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4.1 out of 5 stars67
4.1 out of 5 stars
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on 11 July 2009
This book well exceeded my expectations. I thought I would be learning a bit about nutmeg and the islands where it grows, when in fact, I understood how colonialism and the British Empire began. Another fact suddenly hit me when reading this book: When I was a kid, I thought than marine explorers such as Magellan were setting up on their years long journey simply pushed by the desire to go where no (white) man has ever been, to discover and push themselves just like an Everest climber would do. Well, if you thought that too, think again. Most people in marine exploration were driven by trade and gain. A single cargo of spices and nutmeg brought back to London would repay the whole expedition and bring immense profits to those in charge.

Nathaniel's Nutmeg tell the story of the decades long struggle between the fledging British East Indian Company and the Dutch East Indian Company set up by merchants in the 16th and 17th centuries. I felt a bit sorry for the British who constantly suffer from lack of fire and manpower. In fact, I felt I could not give the full five stars to the book (I would easily give 4.5), because this long struggle at such a disadvantage for the British is almost unbearable, and wore me down little by little.

Fortunately, the author kept a gold nugget in store for us at the end. The sacrifice of our hero Nathaniel Courthope was not made in vain, for the Dutch eventually agreed to exchange Run, the last English Nutmeg producing Island (on paper only) for the island of Manhattan (New Amsterdam), which was to be renamed New York. If only these men knew at the time how they were changing the world!

The book is very readable and well illustrated with maps of the world, and the spices islands. I felt this was extremely helpful and left me asking for even more maps and illustrations! Alltogether, a must read!
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on 7 May 2009
To sum up: Extremely interesting but hard going. I thought I was going to read the story of Nathaniel but he was hardly mentioned and it was really a record of the various expeditions to, primarily, the spice islands in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. I had no idea the effect the spice race had on English and European history (not to mention that of the spice islands themselves) and the hardships that people went through are unimaginable (who'd have thought it of the Dutch!). I had to read it in stages and I got a bit lost at times with all the names and places - a summary on each chapter somewhere would have helped.
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on 29 May 2001
The action of Nathaniels nutmeg cuts between the merchants of London and Holland, the dangers of the high seas and the prizes of the East Indies. The problem is Milton dwells too much on the developments before the main story, this builds up the expectation of the reader so that in the end Nathaniel Courthopes story is a bit of an anti-climax. Milton's treatment of Courthope is nothing less than hero worship and Milton repeatedly laments that Nathaniel has been cheated out of his place in history. However this is a fine story which is well worth reading.
But, one small thing which has nothing to do with Giles Milton. The cover quotes Phillip Henscher who when reviewing the book for Spectator said that this book " Makes you want to pack your bags and go off travelling to find that special place" I would have thought that the effect of this book would be the complete opposite - to make the modern reader think " Isn't it great I'm not a 17th century sailor dying of malnutrition!"
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on 14 August 2012
In a similar vein to Dava Sobel's Longitude, Nathaniel's Nutmeg revolves around the story of one of history's largely invisible protagonists. Whilst this isn't history on the same scale, it sits very nicely with something E. P. Thompson said, about rescuing characters "from the enormous condescension of posterity." The major characters in this book will be unknown to most people, as will most of the events, but their importance for the modern world will be clear to everyman.

The book's title is, however, a complete misnomer. The subject matter is very ambitious, dealing with the spice trade and the age of navigation, including forays in the Americas, attempts to find passages to the Indies via the Arctic Ocean, and all of the misadventures, wars, successes and political intrigues of the English and Dutch East India companies. Ultimately, Milton's premise with the book is to tie the exploits of the English East India Company officer Nathaniel Courthope in with the fate of New Amsterdam/New York, but by trying to cover this from all angles, the book is left feeling rather thin and superficial. In the end, the titular Nathaniel makes only a relatively brief appearance near the end of the book, all the space that was left to deal with the book's allegedly main focus. Finally, with such a broad range, the book throws up many interesting questions about the companies, their officers, the spice trade etc., most of which remain unfortunately unanswered, despite its near 400 pages.

Despite these setbacks, the book does have its strengths. It is clearly very well researched, and despite the relative paucity of sources available to fill in the gaps, the author avoids the obvious temptation to speculate wildly. As a piece of decidedly 'popular' history, the book is structured like a page-turner, with hints and references dropped to tease the reader into the coming chapters, focusing on a history driven by characters and concrete events, which makes it an easy book for reading on the go or with other distractions. And although the subject matter is really too broad for a book of this size, Milton does at least concentrate solely on the Dutch and English adventures, paying relatively little attention to Portuguese and Spanish goings on at the same time.

Nathaniel's Nutmeg is a pleasant and interesting diversion, particularly for people whose interest would not normally be piqued the idea by a history book. It is clear that a good deal of research has gone into the book, and the breadth of the subject matter makes this no light task. Yet the impression left is one akin to scoffing fast food empty calories; in order to tie Couthorpe to New York, the author has chosen too broad a subject matter for so short a book, leaving the text too shallow and unfocused. A different title, a less ambitious aim, or a more vigilant editor, and this book could have been an all the more satisfying read.
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on 10 March 2011
This book provides a fascinating and well-researched history of the spice trade in the East Indies, in particular the struggle over nutmeg and mace in the Indonesian Banda islands in the 16th and 17th centuries. But the title character, Nathaniel Courthope, plays a small part in the story, and in my view his historical significance has been blown out of all proportion by the author. It's questionable in the extreme that Courthope virtually alone was responsible for the acquisition of Manhattan by the British.
One or two omissions: the Banda islanders keep insisting in their treaties with the British that their religion and their women are to be respected, yet Milton does not quote incidents to illustrate why they do this. Some shameful incidents in the past, perhaps? Neither does he explain why none of the European powers appears to have thought of transporting nutmeg seedlings from the Banda islands to more accessible parts of the world (eg the Caribbean, where the climate is ideal for their cultivation). This was not done until the 19th century.
Nevertheless, an enjoyable read. I like this kind of history.
Incidentally, there is a road near me called Courthope Drive - perhaps, pace Milton, named in memory of the intrepid Nathaniel?
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on 31 December 2000
This is a wonderful story and the book is well researched. However the book is badly let down by the authors poor storytelling, tiresome use of language and in poor editing. I finished it feeling like I had just consumed something that was very nearly excellent, but was in fact very unsatisfying.
The storytelling was confusing and jumped about in time without giving me sufficient information to relate the many events in different parts of the world. The story was also given away too much by captions to pictures which were in completely the wrong place.
The authors language was flowery and falsely enthusiastic.
It felt like a book that used to be larger, but was grudgingly edited down and lightened up for the mass market.
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on 23 May 2014
Five stars really is not enough for this one. What a story!! Giles Milton is the best. What struck me most is just how extreme those times were, the sheer intensity and amount of violence (picture a few English merchants in an Indian port, running for their lives, chased by angry Portugese incited by Jesuit priests), the stunning bravery of the adventurous sailors who risked (and often lost) their lives for a few sacks of nutmeg (OK the stuff was worth more than gold pound for pound). A nice feature is that the book also features a lot of Dutch heroes such as my ancestor Willem Barentsz and the grim hero Jan Pieterszoon Coen whose lack of humor and compassion clearly did not stand in the way of success. Cannot recommend this book strongly enough. Just one critical comment: it would have been even better had Mr. Milton tried just a bit more to organise the story in a chronological sequence; the jumping around between say 1620 and 1590, then 1610, then 1550 etc. eventually got a bit irritating.
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on 20 June 2001
I loved this book- just loved it. Not only is the subject fascinating, it is well researched, beautifully written and a gripping story. Starting with literature such as Shakespeare and Chaucer, Milton sets the stage by taking us back to the fifteenth and sixteenth century to trace the use of nutmeg and spices in the Western world and to build a picture of its importance and popularity.
He then diversifies and constructs a deeply layered and satisfying picture of the historical development of the importation of Nutmeg to the west. In fact, for a long time no one in the west even knew where it came from at all. The Spice route was necessarily complicated and so would travel mysterious routes to reach Constantinople where the Venetian monopoly would bring it further west. The bizarre, sometimes hilarious (and usually tragic ) attempts to find and claim the Spice Islands followed and then the amazing and a courageous story of Nathaniel Courthorpe follows.
Milton's book is a beautifully written, he easily blends the diverse elements of the story, the political situation, the personalities, the competing countries and so on to build a profoundly satisfying and personal book. The detail in it is drawn out and only adds to the richness of the book. I really enjoyed his style and will search out "TheRiddle and the Knight', one of Milton's earlier books, next.
Nathaniel's Nutmeg reminded me a lot of two other gems of books I have read recently, 'The Arcanum' by Janet Gleeson and Dava Sobel's 'Longitude'. If you liked either of those books, then try this. (or if you liked this try either of these) The purpose behind all these books is that they take a small piece of history, something that was pivotal at the time, but has been long forgotten. In this case the finding of, and establishment of a colony for Nutmeg.
This is a book I will have great pleasure in re-reading regularly.
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on 1 December 2015
This is a grossly over-rated book. It has had rave reviews but it drove me raving mad. It is subtitled "How one man's courage changed the course of history", yet I have reached half-way through the book and not yet found a mention of the eponymous hero. What I have read so far is a grisly account of the English entry into the far eastern spice trade, told mainly from the records of the merchants, sailors and pirates who took part in the trade or sponsored it. The many native peoples whom they plundered or traded with must surely also have left records of their encounters with these strange Englishmen, but no attempt is made to research their archives and see the story from their point of view. It is very much a tale of imperialist derring-do from the white man's perspective worthy of the Boy's Own Paper. The author makes extensive use of his contemporary sources, including quoting their negative racial stereotypes without critiquing them or distancing himself from them. This is definitely going unfinished into the charity bag.
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on 28 April 2001
This turned out to be a different book to that I expected from the publisher's puffs and the extracts from reviews. Nathaniel of the title appears late in the book and and we hear little of him for most of the story. Also, behind the charming title you will come across enough greed, deceit, vengeance, and torture to keep even a sadist happy. One long torture sequence set my teeth on edge and has the power to shock and repel even 300 years after the event. On the other hand there are examples of loyalty, courage and sacrifice.
Overall the story provides a rivetting history of the spice trade, the political shenanigans of men driven often by greed and ambition, and the characters who sought the spices. The book is unlikely to do much for the reputation of the human species.
Christian belief, much to the fore, appears to have no ability to temper even the most extreme forms of torture. God is rarely far from the lips of either the wretches being tortured or the torturers carrying out their grisly work. After one vile episode the torturers exhausted by their efforts "thus finished their Sabbath Day's work."
Contemporary records have been used to produce a narrative which brings alive the triumphs and despair of the era. But, despite the magic of the Spice Islands and the charm of the title, this is no fairy tale.
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