The first thing I have to say about Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is that its title is misleading. Nathaniel Courthope, the gentleman referenced by the title, features him for a very small amount of time. What the book is about, the struggle between the Dutch and the English to gain and keep control of the Spice Islands, is an interesting topic, but I felt a little let down. I imagined a more swashbuckling tale than the one that was delivered.
That’s not to say that I didn’t like the story Milton had to tell. I knew that the spice trade was big, but I never knew how much it fueled naval exploration. European people really wanted their spices, mainly because they attributed all sorts of magical healing powers to them. Plus, they’re tasty.
I love that Milton is telling me a story that I’ve never heard before. I knew, vaguely, that there are places called England and the Netherlands, and that their peoples were both seafaring and entrepreneurial. I had no idea that the two nations fought a kind of cold (sometimes hot) war over the spice trade. I didn’t know that it was for spice that the East India Company was founded. I didn’t know that the fate of navies are so dependent on good leadership.
I appreciate Milton’s set-up for the story of Courthope, but the book feels lost for the first two hundred or so pages. I kept thinking that the next chapter had to have Courthope in it, since the book’s named for him. It’s quite frustrating, as a reader, to be forced into reading about what otherwise might be a quite interesting narrative because there’s a constant expectation for a particular person or event. The marketing of the book, frankly, ruined a good part of the history Milton wanted to tell.
Giles Milton, the author, also attributes to Courthope the eventual ownership of Manhattan by the British due to the trouble he caused the Dutch by holding onto Run for as long as he did. If he wanted to make that point, it would have been nice to have the juxtaposition — the lessening of the Dutch control in the Americas as their power grew in the East Indies — put to the forefront. I think it’s a far-fetched idea, that the British gained New York solely because they traded Run for it; there was an actual battle in Manhattan for the land. New York: The Novel devotes its first section to the waning power of the Dutch there and the rise of the English, and there were skirmishes. Run may have been in the formal agreement, but I have serious doubts about whether it was truly a large part of the overall treaty between the two countries. This, therefore, makes Milton’s claim for Courthope rather flimsy, in my opinion.
Overall, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more had it not advertised itself as the story of one man. I would have known what I was getting into, and could have experienced it for what it is, and not for what I expected it to be.