Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How One Man’s Courage Changed the Course of History
By Giles Milton (1999)
Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is about the conquest of the the Banda Islands in the East Indies (aka the “Spice Islands”), the enslavement of the indigenous Bandanese and the ferocious 17th century wars between Holland and Britain over the nutmeg monopoly. Milton’s book is derived mainly from original journals, diaries and letters of explorers and merchant seaman, and official British and Dutch East India Company archives.
It’s always puzzled me why spices such as pepper, cloves, mace and nutmeg were so highly valued when Europeans already had the ability to preserve meat and fish with salt? Milton clears this up by reminding us that salting meat without benefit of preservatives or aromatic spices leaves the unpleasant tang of putrefied flesh. Nutmeg was especially prized after Elizabethan physicians began prescribing it as the only certain cure for bubonic plague.
Shipping nutmeg overland resulted in a 60,000 percent mark-up – after Turkish traders and Venetian middlemen took their cut. This price gouging was the main impetus driving Europeans determination to find a sea route to the “Spice Islands.”
Competing Claims on the Spice Islands
Nathaniel’s Nutmeg traces the expeditions of all the Spanish, Portuguese, English and Dutch explorers seeking an ocean route to the East Indies and the merchant bankers who financed them. Portuguese explorers were the first Europeans to set foot in the Banda Islands in 1511. However, unlike the English and Dutch, they lacked financial backing to set up permanent trading posts and settlements.
What I found most striking about Milton’s accounts of these voyages was the massive mortality rate (from scurvy caused by vitamin C deficiency). Any expedition lasting longer than three months could count on losing 50-75% of their sailors. James Lancaster, commander of the first expedition organized by the Britishc East India Company, accidentally found a cure for scurvy (oranges and lemons or their juices) in 1601. Owing to his failure to publicize this discovery, it would be another 170 years before Captain James Cook officially “discovered” it.
The British and Dutch East India Companies
The charter Elizabeth I signed in 1600 granted the British East India Company a total monopoly of trade over the East Indies and all the countries and ports of Asia and Africa and America. It awarded the Company massive powers, including the right to set up foreign trading posts and settlements and protect them with military force. In 1602, Holland granted the Dutch East India Company comparable privileges. Intense rivalry between the two would lead to four Anglo-Dutch wars beginning in 1652. All were fought entirely at sea between the English and Dutch navies.
England Takes Possession of Manhattan
In 1667, England and Netherlands ended the so-called “Nutmeg Wars” by signing the Treaty of Breda. The Treaty allowed the English to retain New Netherlands (Manhattan Island) and the Dutch to retain Europe’s primary source of nutmeg, the Banadanese island of Run. Henry Hudson had claimed Manhattan Island for the Dutch during an unsuccessful 1609 expedition to find a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean.
By 1667, the English were happy to relinquish Run, after successfully transplanting nutmeg seedlings to their territories in Ceylon and on the eastern coast of India.