LEIGH FORBES: Books of all Sorts

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How One Man’s Courage Changed the Course of History

by Giles Milton.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is essentially a history of the East India Company’s early years – including the lengthy prelude to its inception – and its part in the spice race.

The first half of the seventeenth century saw the Dutch and English East India Companies vying to dominate the spice trade. Although it gives a good outline of other trading centres in the east, this account focusses on a minuscule member of the Banda Islands, Run, in the Moluccas (modern-day Indonesia), which at the time was the only place in the world where nutmeg grew. With the possibility of 1000-fold profits to be had in European markets, the Dutch and English both resorted to underhand tactics to ensure their supremacy over the other – with the Dutch winning the edge on brutality (some passages make for difficult reading). By 1657, the English had been forced to the point of bankruptcy.

We don’t get to hear about the part played by Nathaniel Courthope until near the end of the book, and the reader might feel a little cheated by the title and blurb – which infers there will be a lot more about him – but the twist at the end is delightful in its jaw-droppingness, and even if the rest of the tale had not been eminently readable (it was), the twist would be more than worth the read.

I feel like I’ve spent the last four days in the East Indies, on the edge of my seat rooting for the English merchants, factors, captains, and seamen to prevail – cheered when they did and saddened when they did not. I have loved this book, and recommend it for any history lover.

Also by Giles Milton – The Riddle and the Knight: In search of Sir John Mandeville

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