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Nathaniel's Nutmeg    by Giles Milton order for
Nathaniel's Nutmeg
by Giles Milton
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2015 (1999)
Hardcover, Softcover, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Bob Walch

A first glance you might think a book with this title, Nathaniel's Nutmeg: Or, The True and Incredible Adventure of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History, might be too dry and boring to hold your interest. Fortunately, Giles Milton was able to fashion a narrative that is not only highly informative but actually does make the reader want to keep plowing through the book.

Milton takes us back over 370 years ago when nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon and cloves formed the heart of the spice trade. During the Middle Ages Venice controlled this trade but, as this book explains, that changed when England, Portugal and Holland explored the South Seas, laid claim to the Spice Islands and wrenched the trade from the Italians.

The Spice Islands or Moluccas, as they were called, were ready to sell the valuable spices they grew on small islands and the Europeans were more than willing buyers. A pound of nutmeg would yield a 3,200 percent profit by the time it arrived and was sold in England, which meant this was as lucrative a trade as finding gold or silver deposited in foreign regions.

Ultimately the competition for control of these islands came down to a struggle between English and Dutch traders represented by the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company.

This book charts the actions of those who were engaged in the trade and set up trading posts in the South Seas as well as the competition that often resulted in bloodshed as the fight for control ebbed back and forth between the Europeans involved in controlling the flow of various spices.

Although there were many individuals who oversaw voyages to the islands and worked as factors on the islands, the two most famous and important men were Nathaniel Courthope of England and Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies.

The battle between these two men and the countries they represented ultimately resulted in an interesting sidelight. One of the outcomes of the fighting was a rather important deal that affected the destiny of the United States.

Britain was forced to cede one of the Spice Islands it claimed to Holland but in return the English received Manhattan. Not only did this seemingly inconsequential deal give the British full control of New York, but it also launched the beginning of the British Empire.

An excellent storyteller, Giles Milton takes a potentially dry and boring topic and not only makes it entertaining, but also illustrates how the struggle for riches via the spice trade played a role in the formative days of early American history.

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