Steve's Reviews > Nathaniel's Nutmeg: How One Man's Courage Changed the Course of History

Nathaniel's Nutmeg by Giles Milton
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Feb 25, 2010

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bookshelves: non-fiction-1998-2000

High 3. Milton casts light on this forgotten chapter of British history which would have profound influence on the exploration of the distant corners of the globe, and set the foundations for the later creation of the British Empire. The hunger for nutmeg and other spices was due in part to misconceived claims of its medicinal properties to combat plague and disease, or as an aphrodisiac. Yet, their properties as preservatives and flavourings had been known to Europe since the Middle Ages when the trade had been dominated by Venice through its links with the trading emporium of Constantinople. This monopoly which had kept prices astronomically high would be torn asunder by the arrival of Portuguese ships at the Spice Islands in 1511. A rivalry with Spain was ignited by the arrival of Magellan's fleet a mere ten years later -though the Portuguese navigator in the service of the Spanish crown had been killed en route. After much debate over the inaccuracy of maps' location of the Spice Islands in relation to the terms of agreement of the Treaty of Tordesillas, which had divided the globe between the Iberian neighbours, the argument was settled when Charles V accepted a massive financial recompense to renounce Spanish claims on the islands. The first English expedition aimed at reaching the Spice Islands set sail in June 1553 in the mistaken belief that a route lay through the frozen Arctic seas. Of the three ships which set out, only that commanded by the expedition leader, Richard Chancellor, would return. He had the foresight to abandon the ill-conceived plan in order to head towards the court of Ivan the Terrible in Moscow, thus establishing trading rights which helped found the Muscovy Company, the fore-runner of the East India Company. In their determination to exploit the spice trade, the English court of Henry VIII and traders wrongly believed that a route to the north, aside from reducing the length of voyages to the islands, would avoid unwanted attention from Portuguese and Spanish fleets and would also protect the adventurers en route from the ravages of tropical disease. After the Arctic debacle, English interest in the spice trade didn't resurface till Drake's 1577 expedition re-traced Magellan's route to reach the Spice Islands. Moreover, not only did victory over the Armada provide self-belief in the superiority of their fleet, but also reached the attention of Eastern potentates, thus raising the profile of England as a military force and possible trading partner. Yet, it would take the licensing of the East India Company by Elizabeth I on December 31st 1600 which would provide the resources and impetus for a more concerted approach to enter the spice trade. The maiden voyage for this mercantile enterprise was launched in February 1601 under the command of James Lancaster, who had distinguished himself in service against the Armada. Despite a previous ignoble failure in reaching the islands around Cape Horn, his voyage would be an unqualified success, establishing a manned 'factory' in Bantam on the island of Java, and reaching England in September 1603 laden with spices equivalent in cash value to a million pounds. A formidable character and strict disciplinarian, Lancaster also had sufficient compassion and respect for those who served with him to wish to limit the numbers of sailors succumbing to scurvy and disease. As such, he seemingly identified the benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables to stave off such disease by storing bottles of lemon water in his hold, but tragically his cure would be neglected until Cook reached the same conclusion some 170 years later. Unfortunately, despite the priceless cargo in his holds, Lancaster's fleet returned to a London ravaged by plague and thus with no potential buyers, and a new monarch who cared little for the profit margins of the directors of the Company. With the fortunes of the latter hanging in the balance, the saving grace lay in their founding charter where Elizabeth I’s acceptance was dependent on the Company directors' commitment to maintain annual expeditions to the Indies. Though, James’ opposition to the monopoly would recede as he became aware of the profits to be made and granted the Company’s licence in perpetuity, or as more clearly defined, as long as the coffers were filled. The East India Company would face intense competition from its Dutch counterpart, founded in 1603, which was not afraid to use military might to force trading concessions from the local tribes. Amazingly, negotiations were held in both 1613 and 1615 to investigate the potential merger of these Dutch and English commercial interests. Yet their rivalry was too intense and would stiffen until open hostilities broke out. Milton reveals one amazing aspect of this rivalry in the Dutch contracting an English explorer to discover the long-sought after North East Passage and the latter's rebellious use of resources to further his own beliefs in seeking passage to the Pacific at the opposite end of the Atlantic. Thus this single-minded navigator explored the river which carries his name in 1609, being the first white men to land at Manhattan. Indeed, the author reveals that the level of drunkenness which accompanied the greeting festivities has been marked for posterity as the name of Manhattan derives from an Indian word which would translate as 'the island of general intoxication'. Just one year later, when in the service of James I and exploring the breadth of Hudson Bay, this intrepid explorer would be cast adrift by a mutinous crew, never to be seen again. 1610 also marked the year for the launching of the best resourced, yet ultimately most disastrous expedition to the islands, with our titular hero aboard. An obscure figure, Nathaniel Courthope would survive the 1610 fiasco to set himself up as a factor within the Indies. In common with his counterparts, not only would he face the hardships and pestilence which made the average life expectancy of these adventurers a mere three years, but also would engage in private profiteering to the chagrin of his employers. Indeed, with the threat of having his private fortune confiscated, he would issue a timely confession, and subsequently dutifully serve the Company. In 1616 he was charged with establishing an English presence on the one remaining Banda island which had yet to be forcibly subjected to Dutch hegemony. Courthope would utilise the natural defences of the island of Run to establish an impregnable fortress to allow his small contingent of men to hold out against a formidable Dutch besieging force. Having to brave extreme hardship, starvation and repeated military attacks, any hopes of relief offered by the arrival of a large fleet under the command of Sir Thomas Dale in 1619, were dashed when Dale failed to press his advantage by destroying the Dutch headquarters at Jakarta, having driven off the Dutch naval presence. Dale had acquired renown as the successful Governor of Virginia but now facing ignominy skulked off to the Indian coast where he succumbed to malaria. This defeat from the jaws of victory also left Courthope and his men bereft of salvation from their countrymen and thus dependent on local opposition to the Dutch presence. In attempting to rally local opposition, Courthope was betrayed by a fifth columnist amonst his ranks, a supposed Dutch deserter, who informed his murderers of his planned route amongst the islands to foment rebellion in 1620. With bhis removal the resolute defence of Run lost its figurehead and the Dutch, after facing four years of resolute defence were able to negotiate their occupation of Run. This marked a sweet victory for Jan Coen, commander of the Dutch forces and bitter enemy of the English, but he was to find it a hollow one, as unbeknownst to all parties in the Indies, the previous year the rival East India Companies had agreed a truce and a negotiated division of trade. Not only resentful at such a retreat from total hegemony, Coen's barbaric treatment of the Bandanese brought him into conflict with his superiors, as he mercilessly squashed local opposition, allowing his Japanese mercenaries to execute local tribe leaders. He also had Jakarta razed to the ground, rebuilding it as the capital of the Dutch East Indies and renaming it Batavia in honour of the first tribes who had settled the Netherlands. Having conquered the Banda Islands, he sailed home to Holland but not before he had ensured that he had sown the seeds for brutal repression of any English opposition. The subsequent Massacre of Amboyna brought England and Holland to the brink of war. What is clear is that the English were in no position to mount a serious threat to Dutch superiority, with discussion having already been voiced in 1622 as to the possible abandonment of the spice trade - there were only 18 Englishmen posted on the island at this time. Yet, in 1623 having been accused of complicity with local Japanese to attack the Dutch settlement, they were all subjected to the full horrors of torture to extract false confessions and 16 were beheaded. News of the massacre so inflamed the English public that Dryden was still able 50 years later to embed the incident in his work to stoke anti-Dutch sentiment. Although James I shared the outrage of his people, it would take three years before a Dutch vessels en route to India were seized in the Channel and reparations demanded. However, the fleet was released by the new king, Charles I, with rumours rife of a secret deal to line royal coffers. The East India Company, by contrast, watched its dwindling financial resources lead to it having to sell its shipyards in Deptford, and watch both its employees on the breadline and its warehouses empty, until liquidation was broached at a Company meeting in 1657. Yet, no sooner had news of the sale of all its assets been announced than the Company directors were summoned to a meeting with Cromwell's Council of State. The latter would refloat the Company with a new Charter and a new injection of investment, but trade missions would not be renewed with the Spice Islands, but rather with those outposts on the Indian sub-continent, which had kept the Company afloat in its lean years. The island of Run, so long the symbol of lost riches and of national pride through Courthope's brave defence, would eventually become a bargaining chip in the peace negotiations between the Dutch and the English. At the Treaty of Breda in 1667 the English were finallypersuaded to renounce their claim on this last Banda island in return for retaining a small trading centre on the eastern American seaboard - Manhattan. Milton has given us an intriguing read, and one with many previously forgotten episodes, but perhaps a work with too broad a canvas, and at times too disjointed a narrative. Still, fascinating.

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Finished Reading
February 25, 2010 – Shelved
December 11, 2017 – Shelved as: non-fiction-1998-2000

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