My book group recently read and discussed a nonfiction book, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History by Giles Milton. I read about half of the book before our meeting and did not finish it. We all agreed that the information presented was interesting and made for some good discussion, but the writing was somewhat textbook-like and not always compelling.
As the sub-title explains, this is a book about the history of the spice trade. The quest for spices from a small group of islands in the East Indies began in about 1550 and was mainly a race between the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British to lay claim to those islands, though this book is mainly from the British perspective. In case you aren’t sure (I wasn’t!), the so-called Spice Islands are a group of mostly tiny islands in the East Indies, from Borneo to New Guinea, south of the South China Sea, between what is now Vietnam and Australia.
Of course, we’d all heard of the Spice Islands and the spice trade before, but we were astonished to read about the value of these spices that are now found in every home and can be purchased cheaply in any grocery store. The price of spices like nutmeg, mace, and cloves skyrocketed in part due to pronouncements from doctors that they had miraculous curative properties, at a time when the plague and other fatal illnesses were sweeping the world.
These miracle cures were ridiculously hard to procure. Ships had to sail from the northern Atlantic in Europe south to the equator, west almost to South America (making use of the trade winds), south to the southern tip of Africa, up the eastern coast of Africa, past India, and finally down to the islands…which, after that long journey, were hard to access due to reefs and sometimes hostile natives. It was common for two-thirds of a crew or more to die en route. Those that survived, however, hoped for riches beyond their imagination when the merchants at home got access to their cargo.
Of course, those islands were already occupied by native residents, who had their own governments and societies. As in the rest of history, though, the white Europeans completely disregarded the natives and treated the islands as up for grabs. Whichever country controlled the islands – and hence, the spice trade – would be the biggest economic power in the world. So, obviously, there was a lot at stake and plenty of financial motivation to make the harrowing journey.
The book tells this story chronologically, from the first European voyagers to the Spice Islands. Unfortunately, most of us found the litany of names, dates, places, and journeys a bit repetitive and dull. It reminded me of why I disliked history when I was in school! The story itself is fascinating and we had a lively discussion about the value of the spices, the extreme challenges endured, the European’s disregard for natives, and more. My book group members agreed, however, that the book’s subtitle was a bit puzzling and over-stated; I read more than half of the book, and Nathaniel was barely mentioned!
A couple of people in our book group did enjoy the book and gave it a 7 or 8 rating, but most of us rated it lower and quite a few – like me – did not finish it. Still, I’m glad I read the half that I did because it was a part of history I knew nothing about and some of it was interesting; I particularly liked the chapters about searching for a northern route through the polar ice. The book also includes illustrations and maps that were drawn during the time period that the book covers, like the one I;ve included here. I just wish the book had been written in more of an engaging narrative style, like my favorite kinds of nonfiction books. This book, filled with little-known facts, is best suited for those with a keen interest in history.
373 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux