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Lockdown Reading: Nathaniel’s Nutmeg

June 21, 2020

With the near-collapse of the travel industry, the prospect of reaching a tiny archipelago nestled between Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, and yet hundreds of miles from each, becomes almost as daunting as it was in the seventeenth century.

Daunting in our terms at least, because for most of us pampered travellers, any journey longer than 24 hours and without the convenience of air travel and well-appointed boats, remains the province of back-packers.

But to get to the Banda Archipelago in the days of sail was akin to a trip to Mars. Those who travelled there from Europe had to endure months of sailing, the loss of crew through disease, mutiny, pirate attack and hostile receptions at supply stops. There was never a guarantee that the ships sailing there would arrive, let alone return.

So why did fleets of ships set out for these tiny islands from Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and England at such great risk to the owners and those who sailed in them? And once they were there, why did ruthless competition result in little wars between the traders of each nation, occasional massacres and the eventual enslavement of local populations?

The answer lies in a few modest containers of spices to be found in most of our kitchen cupboards: nutmeg, mace and cloves. Surprising as it may seem today, if we ever even wonder where such humdrum condiments come from, these tiny little islands, barely visible on most maps, were the only source of nutmeg in the world.

And for centuries such spices, especially nutmeg, were much in demand as preservatives, medicines and to mask the flavour of rotten meat. A pound of nutmeg would sell in the markets of Lisbon, London and Amsterdam for three hundred times the purchase price from source.

So the nutmeg trade was a potential monopoly beyond the wildest dreams of any ambitious commodity trader today – for those who could control it.

I’ve learned all this and more from Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, a gem of a book by Giles Milton. The paperback was published in 2005, but I missed it then. I came across it thanks one of my daughters, who shares my taste in history.

Milton sails into lesser-known waters, all of which are connected to the quest for what were once known as the Spice Islands. Much of the early part of the book is devoted to attempts to find a faster passage to the islands than the only known routes – usually via the Indian Ocean. Hence the earliest attempts to find access across the Arctic Circle, and through the rivers of North America. All ended in failure, but did result in accidental settlements, including that of Manhattan Island by the Dutch, who, like the English, had originally hoped that the Hudson River might be a route to the Pacific.

The story then moves to the Far East, and to the formation of two rival companies, each granted powers by their respective governments to operate effectively as privatised nation states in their areas of interest. After the Spanish and the Portuguese had been eliminated as competitors by force of arms, the spice trade was left to the East India Company of London, and the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie.

Of the two, the Dutch company was by far the most successful – better equipped, better armed and with superior numbers of ships and soldiers. But the English did manage to gain a foothold in Banda – the island of Run, which it defended robustly under the leadership of Nathaniel Courthorpe, hence the title of the book.

Although the Dutch eventually expelled their rivals, with Courthorpe dying in the process, his courage and determination did pay dividends long after his death. The East India Company did not give up its claim to the ownership of the island, which it maintained was freely given by treaty with the local chiefs.

Under the 1667 Treaty of Breda between England and the Dutch Republic, both parties gave up claims over any territory that the other occupied. On the English side that included the minuscule islands of Ai and Run. The Dutch for their part ceded Manhattan, from which the English had earlier expelled them.

New Amsterdam became New York. And the little islands ceded to the Dutch eventually faded into obscurity. A fair exchange? Certainly not one that Nathaniel Courthorpe would have applauded after his efforts to maintain the English foothold on the Spice Islands.

We all know what happened to New York, and the East India Company went on to fulfil its notorious destiny in India.

Giles Milton’s book is a fabulous read. The story of the Wild East is a scantily documented side-show compared to that of the Wild West, yet Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is full of fascinating detail. Of the disease-ridden trading posts of what is now Indonesia; of the misfortunes suffered by the English in their voyages, including imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Ottoman pasha in Aden; of the fearsome Japanese mercenaries hired by the Dutch to subdue the Banda Islands, and of the dreadful toll exacted on the sailors by scurvy, dysentery and other ailments.

Nowadays many of the people of Banda are the descendants of slaves brought to the islands to cultivate the nutmeg trees. They interbred with remnants of the indigenous population, but have few folk memories of the days when European superpowers battled for supremacy over their volcanic dots in the ocean.

But battlements are still there, and so are crumbling remains of grand houses that the traders built for themselves along the sea fronts. And so also are the nutmeg trees, whose fragrance still drifts out to sea.

Not a place I’m likely to see, but if you’re a backpacker with plenty of time and a sense of history, a visit to the Spice Islands would surely be worth the effort. And if you’re of a nervous disposition, you would be encouraged to know that head-hunting has long ceased.

Confined as I’m to a world of the familiar, it’s been no bad thing to immerse myself in a story about a part of the world I’ll never experience.

From → Books, History, Politics, Travel, UK, USA

  1. Great post 😁

  2. deborah a moggio permalink

    would you please let me know how to pronounce “Courthorpe”?
    Thanking you in advance, etc. etc. etc.

    • I think it’s “core thorpe” S

    • Andrew Robinson permalink

      Knowing English pronunciation’s propensity for dropping letters: Beaulieu > “BYOU-lii”; Heighington (a village near Darlington) > “HAÏN-teun”; Courthorpe might be “koup” (as in “soup”).

      ….but it’s probably what Steve said (as in Scunthorpe)…

      ….here’s the link to the CURTEHOPE family… no village called Courthorpe….

  3. Andrew Robinson permalink

    “The Wild East” – that’s a cracker!

  4. Mace is the husk of the nutmeg.

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