Review: How one man's courage changed the course of history
This book is a beauty. It tells how the sixteenth century Dutch East India Company, the grand old VOC, spread its tentacles across the globe in search of the inordinately valuable spices of the eastern islands of present day Indonesia.
The Dutch, like other European nations (particularly the English, their greatest competitor), initially followed Columbus westward from Europe in order to find a passage to the East Indies. This resulted in the Dutch establishing themselves on Manhattan Island, which they named New Amsterdam. They sailed up the Hudson River hoping to reach the Pacific. When that proved unsuccessful, they began to explore northwards in search of the fabled, but ultimately impassable, northwest passage. Others travelled northeast from Europe in search of an equally fabled, but also unpassable, arctic passage along Russia's northern coast. Mariners had horrifying experiences caught in winter ice floes thousands of miles from home, on routes that would prove fruitless.
Even the proven passage to the east via the Cape of Good Hope was perilous, but with luck they returned to Europe with cargoes of spices worth far more than gold. There are enough stories here of heroism, horror and adventure to keep the reader awake until late at night, exploring the roots of modern empire. Contemporaneous illustrations and maps are an added bonus.
Not till two thirds through this gripping book do we meet Nathaniel, whose 'courage changed the course of history'. He was an Englishman committed to his nation's titanic economic struggle against the Dutch. He succeeds in taking over and fortifying the now forgotten island of Run, which lies 'in the backwaters of the East Indies, a remote and fractured speck of rock that is separated from its nearest land mass, Australia, by more than six hundred miles of ocean' (p2). Forgotten today, it is not even shown on modern maps. However, Run Island figured prominently on seventeenth century maps because of the fragrant nutmeg that grew in abundance there. The island was the key to monopoly control of the world's supply of this fantastically valuable spice.
For five years, Nathaniel Courthorpe and his half-starved band of thirty men were besieged by a Dutch force one hundred times greater. Their heroism led directly to one of the most momentous geo-political rearrangements of the world. Stymied by Courthorpe's courage, the Dutch were forced to give the English the island of Manhattan in exchange for this now insignificant speck of rock. Thus New Amsterdam became New York. It is a tale so fantastic that one is left wondering why it has never been previously told.
Giles Milton, Nathaniel's nutmeg. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1999, 388pp, ISBN 0340696761 (pbk)
Ron Witton (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the University of Wollongong, Australia.