Milton, Giles Entries

Nathaniel's Nutmeg


I'm marginally ill today - mild fever, slight achiness, low energy - and because of that, I'm disappointed that I've already finished Giles Milton's Nathaniel's Nutmeg: or, the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History. Because this, my friends, is my version of the perfect home-sick-from-work book. A true story (more or less), it nonetheless reads like an old-fashioned swashbuckler, complete with bravery, treachery, derring-do, clandestine dealings, betrayals, base incompetence, and much adventure on the high seas. A highly-colored chronicle of the European race for control of the spice islands (the small south-east Asian archipelago that produced the entire world supply of nutmeg and cloves during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), Nathaniel's Nutmeg introduces the reader to a rollicking cast of brigands, merchants and adventurers, all of whom are out for a piece of the spice pie. Milton paints a portrait of a Europe obsessed with nutmeg and other spices - not merely as luxurious additions to a meal, but as (they thought) a cure for everything from the common cold to the Bubonic plague. Some London apothecaries even claimed that enough saffron, taken with sweet wine, could raise the dead. (I'm not sure how you were supposed to "take" the wine/saffron combo once you were no longer living, but presumably few people were wealthy enough to find out.) Spice prices in London and other European centers was sky-high, and fortunes could be made by those with enough knowledge and capital to fit out an expedition, and enough bravery or foolhardiness to risk their lives sailing around the world in order to buy nutmeg and other spices at their source.

I was fascinated by the "early modern" character of the world portrayed; the Age of Exploration brought a glut of new information about the world outside Europe, but people - even highly-educated people - had no way of separating the true stories from what, in retrospect, we know to be absurd. The wealth of nations was allocated to missions that now seem outlandish: seventeenth-century geographers, for example, were convinced that the North-East Passage (a supposed navigable sea route from Europe over the North Pole and into the Pacific) must exist, because surely God made the world symmetrical up-and-down:

In an age when men still looked for perfect symmetry on their maps, the northern cape of Norway showed an exact topographical correspondence to the southern cape of Africa. Geographers agreed that this was indeed good news; the chilly northern land mass must surely be a second Cape of Good Hope.

In retrospect, it's amazing that an unproved assumption about geological symmetry would have trumped, even for the most intelligent people of the time, the proven fact that if you get water cold enough it will freeze, thereby trapping your ships in the frozen Arctic wastes. In another amazing development, more "evidence" for the existence of a North-East Passage came with the return of a failed Arctic expedition:

[T]he crew returned to England with a strange horn, some six feet long and decorated with a spiral twirl. Ignorant of the existence of the narwhal - that strange member of the whale family that has a single tusk protruding from its head - the rough English mariners confidently declared that this odd piece of flotsam had once belonged to a unicorn, a highly significant find, for 'knowing that unicorns are bred in the lands of Cathay, China and other Oriental Regions, [the sailors] fell into consideration that the same head was brought thither by the course of the sea, and that there must of necessity be a passage out of the said Oriental Ocean into our Septentrionall seas.'

So future expeditions, hugely expensive and incredibly risky, were launched on the basis of global symmetry and the knowledge that unicorns are bred in China, along with some ancient texts by Pliny the Elder, claiming that there were open waters at the North Pole. Which is a pretty astounding testament to the power of magical thinking, and makes you wonder which modern assumptions will seem similarly absurd to future generations.

Milton's narrative gets even more exciting once the expeditions actually set off. In addition to stand-offs among the Portuguese, English and Dutch, and the inherent dangers of the voyage (most expeditions lost at least a third of their men to scurvy, dystentry and tropical diseases), there were legion clashes among the grandiose and idiosyncratic personalities involved in these explorations. Henry Hudson, for example, was commissioned to find the North-East Passage: he was given explicit instructions and signed an agreement saying that he would sail up the coast of Norway and then attempt to turn east. Unbeknownst to his backers, however, he never intended to follow this route at all, but immediately headed west to explore the possibility of a North-WEST Passage. There was such a thin membrane of allegiance in many of these stories: Sir Frances Drake, who defeated the Spanish Armada for England and then led an early, successful expedition to the Spice Islands, turned down the next job offer he got from the British East India Company: he had decided to pursue a career of straight-up piracy instead. Even in later years, each voyage sent by the East India Company was out for its own profit, and a second British ship would often commandeer the goods won by a first British ship, rather than working together for the overall profit of the Company. Milton did a good job depicting the chaotic, winner-take-all quality of the times, and made it all seem as fun to read as a nineteenth-century adventure story.

Which is actually a little bit disturbing.

Because, if you think about it, the reason an old-fashioned swashbuckler is fun to read is that the narrative makes certain pirates into the "good guys," and other pirates into the "bad guys." Obviously, in real life NO pirates are good guys, but Milton, despite writing non-fiction, does exactly this same thing. Consistently, throughout his narrative, he paints the British as the good guys and the Dutch as their treacherous adversaries, even when the two sides are acting more or less equally reprehensibly. Every instance of an unprovoked attack or secret conspiracy on the part of the Dutch is treated with an attitude of condemnation, yet not of surprise. Miton seems to be asking the reader "Well, what else would you expect? Gruesome, isn't it?" Whereas stories of the exact same kind of plotting and scheming on the part of the British are met either with excuses on Milton's part, or with outright approval. Milton calls Nathaniel Courthope's practice of running spies under cover of darkness "ingenious," but classifies the actions of a Dutch spy who betrays Courthope as underhanded treachery. In one instance, the British captain William Keeling (a funny duck by all accounts - he organized early productions of Shakespeare plays among his sailors while crossing the Atlantic) has been trying to overcome his Dutch rivals on the islands of Ai and Neira, and has been sending spies among the natives. Many might assume that Keeling was therefore in on the native uprising that ended up slaughtering 48 Dutchmen, but Milton goes to great lengths to suggest that he wasn't:

After the passing of almost four centuries it is hard to piece together exactly what happened next. The Dutch records suggest that William Keeling helped instigate the ensuing massacre, but this accusation contradicts his own diaries. Although he had certainly struck a number of secret deals with the natives, there is nothing to suggest he was actively inciting them to violence. Indeed, he was busy buying nutmeg at Ai Island, a day's sailing journey from Neira, when rumors of a plot began to circulate.

It could just be me, but if I were conspiring with the natives to overthrow my Dutch adversaries, that's the kind of information I might elect to exclude from my journals. You know, so as to avoid HANDING THEM EVIDENCE in the event of my capture. Of course I don't know anything about the circumstances here; it could be that Keeling really didn't know anything about the uprising. Yet Milton seems willing to impugn Dutch captains and bureaucrats on flimsier, more circumstantial evidence than we can read between the lines here against Keeling. And when he is forced to relate distasteful behavior on the part of the British (such as the men in Henry Hudson's expedition who made a sport of shooting American Indians with muskets from the deck of their ship) he seems extremely grieved by it, whereas similar behavior by the Dutch can pass without comment.

So, Nathaniel's Nutmeg was not the most balanced, bias-free history I've ever read. There was a definite jingoistic/nationalistic bent that bothered me more as the book went on, and inspired some eye-rolling toward the end. I would still recommend it, though, to those in the mood for the true(ish) version of the old-fashioned sea yarn.

(Nathaniel's Nutmeg was my tenth and final book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge, representing the 900 century.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography