Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How One Man’s Courage Changed the Course of History
By Giles Milton
Pub: Sceptre 2005
Reviewed by Simon Frame
This book is about the spice trade with the far east, particularly with the Banda Islands (Where? - luckily there are maps included). Milton sets the stage by taking us back to the C16th to trace the use of nutmeg and spices in the Western world and to build a picture of its importance and popularity, and hence the high prices and willingness of traders to cross the world to obtain it. He then moves on to describe various expeditions to find the sea route to the spice islands based upon dodgy maps (usually heroic failures) before concentrating on the attempts to establish regular trade once the source was known, and the ‘factories’ which were established in order to trade and store the spices until the next fleet arrived.
The first problem that traders had was to find out where the spices came from. The spice route was complicated and followed mysterious routes to reach Constantinople where the Venetian monopoly would bring it further west. All of this of course increased the price – a markup of 10,000%, a rate not seen again until the modern drugs trade. (Pepys mentions meeting sailors in a back alley to buy spices – the sailors unloading the cargoes had to wear doublets and breeches with no pockets to prevent theft.) One ship in three was lost and usually about half of the crews died during the journey. Still, if one ship every third year made it with a load of nutmeg its owners would make enormous profits, and still have money to finance the next expedition. Unsurprisingly, the traders were prepared to spend money to obtain the monopolies, and if necessary, to commit murder – especially it seems, the Dutch.
Like ‘Samurai William’, the eponymous character, Nathaniel Courthorpe, is often peripheral to the main story, which is a general history of the trade, filled in with detailed accounts of expeditions and incidents, culminating in the one that is linked to the strapline. Most of the incidents consist of the rather inept English traders being seen off, like in ‘Samurai’, by their rivals, the Dutch. The action centres around the Bandas islands, and particularly the island of Run, and you happen to learn where all those strange places mentioned in C17th accounts of trade with east actually are. The Bandas were the world's only source of nutmeg, and were heavily forested, home to assorted capricious native tribes and the usual diseases which saw off large numbers of Europeans.
This book is a recommended read for those re-enactors who want to portray characters who are merchants, gentlemen or have some connection with needing to know about the source of their spices. Like ‘Samurai’, the writing style isn’t particularly good, but it is full of useful information, and like ‘Samurai’, certainly brings across how far people were prepared to go when the potential for making a fortune was there.