Books: Spice boys, the plague, and the merits of muskets

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Nathaniel's Nutmeg

By Giles Milton

Hodder pounds 12.99

On 23rd December 1616, the islanders of Run in the Banda Archipelago formally surrendered their territory in perpetuity to the English Crown. It was among the happiest capitulations in history, for it represented the islanders' only hope of resisting the Dutch, who had conquered all but this corner of their lands. To Nathaniel Courthope, the English captain who received the surrender, it was his country's only opportunity to thwart the master plan of the common enemy, a scheme worthy of a 17th- century Bond villain: to "control the world's entire supply of nutmeg". Nutmeg was then the most coveted luxury in Europe, worth more than gold and regarded as the only cure for the plague. Seeking its origins in the mythical East, thousands would risk, and many lose, their lives to acquire it.

Today, Run is not even recorded in the Times Atlas of the World. But under the Treaty of Breda in 1667, it was exchanged for Manhattan. The text of the 1616 surrender proclaimed: "And whereas King James by the grace of God is King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, is also now by the mercy of God King of Ai and Run." On reading these lines, one member of Courthope's crew remarked that these two islands would prove a great deal more profitable than Scotland ever had. It was certainly more profitable for the crewmen. Ten pounds of nutmeg costing less than one English penny in the Banda Islands would fetch pounds 2.10s in London. For the average sea-dog, one filched sack could mean gabled houses and servants back home. For the gentleman adventurers who led them, there was all the fame the age could accord. Giles Milton's book is a gripping Boy's Own record of them all.

In 1511, the Portuguese became the first Europeans to set foot in the Banda Islands, and in 1529 troops were landed on Run to build and garrison a castle. A few arrows from the natives were enough to send them "scurrying back to their ships". The English, on the other hand, did not have to show they were made of sterner stuff. Their relationship with the natives was a convivial one, aside from the murderous tenure of one Sir Edward Michelborne, a haughty gentleman-villain in the Hollywood style. But his misdeeds did not blacken the English name for long. Its reputation was restored by the conduct of the Dutch traders, who acted more like an army of occupation.

Though some adventurers could never decide whether they were explorers, traders or conquerors and, presumably out of confusion, fulfilled all three remits just to make sure, Michelborne was an exception among the English. The British Empire's great secret was always its impotence, and never was it more impotent than in its infancy. A single ship out of a flotilla might survive to make landfall, battered and leaking and with its crew reduced by sickness, only to be met by 1,000 Dutchman in rude health and in no mood for sharing. They had no alternative but to win the war of the hearts and minds. Friendship between the Bandanese and the English was oiled by the one pastime they enjoyed in common. Rather than their maps and the instructions of their sponsors, the English trusted Sebastian Cabot's famous advice - "If a native may be made drunk with your beer or wine you shall know the secrets of his heart". Cabot's influence was felt from Hudson Bay to the East Indies, and many lasting friendships between captains and chieftains were struck up over the local palm spirit. According to one source, Manhattan acquired its name from the American Indian word manahactanienk, meaning "the island of general intoxication".

For the crews, such a policy was merely a continuation of procedure aboard ship. The onboard entertainments were much as can be found on Royal Navy ships these days, albeit exaggerated. They ranged from music and amateur dramatics to the more predictable drinking bouts. Equipped with generous stores of ale chased down with wine looted from unfortunate Portuguese merchantmen, sailors often fell dead from liver disorders long before they had seen their first cannibal. Diplomacy was as colourful as war in these times, and Cabot's advice was also employed against European rivals. When David Middleton learned of a plot by Hendrik van Bergel, the Dutch Governor of the islands, to destroy his ship, he immediately went to confront his enemy with the intelligence in Fort Nassau. After the wine arrived, sharp words soon mellowed and Middleton "ended the day examining suits of armour with van Bergel and discussing the varied merits of different types of musket".

Such behaviour was not eccentric in its context. The explorers bore royal letters, dispensations from their backers and other bureaucratic accoutrements of modern trade. But in practice they proceeded much in the medieval way, of swearing hearty oaths, feasting and striking bargains off the cuff, their formal instructions left far behind with their source, in England. Good intentions were quickly tempered by dangers of wrecks, disease and the whims of Eastern potentates. Even for a resident English trader in the region, life expectancy was only three years.

No one did more to reduce life expectancy than the cold-blooded Jan Coen, governor-general of the islands and Courthope's nemesis. His employers instructed him to use all necessary force to subdue the Bandas once and for all, even if that meant the country must be "turned into a desert". Milton writes: "Coen was only too keen to carry out these wishes. Courthope was determined to stop him." By all accounts a straight-talking, fair man as well as a physically imposing one, Courthope engendered instant respect among his crew and the natives alike. But not quite enough respect, for after fortifying the island he was betrayed and left marooned with only 38 men to face over 1,000 Dutchmen and their fleet. He held on for 1,540 days, promising: "I look daily and hourly, and if they win it, by God's help I make no doubt but they shall pay full dearly for it with effusion of much blood." But it was English blood that was to be spilt. When Courthope's old friend John Jourdain sailed to his aid, he was intercepted and shot dead whilst attempting to parley, a deed possibly ordered by Coen himself. It was certainly his style, and he reportedly gave a handsome reward to the murderer. Courthope was ultimately betrayed again, and this time caught and killed.

The author wonders why there is no monument to Courthope, yet his hero's exploits occupy only a small part of this text. One suspects the nutmeg of the title was Nathaniel's merely because he was the only character whose name began with an N. He receives pride of place not because he completed the English adventure in the East Indies - Run was not exchanged for Manhattan until 47 years after his death - but because he completed a convenient alliteration. Nonetheless, this book is a magnificent piece of popular history. It is an English story, but its heroism is universal. This is a book to read, reread, then, aside from the X-rated penultimate chapter, read again to your children. If you do not have any children, get some.