"Nathaniel's Nutmeg" by Giles Milton

"Nathaniel’s Nutmeg" is a historical account which neatly chronicles the race of all the major powers in Western Europe to corner the spice market. One of the most sought-after spice at that time was nutmeg, a native plant of Banda Islands, East Indies (now known as Indonesia).

Some of us might be wondering: What is nutmeg? Why was it so popular? Well, back then, it was a fruit known to kill the smell and taste of rotten meat (which is true). It was also believed to have powerful medical properties (which turned out to be merely a placebo effect, causing its decline in popularity centuries later). The way it is unthinkable for people to die for nutmeg trade back then is akin to our desire for oil trade today. Several hundred years from now, when vehicles are powered by free renewable resources such as hydrogen and sunlight, our posterity will ask a similar question: “Why on earth would our ancestors go to war in the Middle East just to secure access to oil resources?”

Fleets of ships would go to both ends of the world in search of spice resources, and it is evident how those early fleets were lacking many important skills such as determining geographical coordinates, how to prevent scurvy, or what important commodities are valued in the east. On the whole, the author Milton has adeptly drawn a narrative of how the governments of those Western European powers learn from their early mistakes and correct them.

The author studied at Bristol University. A writer and journalist, he specialises in the history of travel and exploration, with books published in seventeen languages. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg happens to be his best known work.

The book’s title, however, is a tad misleading. It seems to have been chosen for rhyming effect instead of any substantial role played by Nathaniel Courthope. His name was hardly mentioned at all in the book. The very first mention of his name is found on page 78, and even then it is just in passing, as if he is some minor character in the whole story.

The sources are mostly secondary, since the story is compiled from original hand-written journals of English explorers, Ambon (in today’s Maluku province, Indonesia) library collections, and five thousand pages of Jacobean script. The author Milton also refers to obscure Dutch chronicles which had been translated into fluent English.

Milton uses a simple language, which makes it easy for the general public to read. Every several chapters there are also maps and pictures drawn in the 17th century to accompany the readers’ imagination when reading the stories. If you are a fan of the Pirates of The Caribbean movie franchise or any other seafaring stories, you will definitely enjoy this book. Despite it being written as nonfiction, the narrative that Milton uses in this book can altogether causes it to be read like a fiction.

Milton’s use of irony was adroitly placed, often he shows sympathy with the poor natives who are paid small amount of fee for their nutmeg which could be resold very expensively in Europe. However, the irony also works on both sides: the natives of Banda Islands are shown to be “profiting” from the trade by getting European knives and clothes (which worth almost nothing in Europe but worth a lot in East Indies) by trading their nutmegs (which worth almost nothing in East Indies but worth a lot in Europe).

However, as an Englishman, Milton is not free from bias. He can at times seem to glorify the English, while putting some of their bitter rivals, such as the Dutch, in a less delicate light...even when both sides are acting more or less with an equal deplorability. When describing the English diplomacy with the natives, he used positive-sounding adjectives such as “apt” and “ingenious”, while when describing the Dutch and Portuguese’ attempts in dealing with the natives, he used negative-sounding adjectives such as “guileful” and “ruthless”.

Throughout the book, there are several historical events that are worth noted, as it is absent from most major historical books today. First, is that the popularity of nutmeg caused the rise of the East India Company, which becomes the British overseas representation of His (or Her) Majesty’s government. If not for the East India Company, the people of India and Singapore today (where the majority of the people are not descended from White Europeans like Australians or Americans) would not be speaking English as a lingua franca. Secondly, is the signing of the Treaty of Breda in 1667, which brought swift end to the Second Anglo-Dutch War. This treaty marks the exchange of the sole Dutch region in North America, Nieuw Amsterdam to the English, in return for having the English giving up their claim on Run, the most isolated island of the Banda Islands. The treaty worked well on both sides: The Dutch was able to secure their worldwide monopoly on nutmeg. What about for the English? Well, most people have never heard of this, but that formerly-Dutch region of Nieuw Amsterdam was renamed by the English into what is today known as New York City. If not for the treaty, the metropolitan area of New York City today would have a significant Dutch-speaking population, just like the people of Louisiana today have a significant French (Cajun)-speaking population.

Verdict: 7 out of 10 stars

Jakartass  – (17 March 2012 at 10:27)  

Hi Toshi.

Long time no hear (or here?), so thanks for dropping by.

Good to see that you're getting on with things lierary, and also, as Meli said way back in October, it's nice to put a face to the name.

BTW. I've been to the island of Rhun, having spent a couple of weeks on Banda back in '95. Remnant's of the Dutch can still be explored, decaying forts and ruins of colonial bungalows, all very photogenic until you recall the bloodbath over two hundred years ago and Nathaniel's heroic but forlorn resistance.

toshi  – (19 March 2012 at 11:55)  

Thanks J!

So far I've gotten positive response on my video, hence I'll be posting them every now and then.

Literary scene is something I just dipped into recently. On this one I can say for sure that I would post a new review of a book (mostly fictions) every Saturday.

Reading some of the descriptions of the Maluku islands on Giles Milton's book, I reckon it's actually a quite beautiful place, being historical and all. I've read your Maluku visit post too. It kinda makes me curious to go there someday.

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