Giles Milton's Nathaniel's nutmeg. And what a read it is. Endlessly fascinating, occasionally gruesome, it's the story of how the Dutch, British, Spanish and Portugese vied for supremacy in the trade, and how events happening on a small island in Indonesia would have repercussions for the, then, small hamlet of New Amsterdam at the other side of the world.

Spices were the big commodity of the 16th and 17th centuries with vast sums of money being spent on them. With some spices being touted as a cure-all for diseases such as the Plague, they became indispensable to all but the poorest in society, and were potentially the source for fabulous fortunes to be made. A small sack of nutmeg could set a man up for life.

The island of Run
Partly through cruelty, partly through sheer doggedness the Dutch blazed a trail through the East Indies, with the English hotly in pursuit determined to have a corner of the market. Gradually the British lost their toe-hold in Indonesia with only a tiny island, Run, left to them. This is where Nathaniel Courthope was to make his mark. Patriotic, determined, and basically an all-round good guy, he and his small party held on to Run against the odds, until his death by devious means. It looked as though this was the end for British trading hopes in the east, but a later intervention by Oliver Cromwell would save the British East India company, who turned their intentions to trade in Persia, and more significantly, India.

Meanwhile Henry Hudson's attempts to find a north-west passage to the Spice Islands allowed exploration up the Hudson river to modern-day Manhattan (the quote I used to describe Manhattan in the previous post was taken from a Native American translation used in this book). Eventually the British got their hands on Manhattan, while the Dutch massacre of British traders in Amboyna, the other side of the world, would have massive repercussions. The British were determined to take back Run as restitution for Amboyna, and in memory of Nathaniel Courthope's brave action in holding on to the island. The Dutch were equally unwilling to provide the British with a toehold on the spice trade. Eventually the Treaty of Breda let the Dutch hold on to Run, but gave the British in exchange the little island of Manhattan.

This really does seem to be a case where a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world has a massive effect elsewhere. For without the nutmeg, the plague, and Courthope's brave defence of the little island of Run, the Dutch would have remained in charge of New Amsterdam, and a very different Apple (perhaps not so big) would have emerged. This is at times a grisly tale interlaced with tales of great courage and enormous cruelty. And it just makes you want to jump on a ship and explore. Fabulous writing, and a wonderful book about a largely forgotten, but vitally important part of world history. It's also provided me with yet another country to cross off my 666 Challenge list.


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