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4.1 out of 5 stars
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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 25 July 2016
This was a fascinating book about the Spice race, that time in history when the great powers of Europe were looking for the fastest ways to the East and the competition to control the spice trade was at its height. Although Nathaniel plays only a small role in this book, it is his heroism in trying to secure the tiny island of Run for the British, that the author has chosen to put him in the title. And this is because that tiny, insignificant island of Run plays a huge part in world history. You might wonder how this could be so as most likely you've never heard of it, but I won't spoil the book for you. You'll have to read it for yourself. If you find books on the Age of Discovery and seafaring interesting, you won't be disappointed here. It's quite detailed and worth a read.
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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 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 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 4 December 2012
Another book by Giles Milton that I really enjoyed. Having read White gold, I was educated in historical events I was otherwise unaware of, but thought I liked Milton's style. I explored his books further and found Nathaniel's Nutmeg. Having previously read Mike Dash's extraordinary book Batavia's Graveyard, I was intrigued to learn more about the development of the Dutch East India Company and the subsequent link to the British East India Company.

I now have a better knowledge and understanding of the race for domination of the Spice Islands, the development of the East India Company and the subsequent British Empire. This book is well written and well worth the read.
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on 17 January 2001
"Nathaniel's Nutmeg" is an excellent account of the days of daring do on the high seas. It tells the tale of how the East Indies (Indonesia) came to be settled, conquered and exploited by European powers. Good stuff.
Overall, the writing manages to fill the requirements of this type of book. It is factual enough to construct a good world view of the time, but without reading like a text book. It focuses on the people to give it a human edge.
Where the book falls down a little is in the storytelling. Often, the author seems very excited about the story ahead and gives glimpses which spoil the narrative twists. For example, it starts the life story of a person by first telling you that he dies horribly in the end. This tends to dampen the suspense somewhat.
the other minor gripe is the many references to the swap England and Holland did for territory - in effect, swapping a small spice island for Manhattan. The author seems so amazed by this event, that he repeatedly refers to how amazing it was. A little tiresome after the tenth reference...
The other annoyance was the positioning of pictures in the book. While pretty to look at, they were generally unrelated to the text on the nearby page. They were either many pages before or many pages after the event described. Oh well.
Overall, a very enjoyable read giving a good insight into the period. Highly recommended.
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on 18 January 2002
I was very disappointed with this book, perhaps after unconciously absorbing some of the shop window hype I expected to get under the skin of a real-life adventurer and get an insight into a mostly forgotten but fascinating episode of my nation's history. Unfortunately what I found I got was largely a description of a procession of over-optimistic and mostly failed attempts by England to establish a trade with the eastern 'spiceries' of the day.
Primarily I felt that there was no real connection on a personal level to the men that I was reading about. The book all too easily fell into the type of history that I was taught at school, in that the characters seem almost to be portrayed as autonomous marionettes who willingly (and knowingly) seem to accept their role as history and the hand that fate dealt them, rather than men living in their present, with all the familiar uncertainties, foibles and failings.
This disconnection maybe because the author chooses to use the words of the men of the time from documents that still survive (which is admirable and interesting), but then the rest of his narrative seems too anxious to hurry along to describing the next voyage, rather than expanding upon the story with his own interpretation of events and of the personalities involved. It seems that when a tricky bit of descriptive prose is required he hides behind 'olde fashyoned wordes', or doesn't bother at all, rather than coming up with something original and challenging himself (not that I could do any better).
I think the book would have been vastly improved by drastically reducing the cast and the period of time it focusses on but as this isn't the case the end of the book feels rather rushed in an attempt to squeeze everything in.
Sadly Nathaniel hardly figures at all. He doesn't feature until half way through the book and only then for a chapter or two.
The book also features some of the strangest censorship I've ever seen in a book; using the word p*ssed in entirety but in the very same sentence, obliterating what I presume to be sh*t with ****. Why?! The book then describes various horrendous tortures in graphic detail; so what's all that about?!
Nevertheless I did learn a few interesting things about the age but if you want to really connect with the people of the past and have a fantastic read at the same time, try Simon Schama's History of Britain.
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