- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & NobleBarnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
You may remember the lines from the old standard "Istanbul Not Constantinople" that go: "Even old New York/Was once New Amsterdam./ Why they changed it I can't say./People just liked it better that way." Giles Milton can say why they changed it, and does in detail, with adventure and grace, in Nathaniel's Nutmeg.
In the early 1600s, spices like nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and pepper were far more valuable than any cinnamon-tasty Apple Jacks consumer would believe. Thought to have the power to cure everything from the plague to flatulence to the common cold, nutmeg was "the most coveted luxury in seventeenth-century Europe, a spice held to have such medicinal properties that men would risk their lives to acquire it." Who knew? And if that isn't enough, Milton makes an astounding case for how that withered nut was responsible for New York's dropping her maiden name. (Her colonized maiden name, that is.)
The Nathaniel of the book's title is one of the most compelling characters in this wider story of the Dutch-British battle for control over the less-than-convenient Spice Islands sprinkled about the Indonesian archipelago. The Spice Islands were the only source for increasingly dear spices, and merchants and explorers alike sought their fortunes there. It was no easy ride, however. Many adventurers (including Ferdinand Magellan and Henry Hudson) never even managed to lay eyes on those faraway shores.
Milton, who draws heavily from the journals of these seamen, is a reliable and winning storyteller, seamlessly interweaving details from the narratives oftheadventurers. Milton reports, "The diarist on board Lancaster's Red Dragon could not help noticing that her crew were completely immune to the illness [scurvy]. 'And the reason why the general's men stood in better health than the men of other ships was this; he [Lancaster] brought to sea with him certain bottles of the juice of lemons....' " "Tragically," Milton notes, "Lancaster's cure was soon forgotten and more than 170 years were to pass before Captain Cook rediscovered the beneficial effects of citrus fruit in combating scurvy."
Milton unearths priceless historical gems — " 'We gave,' wrote the proud captain, 'the tragedie of Hamlett.' " — and places them in a larger historical context: "If this is correct it must have been one of the earliest amateur performances of the play, staged not in the Globe Theatre but on the mangrove-tangled shores of equatorial Africa."
And even Samuel Pepys has a cameo. Going to see the riches of two Dutch ships the English have captured, he remarks, "The greatest wealth lie in confusion that a man can see in the world.... Pepper scattered through every chink, you trod upon it; and in cloves and nutmegs I walked above the knees; whole rooms full...as noble a sight as ever I saw in my life."
Much as this book is riddled with curious characters and an astounding array of historical anecdotes, the story is driven by the brave Nathaniel Courthope. Milton takes as his hero the loyal British commander who defended the tiny nutmeg-laden island of Run, outnumbered by the Dutch and without reinforcements, for years. On the strength of this remarkable stand, Britain would later claim rights to the small island, ultimately trading it to the Dutch for another small island: Manhattan.