Thursday, 5 July 2012

Nathaniel's Nutmeg

Nathaniel's Nutmeg - How One Man's Courage Changed the Course of History - by Giles Milton - will also change the way you view spices for the rest of your life! 

The book, published in 1999, is a condensed history lesson on the successes and failures, the hardship and the degradation suffered by humanity throughout the 300 years of the Spice Trade. 

The ideas that motivated it, the rise of colonialism and the embryonic emergence of modern world powers is well documented by Giles who scoured hand written journals, diaries and letters; five thousand pages of Jacobean script and Dutch Chronicles; English translations of maritime records held in libraries and the archives of The East India Company and the Colonial State Papers. The truths and treachery from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century are vividly re-visited.

The author singles out valorous 26-year-old Englishman, Nathaniel Courthope, captain of the Swan, who under the banner of King James 1 undertook an expedition to Indonesia in 1616. Nathaniel's stand on the island of Run (600 miles off the coast of Australia), Giles claims, changed the course of history. 

I am not so sure of this, as there were many names lost in the race for gain and glory. The roll call is a who's who of early navigators and explorers from many countries, all competing against one another against a backdrop of colonialism and warfare.

Monarchs and popes, merchants and landowners, wealthy traders and poor sailors; men and boys, the fit and the weak, the good and the bad, the cruel and humane sailed to plunder - some to trade in peace with the countries on the newly discovered routes of the spiceries.

The Quest:

To stake a claim on the island of Run where the rare plant mystica fragrans grew in abundance. The fruit of this tree was famed for its medicinal properties, pomanders were thought to protect against the plague and was sort more than gold. The spice? The humble nutmeg.

In the fifteenth century the spice trade was monopolized by the Venetians who traded from Constantinople. But the English, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese were racing against each other to cut out the middleman, find the source and control the flow at whatever the cost. And the cost was high. 

One out of every three men who sailed, perished - lost at sea, piracy, scurvy, dysentery, typhoid, the "bloody flux"; wild storms, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, shipwreck; cannibalism, torture and corporal punishment. Giles describes keel hauling, decapitation and hanging - to name a few. 

While the Portuguese wisely sought their fortunes in other places like Malacca (Malaysia) and the Spanish, the Philipines. The Dutch and English continued to fight it out in two bloody wars and the shocking Massacre of Aniboyna in 1623.

By the eighteenth century, the tide turns, in a most unexpected way.

For three hundred years, possession meant ownership. Fortresses were built and flags hoisted, only to be destroyed by cannonball by an opposing force and a new flag hoisted. The Dutch even cut down all the trees at one stage and denuded the island so that it was rendered useless to British traders. Because of Nathaniel's refusal to give up ownership of Run "for God and Country" this allowed the English to contest the island long after his death at the hand of the Dutch in 1620.

The Dutch were infamous for their tenacity and brutality to gain control.

Against the natives,
 "...burning and torturing its inhabitants." p308
the English,
"...150 Englishmen had been murdered over two decades and 800 sold in to slavery." p348
and their own - drunken free settlers who caused trouble,
"2 burned alive, 1 broken at the wheel, 9 hanged, 9 decapitated, 3 garrotted, 1 "aquabushed". (blown to pieces by a musket) p358
The role of food (spice) in "Nathaniel's Nutmeg" shows that the economies of all the countries involved were driven by the promise of enormous wealth, monopoly of control and distribution, medicinal reasons, scientific quest, and mass production.

In Chaucer's day, spices were a rare luxury (a treat for those who could afford it), by Shakespearean times they were common place. In a "Winter's Tale" he writes:
"I must have saffron to colour my warden pies (pears), mace (the outer shell of the nutmeg), dates, nutmeg and ginger - 4 pounds of prunes and as many raisins o' the sun." p20
Spices were not only in demand as a medicine, but also a food preservative. It's new role in the food chain was one of control over disease and control over food preparation, storage and flavouring.

Giles describes how doctors prescribed nutmeg for plague, cloves for earache, pepper for colds and cardamom and cinnamon for flatulence. While women (in the traditional role of food preparation and supply), used nutmeg and aniseed to preserve meat, flavour wine (mulled) and cumin was added to pastry and fennel to their sauces.

By 1656, the Dutch proved themselves an unstoppable opponent and independent merchants were unable to, or loathe to bankroll further expeditions. The East India Company was close to bankruptcy. The shipyards were sold and warehouses - which once held millions of pounds in weight of nutmegs and spice - were emptied. Staff was laid off. The Island of Run was to be sold. It's value? That of a small ship. Had Nathaniel's death been in vain?

At the last chime, Oliver Cromwell and the Council of State re-invented the company as a corporation with a new charter and new direction. The tide had turned. 

In 1810, a small band of Englishmen under Captain Cole and a veil of secrecy, landed on Run and secured the battlements of the Dutch. Caught by surprise and without a shot fired, the Dutch capitulated. 

By 1817 the English also vacated the island - but not without uprooting thousands of seedlings and tonnes of soil which they transplanted in to Ceylon, India and Singapore. Global food production had begun.

Thanks to Nathaniel's sacrifice history had indeed changed direction. Enter the Golden Age of British India and the discovery of New York!

The author describes the Run of today as a quiet backwater. Its few inhabitants, unaware of its violent past "continue to dig up coins and musket shells". Giles warns the reader that the island has no direct transport links and the sea crossing can be dangerous. 

Giles noted that while there has been some effort put in to preserving some of its historical battlements,  all that really roams on this tiny island, 2km long and 1 km wide, are ghosts of the past. 

 Abandoned Portuguese battlements in Malacca 
off the coast of Malaysia.

Here I am off the coast of Malaysia, 
discovering the frontiers of Portuguese Malacca 
and the ghosts of the past.1978.

Nutmeg is a versatile spice that has found its way in to sweet and savoury recipes the world over. This cake recipe, posted by Jayne04 on the website All Recipes is a good example.

 Nutmeg Feather Cake

1/4 cup soft butter 
1/4 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups white sugar 

1/2 teaspoon of vanilla
3 eggs lightly beaten
2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons of nutmeg
1/3 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk


Cream the sugar, butter and shortening.
Combine the remaining ingredients. Add the creamed mixture 
to the batter. Bale 175 degrees for 40 minutes until 
lightly golden and a skewer comes out clean.  
This is a tall cake so use a deep cake tin 
greased and lined. 

Basic Frosting

1/2 cup butter
80 ounces of cream cheese
2 cups of icing sugar
1 1/2 Tablespoons of sour cream 
(optional but great for tang)


Cream all ingredients together and spread over the cake 
once it has cooled. If you are using two cake tins, 
use the frosting as a filling to sandwich them together. 
This frosting is so versatile you can add 
shredded coconut for texture, or orange zest 
for tang or decorate with toasted pecans.

©2011 My Novel Idea by Ann Etcell-Ly/All Rights Reserved
 Nathaniel's Nutmeg by Giles Milton 1999 ISBN 0 340 69676 1

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