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AFRH Book Club on “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg” by Giles Milton

Reading "Nathaniel's Nutmeg," written by Giles Milton has been both an adventure, and a lesson in geography. As our Book Club at The Armed Forces Retirement Home, Washington, D.C. discusses and shares our thoughts about this interesting chronicle of the European race for control of the spice islands, I am certain that so much history of the 16th and 17th centuries will come into play. Please check back on my website Blog at to read and learn from America's Finest!

As well...our next book to read together is "When Books Went To War: Stories That helped Us Win World War II," written by Molly Guptill Manning. Stay tuned!

Dear Trusty Book Club Members,

As I was reading "Nathaniel's Nutmeg," authored by Giles Milton, I almost immediately kicked in to my educator mode and asked myself the "KWL" question-what I knew about this topic, what I wanted to learn, and then leaped to what I hoped I would learn from reading our Book Club's current book selection, "Nathaniel's Nutmeg." I did know that the Dutch captured Run Island(the main focus of "Nathaniel's Nutmeg") and all but kicked the English out of Indonesia. But because the British had a right to this island, they eventually were able to trade it for the Dutch colony of "New Amsterdam," modern day Manhattan. I had little idea about the "race" for the Spice Islands. In his book, Giles Milton details the history of spices, their importance, their costs, the explorers who dared to find them, and the wars that developed because of them. So, with that being said, I shall continue to share my learnings with you. Oh, and by the way as you all can well imagine...I have written over ten pages of notes about our current read, "Nathaniel's Nutmeg." And as you are reading my notes, I am guessing that you are saying out loud..."Typical!"

I love to read history. Giles Milton's book, "Nathaniel's Nutmeg," explains the battles for trade in the East Indies between the Dutch and English in the late 16th century, and the early 17th century. His research and presentations focus on the tiny island of Run, located in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago. Run Island is one of a handful of islands where nutmeg and mace grew. Of interest, nutmeg and mace grow from the same tree. Spices were worth fortunes in Europe during these times; Europe was obsessed with nutmeg and other spices for meals, and cures for the common cold to the Bubonic Plague. Control of the spice trade would give any country access to treasures and power. The Banda Islands were some of the only islands in the world where these spices grew. So, these tough to access islands became a battleground for two of the world's naval powers-the Dutch and the English.

I have read in years past plenty about the Dutch legacy in Indonesia-they oppressed Indonesia for over three centuries. However, I never knew how contested their initial presence was. As nearly every spice island fell to Dutch control, an English merchant, Nathaniel Courthope and a few dozen other merchants were able to sneak in and declare British sovereignty over Run Island. The British held Run Island for close to a decade and survived food shortages, blockades, and the constant threat of Dutch invasion. All of this had incredible significance. It prevented the Dutch from "owning" the spice market. The Dutch eventually captured Run Island, and booted the English out of Indonesia. However, because the British had a right to Run Island, they eventually were able to trade it for the Dutch colony of "New Amsterdam," our modern day Manhattan. Throughout "Nathaniel's Nutmeg," author Giles Milton speaks to this very piece of history quite often.

Before I sign off with you, I appreciate Christine Baldwin, my good friend and co-coordinator of our Book Club recommending that we read "Nathaniel's Nutmeg." This book is unique. I learned a lot from reading and studying all that it had to tell. The illustrations and maps were helpful in explaining some of the big picture-the English and the Dutch wasted tons of lives and money searching for a fabled North-East passage above Russia in hopes of shortening the distance to the Spice Islands. Author, Giles Milton informed his audience of the hardship and savagery that comes about when navigating uncharted waters and the exploitation of new worlds.



From John Baker (US Army-Retired): The new book, Nathaniel Nutmeg, opened the window for me to the brutal competition of the maritime nations in the spice trade in the 1600s, and the tangential role it played in the exploration and ultimate settlement of North America. I would not have lasted three days as a seaman on those ships. For me the book vividly describes the harshness of life in those days, both for the Europeans and Asians involved and the vital importance of international trade in history of our globe.

From Christine Baldwin (Librarian, AFRH): It’s interesting that for this 2nd <4 chapter> part we still don’t see much of Nathaniel Courthope…he shows up on page 202. He must become very important in the last part (which we will finish this coming week). In this part, the Dutch and Portuguese really go at it, especially at Bantam, which is quite a filthy place. I like when on one voyage, Mr. Keeling had his crew learn a Shakespeare play, including making the costumes. That had to pass the time, especially when no winds were aiding their moves. Can you believe they were still thinking about a northern route to get to the islands? Here was another name I knew from grade school history class, Henry Hudson. He really tricked the Dutch into letting him go North and he went North and then West to get to the Americas ending up at Coney Island! (No spice there!) I also learned that the Dutch really did buy Manhattan for 60 guiders. I always thought that was a joke. We also learn about the cannibals and head hunters – definitely not friendly! I guess we are lucky that Nathaniel survived his capture in 1610 or we might not have this book…ha, ha. There is so much information here, the author is amazing with the way he weaves the stories! I hope you are enjoying it!

From George Johnson (Radioman, US Navy-Retired): Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia states Nutmeg is the seed or ground spice of the genus Myristic (Fragrant Nutmeg or true Nutmeg) is a dark leaved evergreen tree cultivated for two spices derived from it fruit: Nutmeg from its seed, and Mace from the seed covering. In the year 2018 Guatemala and Indonesia combined produced 68% of the World supply of Nutmeg. Although used in traditional medicine for treating various disorders, Nutmeg has no known medicinal value. Today we use Nutmeg and other spices to enhance the flavor of our food and consider the cost of each spice as negligible and are not unduly concerned with cost. I definitely want spices in my Pumpkin Pie and Eggnog. Its availability and abundance has brought its price within the reach of all the want it. This was not the case in nineteenth century Europe as Giles Milton tells us in his book, "Nathaniel's Nutmeg". In his narration he describes the use of Nutmeg to suppress the taste of rank meat and to disguise its stench. In Elizabethan England Physicians claimed it could cure the Plague, the Black Death that was felling people with no regard to social status. The Doctors of that era were recommending various spices for nearly every ailment known to them. This included sexual function which it was said to increase or decrease ones libido whichever you preferred. The spices were the miracle drugs of the day and much sought after for a variety of reasons. A major problem existed in obtaining the spices. They were not grown locally and were available through existing trade routes in very limited quantities. This made their cost prohibitive to all but the extremely rich. Milton gives an example of a purchase in the Banda Islands of a purchase of 10 pounds of Nutmeg for 1 English penny which later sold in London for a price that resulted in a markup of 60,000 percent. Profits of this magnitude ignited the entrepreneurial spirts of even the fainthearted. To enter the spice trade you have to obtain spices to market. This raises the question of where do they originate and how do I obtain a quantity? Milton tells us that while no one knew exactly where Nutmeg originated it could be purchased in Venice from merchants who had obtained the Nutmeg in Constantinople. To be continued. I have given some thought to the living conditions and the life of a common seaman in 15th and 16th centuries. Life was hard for most people of that era it was extremely hard for the unlettered common man which was the source of the common seaman. Their life aboard ship was hard and they had to be tough to survive. The ship's officers kept strict discipline on board ship hoping to maintain order and prevent mutiny, Violations of rules and regulations resulted in punishments that were extreme. There was the lash but the ultimate in severity was hanging and keelhauling. With keelhauling there was a very slim chance you might survive. In keelhauling the seaman was tied to a line looped beneath the vessel, thrown overboard on one side of the ship and dragged to the other side, or the length of the ship (from bow to stern). The hull of the ship was usually covered in barnacles and other marine growth, and keelhauling would result in serious lacerations. If the victim was dragged slowly his weight might lower him sufficiently to miss the barnacles, but would result in his drowning. There was also the risk of head trauma from colliding with the ship's hull. If he ship was underway (moving) you would usually lose your head. Those were indeed the day of wooden ships and iron men.

From Christine Baldwin (Librarian, AFRH): My thoughts on the last chapters, here we are at the end of, I hope you agree, a very in depth look at the Spice Islands and the extreme difficulty everyone had to get to these very important islands. (The next time you go to the grocery store, look at the spice area. It’s huge!) Our author pored over 5,000 pages of handwritten journals to write this book. We finally get to Nathaniel and all the difficulties he had. It started out promising at the island of Run and Ai, but with a lack of fresh water and the Dutch showing their strength, soon all was lost. And in October 1620, as Nathaniel sails to the Great Banda Island, he is ambushed and never seen again. Eventually, the nutmeg trees get transplanted to other places and these islands sink into obscurity. Here is our next read: When Books Went to War. We’ll read the first 5 chapters for next Wednesday.


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