Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton is a history of the spice trade as centered around the Banda Islands and, most especially, the tiny island of Run from 1553 to 1667. Milton fills the book with tales of anxious merchants, daring sea captains, foolish sea captains (sometimes the two were the same), political maneuverings, and battles. He draws from an array of sources, including a number of letters, journal entries, and state papers from the time. The reader thus has a chance to see events from the point of view of the participants themselves. The book is the kind of focused look at history that reveals unexpected depths and details, including tales of people otherwise forgotten.
The full title of the book is Nathaniel’s Nutmeg or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History. It is true that nutmeg and the nutmeg trade are at the center of the book. Despite the title, however, Nathaniel Courthoupe and his battle to keep Run is only one event in a series of fights, brutality, and scheming. The man himself does not appear until two-thirds of the way through the book, and while his bravery, evident charisma, and sheer bull-headed stubbornness come through clearly, Milton’s argument did not, ultimately, convince me that his stand had much to do with the ultimate fate of Run and Manhattan.
Nutmeg was a prized trading commodity, and Milton shows the lengths that the merchants went to get it. This included some spectacularly bloody battles and horrific tortures as the Dutch and the English sought to gain supremacy in the Banda Islands, each determined to outdo the other. There are also quick portraits of the individuals involved: the stubborn Hudson, for example, who was supposed to sail along the Russian coast but turned toward the Americas in search of the Northwest passage instead, or the ruthless Dutch governor, Jan Coen, who caused the English no end of grief, and the clever William Hawkins who was given a wife by the Turkish Emperor Jehangir (despite everything, it turned out to be a love match).
Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is recommended for people interested in the history of the spice trade more than for those looking for biographies of single individuals.