Before moving on to the last two thirds of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, I read the first novel by Giles Milton, whose nonfiction works include one of my favorite books in that genre, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg. The novel, Edward Trencom’s Nose:, looked right up my alley, promising in its subtitle a tale “of history, dark intrigue, and cheese.” A historical mystery/detective story revolving around food, by an author I’ve read and liked? Sign me up.
You might infer from the introduction that I did not care for Edward Trencom’s Nose. That is an incomplete inference. It might be the worst novel I’ve read in the last five years. Milton’s sins are many. The book has zero suspense – you don’t find out what’s going on until the final few pages, and the way Milton unfurls the story yields no dramatic tension. The relevance of the food to the plot is minimal, and it seems more like a chance for Milton to flex some cheese knowledge than anything else. The protagonist is an aloof, self-centered idiot, and there is no three-dimensional character to be found in the book’s pages. And while the book’s jacket and reviews promised a funny book – the marketing copy on the back calls it a “mouth-watering blend of Tom Sharpe and P.G. Wodehouse,” for which the Wodehouse estate should sue – the book is terribly unfunny, crowded with obvious, futile attempts at humor and some of the worst descriptions of sex I have ever seen in any book. (Sex in Milton’s world appears to be a foul, violent act; he actually uses the word “pummeled” to describe one particular bout of coitus.)
So, since that book sucked, let me use this space to talk a little about Milton’s Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History, a book I can actually recommend to you without hesitation. The book is the history of that titular spice, one that was once the most expensive foodstuff in the world (an honor that I believe now falls to saffron, at least on a per gram basis) and that played a heavy role in European colonization of the western hemisphere and southeast Asia. When doctors in seventeenth-century England claimed that nutmeg was the only reliable cure for the plague, the spice – itself the dried seed of trees of genus Myristica – became more valuable by weight than gold, spurring a rush to obtain and trade in it … if only anyone could figure out where it came from.
Nutmeg at the time was found only in the Banda Islands (in the Maluku archipelago) of present-day Indonesia, and its best source was a tiny island called Pulorin (or Puloron) by its natives but just called “Run” by Europeans of the time. It was hard to reach, hit twice yearly by powerful monsoons, and populated by unfriendly locals. The Portuguese visited the Spice Islands nearly a century before the English reached Run, but had no luck with the natives and could do little more than trade with middlemen. Beginning around the year 1600, the English and Dutch – who came to Indonesia loaded for bear, and stand accused in this book of some unspeakable acts of violence in the name of securing their nutmeg supply – began a decades-long dispute over Run Island, one that wasn’t settled until the 1660s.
Nathaniel Courthope was a factor in Borneo who led an expedition in 1616 to Run to try to break the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg. The islanders warmed to Courthope and the English, only to find themselves subjected to a brutal siege by the Dutch that lasted nearly four years, a feat Milton credits largely to Courthope’s cunning and bravery. The Dutch won the battle eventually – I won’t spoil how – but lost the larger war, eventually securing their hold on Run and all of the Banda Islands in an agreement with the English that ceded New Amsterdam to the occupying English forces. That is, we speak English today in large part because the Dutch wanted a 3 km long island in Indonesia that was the world’s main supply of nutmeg. And, in a bit of a last laugh on the Dutch, to recapture Run after the British briefly held it in 1664, the Dutch pulled a General Sherman on the island, nearly killing their own golden-egg-laying goose.
Courthope makes an ideal hero for a nonfiction book, right up to his hero’s demise, and the story of Dutch brutality against Englishman and native alike should not be lost to history just because now they’re nice people and cheer really loud for their long track speed skaters. Milton sprinkles the story with the history of nutmeg itself (and a little on its poor sibling, mace, the dried aril that covers the nutmeg seed, lacking the potent flavor of the nutmeg proper) and the prior history of the Banda Islands, but the star of the show is Courthope, giving the book some of the narrative greed that I particularly like in my nonfiction reads.
So start with Nathaniel’s Nutmeg and skip the cheese course entirely.