Books: Scary tales of an old spice world

Aromatics used to be the only way to modify our food, and maritime nations fought to gain control of the trade. Charles Nicholl catches a whiff of history
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Nathaniel's Nutmeg

by Giles Milton

Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 12.99, 388pp

The "spice race" - the battle between European powers for control of the spice-producing islands of the East Indies - has a sound of aromatic romance about it, but the reality was a story of greed and violence, of high risks and astronomical profits. It is this story that Giles Milton's entertaining new book sets out to tell. The Nathaniel of the title is a doggedly courageous sea-captain, Nathaniel Courthope, who raised the English flag on a tiny island called Run in 1616.

The medieval European spice market had been dominated by Venice, with its close trading links with Constantinople and points east. During the 16th and 17th centuries, efforts were made by the new maritime nations - Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and England - to break this monopoly by getting straight to the source and cutting out the Venetian middle- man. The discovery of the New World was an early by-product of this quest: the land-mass of America was, indeed, an obstacle to the proposed new route to the Spice Islands. Magellan set out on his great circumnavigation of the globe in 1519-22 with the precise intention of solving this geographical problem.

The Spice Islands were specifically the Moluccas, a scattering of islands at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, where sub-tropical microclimates created the perfect conditions for arboreal thoroughbreds such as Myristica fragrans. This tall, laurel-like tree produces a lemon-sized fruit, the dried seed of which is nutmeg. The word is a truncated anglicisation of the French noix mugele, which in turn comes from the Latin nux muscata, or the "musky nut".

In early 17th-century England, nutmeg might be called the spice of choice. It had been used in England long before that, of course: Chaucer's Sir Topaz liked to sprinkle some into his ale; cooks used it with meat, both as a preservative (it slows down the oxidisation process) and as a mask for rottenness; and it was endowed with the usual range of curative and aphrodisiac properties. But in Elizabethan times nutmeg acquired a new cachet, for a "pomander of nutmeg" was trumpeted by the physicians and quacksalvers as a sovereign remedy against the plague.

Milton's book focuses on the jockeying between the English and the Dutch for dominance of the nutmeg trade. In these days of stacked supermarket shelves, it is hard to imagine just how difficult to obtain certain foodstuffs were, and how immensely profitable they became as a result. In the early 17th century, 10lbs of nutmegs purchased for less than a penny in the Banda Islands - the small group in the southern Moluccas where the nutmeg- tree grew most profusely - could be sold in London for pounds 2 10s: a mark- up of 60,000 per cent, comparable to today's drug-trade figures. Pepper, meanwhile, climbed in price to 8 shillings per lb. (To put this into context, a skilled labourer counted himself lucky to earn 5 shillings a week.)

This was the kind of bottom-line which fired the captains and mariners of the spice race, and the merchant-adventurers of the East India Company which bankrolled them. After much prevarication, the Company's charter was signed by Queen Elizabeth on 31 December 1600, granting its founder members - 218 in all - exclusive rights over "traffic and merchandise" in the East Indies.

Getting the royal signature was only a small part of the problem. The East India voyage was fraught with dangers, and the Dutch - though nominally the allies of England - were tough and, when need arose, brutal opponents. The various Moluccan headmen played off both sides of this colonial invasion as well as they could.

In the first 10 years of the East India Company, three English expeditions set out. Out of 12 vessels, four sank or disappeared; and out of an estimated 1,200 crew-members, two thirds died, mostly of the endemic shipboard diseases of scurvy, typhoid and the "bloody flux", or dysentery. Only one ship, James Lancaster's Ascension, actually reached the fabled Banda Islands, and only one English "factory" (or depot) was established, at Bantam on Java.

All this is the context for what Milton takes to be the central English episode of this colonial spice-war: the efforts of Captain Nathaniel Courthope to claim for England the tiny atoll of Run, whose mountainous interior yielded an annual harvest of over 300,000lbs of nutmegs. He guided his ship, the 400-ton Swan, through the treacherous reefs of Run in December 1616, and held out against overwhelming odds for four years, before a Dutch bullet killed him in late 1620. It is a story of great, if doomed, courage. The torture of both English and Oriental captives by the Dutch commander, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, makes harrowing reading.

Unfortunately - and herein lies a weakness of Milton's book - we learn very little about the eponymous Nathaniel Courthope. Nothing seems to be known about his life prior to this episode, except that he had been in the region before. We have no idea where he hailed from, how old he was, or what he looked like. It is possible that diligent research might have filled the first two of these lacunae. As it is, Courthope remains firmly anchored to the rather bland tones of his journal, which is to be found, among hundreds of similar documents, in that mammoth compendium of travellers' tales, Purchas His Pilgrimes, edited by the Jacobean vicar Samuel Purchas and published in 1625.

The subtitle, "how one man's courage changed the course of history", is also rather dubious. What it boils down to is that the venal rivalry between the English and Dutch in the East Indies was a factor in their later confrontations in North America, including the wresting of Manhattan Island from the Dutch. Courthope played a part in this background, but was hardly a prime cause, and it is anyway debatable how far the creation of New York out of New Amsterdam changed the world.

Both these complaints concern the packaging of the book. They may perhaps be addressed to the publishers rather than the author, since the overall thrust is obvious. The book is supposed to look, sound and feel like Dava Sobel's Longitude, whose unexpected success out of a slim volume of obscure history has become something of a grail among publishers.

The fact is that Longitude had precisely what this book lacks: a strong, well- documented and very human protagonist. Nonetheless, Milton narrates with an easy and readable style the story of these English adventurers among the atolls and skerries of the Moluccas.

I particularly liked the chapter about William Keeling, commander of the Red Dragon, who beguiled the long voyage to the Spice Islands in 1607 by indulging his passion for the theatre.

When the fleet stopped off to restock its provisions on the coast of Africa, his crew actually put on a production of Hamlet. This performance among the mangrove-swamps of Sierra Leone must surely be the first production of a Shakespearean play outside Europe.