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Nathaniel's Nutmeg: Or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed The Course Of History Hardcover – May 12, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

Would you believe that nutmeg formed the basis of one of the most bitter international conflicts of the 17th century, and was also intimately connected to New York City's rise to global preeminence? Strange but true: nutmeg was, in fact, one of the most prized commodities in Renaissance Europe, and its fascinating story is told in Giles Milton's delightful Nathaniel's Nutmeg.

The book deals with the competition between England and Holland for possession of the spice-producing islands of Southeast Asia throughout the 17th century. Packed with stories of heroism, ambition, ruthlessness, treachery, murder, torture, and madness, Nathaniel's Nutmeg offers a compelling story of European rivalry in the tropics, thousands of miles from home, and the mutual incomprehensibility which often comically characterized relations between the Europeans and the local inhabitants of the prized islands.

At the center of the action lies Nathaniel Courthope, a trusty lieutenant of the East India Company, who took and held the tiny nutmeg-producing island of Run in the face of overwhelming Dutch opposition for more than five years, before being treacherously murdered in 1620. To avenge his death, and the loss of the island, the British took the Dutch North American colony at Manhattan. (As Milton wittily remarks, although Courthope's death "robbed England of her nutmeg, it gave her the biggest of apples").

Inevitably inviting comparisons with Dava Sobel's Longitude, Nathaniel's Nutmeg is a charming story that throws light on a neglected period of European history, and analyzes its fascination with the "spicy" East. --Jerry Brotton,

From Publishers Weekly

Exotic spices such as nutmeg, mace and cloves were treasured in the kitchens and pharmacopoeias of 16th- and 17th-century Europe. Nutmeg was even believed to be an effective remedy against plague. Small wonder, then, that traders of the time ventured to the ends of the earth to secure it. With high drama and gracefully integrated research, Milton (The Riddle and the Knight) chronicles this "Spice Race," profiling the leading participants and recording the ruthless violence with which this very real trade war was conducted. The maritime powers of Europe sent companies of adventurers to the Spice Islands (now part of Indonesia), each nation intent on establishing a monopoly and reaping the stupefying profits that the spice trade could produce. The book concentrates on the competition between the Dutch and English East India Companies to control the spice trade nearly 400 years ago. In 1616, Nathaniel Courthope led an English expedition to occupy the Spice Island of Run, a few square miles of land thickly forested with nutmeg trees. As Milton explains, Courthope's assertion of English ownership of Run Island was rejected by the Dutch, who besieged the island for four years before ousting the English (and killing Courthope). However, Courthope's apparent failure led to an unexpected benefit for his country when, in 1667, a treaty confirmed Holland's seizure of Run but, in exchange, validated England's seizure of another piece of land on the opposite side of the worldAthe island of Manhattan. Sprinkled with useful maps and illustrations, Milton's book tells an absorbing story of perilous voyages, greed and political machinations in the Age of Exploration.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (May 12, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374219362
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374219369
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (103 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #771,709 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

'The master of narrative history' - Sunday Times.

Giles Milton is an internationally best-selling author of narrative non-fiction. His books include Nathaniel's Nutmeg - serialized by the BBC - and seven other critically acclaimed works of history. Giles Milton's debut thriller, The Perfect Corpse, will be published on 2 September 2014.

Giles lives in London, UK, with his wife, the illustrator Alexandra Milton, and three daughters.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

77 of 80 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Loveitt on September 25, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Put on your windbreaker and get a firm grasp on both arms of your easychair and get ready for a great adventure! This book is that good. It flies along at breakneck speed with never a dull moment. Mr. Milton has a wonderful style and he has obviously done a tremendous amount of research in putting this book together. There are a lot of quotes from the primary sources, which makes for very interesting reading as you get a"you are there" feel. Actually, Nathaniel Courthope, from the title of the book is only a relatively small, though integral, part of the story. Mr. Milton gives brief but vivid character sketches of many of the Dutch and English sailors, merchants and explorers who were involved in this long and bloody trade war. Also, the book is not confined to just talking about the East Indies. It moves around from England, Holland, India, etc. to the Arctic and the search for a Northeast Passage and to Manhattan and the Hudson River and the search for a Northwest Passage. One note for the squeamish: the participants in the fight for control of the nutmeg trade did not obey the Marquis of Queensbury's rules for fighting fair. The book is full of beheadings; people being keelhauled and drawn and quartered and there is a horrific chapter on English sailors being tortured by their Dutch captors that is worthy of the worst things done during the Spanish Inquisition. If your picture of the Dutch East India Company is one of fat and jolly pipe smoking burghers, think again!
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Alan Breacher on July 11, 2000
Format: Paperback
I bought this book on a whim. It caught my interest in the bookshop because my wife is from Indonesia and I wanted to find out whether some of the terrible things she has told me the Dutch did in her country were true (I was to find out they were even worse than I expected). I also have an interest in British colonial history.
Much to my pleasant surprise I found this was a book I just couldn't put down. It was riveting! I suppose one could categorize this book as "popular history" because it reads much like a novel with many colorful characters and intriguing events that make up the early history of the English and Dutch East India companies, although its primary focus is on the former. I found the author's writing style to be very engrossing and easy to read, unlike many histories.
I became quite caught up in the excitement and horror of events, as described by Mr. Milton, but I had to keep reminding myself that the author is an Englishman. The obvious partisanship of the author was probably one of the weak points of the book: he made much reference to the crimes committed by the Dutch in the East Indies but, no doubt, the English traders had their fair share of rogues who committed other crimes - especially during the first half century of the English East India Company. It would be interesting to read a book on the same subject written by a Dutchman and compare and contrast!
However, to his credit, the author quite successfully shows how disorganized and irresponsible the directors of the East India Company could be, especially in regard to their choice of men to lead expeditions to the East. Many of the voyages the early traders made to the Indies were unsuccessful and resulted in the frequent loss of ships and men.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Tony Watson on December 31, 1999
Format: Hardcover
When I was a lad at school, History was as dry as the paper it was written on - memorising numbers and names for no reason that I could discern. The books gave no insight, the teachers did their best, but it had no bearing on 'today'. This book is full of dates and names (the lifeblood of History), but every page is alive with the souls of those people who made History. Ostensibly the story of Nathaniel Courthope & nutmeg, we are halfway through the book before we meet him, all the previous pages are background build-up, in graphic detail, of what made the spice islands and in particular Run, such a focus of attention for the whole world. We are taken on a whirlwind journey across the centuries and round the globe, each chapter heralding the next with a snippet of information, like dangling bait, so one is eagerly waiting for the next chapter to unfold. This is not just a compilation of events and dates, the meticulous background research that went into this must have taken years; Giles Milton has studied every scrap of available material, in umpteen languges, specifically to flesh out the bones of what could have been another dusty tome. The heroes and villains of the piece are REAL people in this book, people you want to meet (or avoid!) and they are brought to life by the fluid style of Mr. Milton's prose - it drags you along with it, urging you to read faster and faster, ultimately having to stop for lack of mental breath - then off into the fray again. I cannot praise this too highly - a revelation for those who thought that history is bunk!
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By A. H. M. Creemers on February 6, 2001
Format: Paperback
In "Nathaniel's Nutmeg" Giles Milton has created an easily read history of the early spice trade. His central contention is that New York, originally founded by the Dutch, became English in exchange for the Dutch obtaining the rights to the Indonesian isle of Run, the prime source of nutmeg - and the English had the rights to this island through the heroic behaviour of trader Nathaniel Courthope. This is a bit ingenious, because at the time the swap was formalised in a treaty the English had already taken New York, and the Dutch had already taken Run. However, Milton does not overly stress this tenuous thesis, and the book is a great read.
Milton charts the history of the spice trade from the first attempts by the English and Dutch to find alternative routes to the Spice Islands via the North, through the founding of both countries' East India Companies to the clash between Portugese, Dutch, English and (lest we forget) Indonesians in the colonisation of the Indonesian archipelago. The book has sufficient detail to convey an impression of extensive research. It avoids being a "dry" read, though, with eye witness accounts of floundering discovery voyages, piracy, scheming and warfare, including torture scenes that as far as I was concerned I could have done without!
My problem with the book is that Milton has used an old ploy to make it a lively read: he has assigned a hero (Nathaniel Courthope) and his valiant companions (the English) fighting a dastardly enemy (the Dutch). This was at times hard to accept.
For instance, Milton describes in detail the first few English attempts to reach the Spice Islands and bring back spices, all of which failed.
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