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Nathaniel's Nutmeg by Giles Milton
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Nathaniel's Nutmeg (2001)

by Giles Milton

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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In a similar vein to Dava Sobel's Longitude, Nathaniel's Nutmeg revolves around the story of one of history's largely invisible protagonists. Whilst this isn't history on the same scale, it sits very nicely with something E. P. Thompson said, about rescuing characters "from the enormous condescension of posterity." The major characters in this book will be unknown to most people, as will most of the events, but their importance for the modern world will be clear to everyman.

The book's title is, however, a complete misnomer. The subject matter is very ambitious, dealing with the spice trade and the age of navigation, including forays in the Americas, attempts to find passages to the Indies via the Arctic Ocean, and all of the misadventures, wars, successes and political intrigues of the English and Dutch East India companies. Ultimately, Milton's premise with the book is to tie the exploits of the English East India Company officer Nathaniel Courthope in with the fate of New Amsterdam/New York, but by trying to cover this from all angles, the book is left feeling rather thin and superficial. In the end, the titular Nathaniel makes only a relatively brief appearance near the end of the book, all the space that was left to deal with the book's allegedly main focus. Finally, with such a broad range, the book throws up many interesting questions about the companies, their officers, the spice trade etc., most of which remain unfortunately unanswered, despite its near 400 pages.

Despite these setbacks, the book does have its strengths. It is clearly very well researched, and despite the relative paucity of sources available to fill in the gaps, the author avoids the obvious temptation to speculate wildly. As a piece of decidedly 'popular' history, the book is structured like a page-turner, with hints and references dropped to tease the reader into the coming chapters, focussing on a history driven by characters and concrete events, which makes it an easy book for reading on the go or with other distractions. And although the subject matter is really too broad for a book of this size, Milton does at least concentrate solely on the Dutch and English adventures, paying relatively little attention to Portuguese and Spanish goings on at the same time.

Nathaniel's Nutmeg is a pleasant and interesting diversion, particularly for people whose interest would not normally be piqued the idea by a history book. It is clear that a good deal of research has gone into the book, and the breadth of the subject matter makes this no light task. Yet the impression left is one akin to scoffing fast food empty calories; in order to tie Couthorpe to New York, the author has chosen too broad a subject matter for so short a book, leaving the text too shallow and unfocused. A different title, a less ambitious aim, or a more vigilant editor, and this book could have been an all the more satisfying read.
( )
  Fips | Oct 30, 2016 |
This really is excellent. It's a proper history of the East India Company that's been packaged as the story of Nathaniel's Nutmeg. That whole connection with changing the course of history is pretty tenuous. The great 'what if?' moment for me was the negotiations between the English and Dutch companies to form a vast international corporation.
The torture scenes are also very well done. ( )
  Lukerik | Jul 12, 2016 |
This is a well-written and entertaining history of the launching of the spice trade. ( )
  M_Clark | Apr 25, 2016 |
A book with a theme, and many entertaining diversions, is “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg” (1999), about the spice trade and the rivalry between colonial powers – although as a Dutchman I cannot but observe that the book has been written from a very British perspective, not necessarily always coinciding with what I learned in school about history (obviously, I am not scholarly enough to judge which history version is correct). ( )
  theonearmedcrab | Jan 10, 2016 |
There's no denying this is a fascinating overview of the often bloody history of the spice trade in the 16th and 17th centuries, focusing largely on Run in the Banda Islands. I don't really agree with the premise, though, that a man who fought and failed to keep Run in the hands of the British had anything to do with the eventual acquisition of New Amsterdam. That said, the rest of the book is pretty gripping. There's a lot of "Yay for the English, Boo for the Dutch" going on, to the point where Dutch readers may be less than impressed by the portrayal of their countrymen (the English act in some pretty barbaric ways too, but this is largely brushed off as just how it was back then). As an American without any stakes in the matter, I enjoyed learning about the race to claim exclusive trading rights with these tiny islands so far from home. And as a 21st century woman, I also rather enjoyed my shock that it had to be such a violent affair. Definitely educational. ( )
  melydia | Dec 19, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
The British acquisition of Manhattan was due as much to other factors, not least of which was the propensity of the island's already self-absorbed residents to steal chunks of timber and stone from its main fort for use in building their own homes. As for Manhattan's rise and rise, that would seem to have a little to do with the inhabitants who remained when the British sailed out through the Verrazano Narrows in 1783, leaving the place in rubble.

But this overreaching detracts only slightly from what is a rousing historical romp. Milton leaves one both yearning for a time when the world seemed full of infinite adventure and appalled by what greed did to such a paradise. It is particularly sobering to read of the tendency of the Europeans to slaughter anyone they came across. A Dutch sailor's reaction to another orgy of bloodletting visited upon the Bantam Javanese for asking too high a price for their nutmeg sums it up splendidly: ''There was nothing missing and everything was perfect except what was wrong with ourselves.''
 

» Add other authors (20 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Giles Miltonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Enderwitz, UlrichTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Persson, AnnikaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0340696761, Paperback)

trade edition paperback, fine, 1616

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:51 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

The tiny island of Run is an insignificant speck in the Indonesian archipelago--remote, tranquil, and, these days, largely ignored. Yet 370 years ago, Run's harvest of nutmeg (yielding a 3,200% profit by the time it arrived in England) made it the most lucrative of the Spice Islands, precipitating a battle between the Dutch East India Company and the British Crown. The outcome was that Britain ceded Run to Holland but in return was given Manhattan--leading to the birth of New York and to the beginning of the British Empire. This deal was due to the persistence of one man: Nathaniel Courthope and his small band of adventurers were sent to Run in October 1616, and held off the Dutch navy for four years. This book centers on the showdown between Courthope and the Dutch Governor General, and the brutal fate of mariners racing to Run to reap the huge profits of the spice trade.--From publisher description.… (more)

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