Nathaniels nutmeg, p.1
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       Nathaniel's nutmeg, p.1

           Giles Milton
Nathaniel's nutmeg

  'This is a little nutmeg of a book, spicily packaged and guaranteed to provide savoury reading.' Christopher Hudson, The Standard

  'A magnificent piece of popular history. It is an English story, but its heroism is universal. This is a book to read, reread, then read again to your children. If you do not have any children, get some.' Nicholas Fearn, Independent on Sunday

  'Milton leaves one both yearning for a time when the world seemed full of infinite adventure and appalled by what greed did to such a paradise.' New York Times Book Review

  'This fascinating and eccentric history is a remarkable blend of epic fairy tale and true history.' Publishing News

  'An exciting tale of defiant heroism.' Geographical Magazine

  Giles Milton was born in Buckinghamshire in 1966 and studied at the University of Bristol. A writer and journalist, in 1995 he wrote the acclaimed The Riddle and the Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville. He has contributed articles for most of the British national newspapers as well as many foreign publications and specialises in the history of travel and exploration.

  In the course of his researches, he has travelled extensively in Europe and the Middle East.

  For Madeleine and Heloise

  Copyright © Giles Milton 1999

  First published in 1999 by Hodder & Stoughton A division of Hodder Headline A Sceptre paperback

  Giles Milton lives in London with his wife and two daughters

  The right of Giles Milton to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

  British Library C.I.P. A C1P catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library

  ISBN 0 340 69676 1

  Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, St Ives pic

  Hodder and Stoughton A division of Hodder Headline 338 Euston Road London NW1 3BH


  The hand-written journals of the gentlemen adventurers who form the dramatis personae of this book are almost unreadable to the untrained eye. I owe a debt of gratitude to the handful of Victorian scholars - long deceased - who transcribed these voluminous writings. George Birdwood, Sir William Foster and Henry Stevens made this book possible, as did W. Noel Sainsbury and his indefatigable daughter Ethel who together edited and indexed more than five thousand pages of Jacobean script - all done without the aid of computers.

  Thank you to Des Alwi on Neira Island for his hospitality, enthusiasm and the use of his twin-engined power boat; to Monsignor Andreas Sol of St Francis Xavier Cathedral in Ambon (Amboyna) for allowing me free access to his extensive library; and to James Lapian at the BBC's Indonesian Service.

  In London, I am grateful to Magolein van der Valk for rendering obscure Dutch chronicles into fluent English; to the staff of the London Library and the British Library s Oriental and India Office Collections; and to Frank Barrett, Wendy Driver, Maggie Noach and Roland Philipps.

  Finally, I wish to thank my wife Alexandra whose patience, encouragement and cheerfulness will always prove an inspiration.

  I am particularly indebted to Paul Whyles and Simon Heptinstall, both of whom read numerous versions of the manuscript and suggested much-needed changes.


  THE ISLAND CAN BE SMELLED before it can be seen.

  From more than ten miles out to sea a fragrance hangs in the air, and long before the bowler-hat mountain hoves into view you know you are nearing land.

  So it was on 23 December 1616. The Swan's captain, Nathaniel Courthope, needed neither compass nor astrolabe to know that they had arrived. Reaching for his journal he made a note of the date and alongside scribbled the position of his vessel. He had at last reached Run, one of the smallest and richest of all the islands in the East Indies.

  Courthope summoned his crew on deck for a briefing. The stalwart English mariners had been kept in the dark about their destination for it was a mission of the utmost secrecy. They were unaware that King James I himself had ordered this operation, one of such extraordinary importance that failure would bring dire and irrevocable consequences. Nor did they know of the notorious dangers of landing at Run, a volcanic atoll whose harbour was ringed by a sunken reef. Many a vessel had been dashed to splinters on the razor-sharp coral and the shoreline was littered with rusting cannon and broken timbers.

  Courthope cared little for such dangers. He was far more worried about the reception he would receive from the native islanders, head-hunters and cannibals, who were feared and mistrusted throughout the East Indies. 'At your arrival at Run,' he had been told, 'show yourself courteous and affable, for they are a peevish, perverse, diffident and perfidious people and apt to take disgust upon small occasions.'

  As his men rowed towards land, Courthope descended into his cabin and brushed down his finest doublet, little imagining the momentous events that were to follow. For his discussions with Run's native chieftains — conducted in sign language and broken English — would change, the course of history on the other side of the globe.

  The forgotten island of Run lies in the backwaters of the East Indies, a remote and fractured speck of rock that is separated from its nearest land mass, Australia, by more than six hundred miles of ocean. It is these days a place of such insignificance that it fails even to make it onto the map: The Times Atlas of the World neglects to record its existence and the cartographers of Macmillan s Atlas of South East Asia have reduced it to a mere footnote. For all they cared, Run could have slumped beneath the tropical waters of the Indies.

  It was not always thus. Turn to the copper-plate maps of the seventeenth century and Run is writ large across the page, its size out of all proportion to its geography. In those days, Run was the most talked about island in the world, a place of such fabulous wealth that Eldorado's gilded riches seemed tawdry by comparison. But Run's bounty was not derived from gold - nature had bestowed a gift far more precious upon her cliffs. A forest of willowy trees fringed the island's mountainous backbone; trees of exquisite fragrance. Tall and foliaged like a laurel, they were adorned with bell-shaped flowers and bore a fleshy, lemon-yellow fruit. To the botanist, they were called Myristica fragrans. To the plain-speaking merchants of England they were known simply as nutmeg.

  Nutmeg, the seed of the tree, was the most coveted luxury in seventeenth-century Europe, a spice held to have such powerful medicinal properties that men would risk their lives to acquire it. Always costly, it rocketed in price when the physicians of Elizabethan London began claiming that their nutmeg pomanders were the only certain cure for the plague, that 'pestiferous pestilance' that started with a sneeze and ended in death. Overnight, this withered little nut - until now used to cure flatulence and the common cold — became as sought after as gold.

  There was one drawback to the sudden and urgent demand: no one could be sure from exactly where the elusive nutmeg originated. London's merchants had traditionally bought their spices in Venice, and Venice's merchants had in turn bought them in Constantinople. But nutmeg came from much further east, from the fabled Indies which lay far beyond Europe's myopic horizons. Ships had never before plied the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean and maps of the far side of the globe remained a blank. The East, as far as the spice dealers were concerned, could have been the moon.

  Had they known in advance of the difficulties of reaching the source of nutmeg they might never have set sail.
Even in the East Indies where spices grew like weeds, nutmeg was a rarity; a tree so fussy about climate and soil that it would grow only on a tiny cluster of islands, the Banda archipelago, which were of such impossible remoteness that no one in Europe could be sure if they existed at all. The spice merchants of Constantinople had scant information about these islands and what they did know was scarcely encouraging. There were rumours of a

  The Banda Islands at the turn of the sixteenth century were the goal of every Elizabethan adventurer. 'There is not a tree but the nutmeg,' wrote one early English visitor, 'so that the whole countrey seemes a contrived orchard.' Run Island, marked Pulorin, is on the extreme left.

  monster that preyed on passing ships, a creature of 'devillish possession' that lurked in hidden reefs. There were stories of cannibals and head-hunters - bloodthirsty savages who lived in palm-tree shacks decorated with rotting human heads. There were crocodiles that lay concealed in rivers, hidden shoals to catch captains unawares, and 'such mightie stormes and extreme gusts of winde' that even the sturdiest of ships were placed in grave risk.

  None of these dangers deterred Europe's profit-hungry merchants who would chance everything in their des­peration to be the first to find nutmeg's source. Soon the shipyards of Portugal, Spain and England were alive to the clatter of shipbuilding, a flurry of activity that sparked what

  would later become known as the spice race, a desperate and protracted struggle for control of one of the smallest groups of islands in the world.

  In 1511, the Portuguese became the first Europeans to set foot in the Banda Islands, a group of six lumps of rock boasting rich volcanic soil and a strange micro-climate. Distracted by hostilities elsewhere in the East Indies, they did not return until 1529 when a Portuguese trader named Captain Garcia landed troops on the Bandas. He was surprised to discover that the islands which had caused such commotion in Europe had a combined area that was not much larger than Lisbon. Five of the Bandas were within gunshot of each other, and it was immediately apparent to Garcia that by building a castle on the principal island, Neira, he would have virtual control over the entire archipelago.

  But one island, Run, was different. It lay more than ten miles to the west of Neira and was surrounded by dangerous and hidden reefs. It was also buffeted by the twice-yearly monsoon, putting it beyond the reach of Garcia's carracks for much of the year. This was galling to the Portuguese, for Run was thickly forested in nutmeg and its annual yield was enough to fill a large flotilla of ships. But Captain Garcia soon found himself troubled less by the inaccessibility of this outlying island than by the hostility of the native Bandanese whose warlike antics proved both tiresome and costly. Scarcely had his sailors set to work on a massive castle than a flurry of arrows and the threat of head-hunting sent them scurrying back to their ship. Henceforth, the Portuguese rarely visited the islands, preferring instead to buy their nutmeg from the native traders who were frequent visitors at their fortress in Malacca.

  The misfortunes suffered by the Portuguese did not discourage England's merchants from launching themselves into the spice race and nor did it deter the captains chosen to lead these expeditions; bold and fearless men who steered their ships through such 'greevous stormes' that one in three was lost. The weather was not the only threat: scurvy, dysentery and the 'blody flux' killed hundreds of men, and countless vessels had to be scuppered when there was no longer a crew to sail them. When the ships finally limped back from the East the surviving crews found the wharves of London packed with people anxious to catch a glimpse of these heroic men. The crowds were fuelled by stories that the sailors on board were returning with untold wealth; that they wore doublets of silk, that their main sail was made of damask and their top sails trimmed with cloth of gold. Although the humble sailors had been strictly forbidden from indulging in 'private trade', the temptations proved too great for many. After all, nutmeg commanded fabulous prices in Courthope's day and brought spectacular profits to all who traded in it. In the Banda Islands, ten pounds of nutmeg cost less than one English penny. In London; that same spice sold for more than £2.10s. - a mark-up of a staggering 60,000 per cent. A small sackful was enough to set a man up for life, buying him a gabled dwelling in Holborn and a servant to attend to his needs. London's merchants were so concerned about the illegal trade in nutmeg when their first fleet arrived back in London that they ordered the dockyard workers to wear 'suits of canvas without pockets'. This did little to deter the sea-hardened mariners from filching their masters' spice and although punishments grew ever more severe over the decades, many still managed to amass private fortunes. As late as 1665, Samuel Pepys records a clandestine meeting with some sailors 'at a blind alehouse at the further end of town' where he exchanged a sackful of gold for a small quantity of nutmeg and cloves.

  The men that survived the expeditions to the Spice Islands returned with such fabulous tales and scrapes, true Boy's Own adventures, that their audiences were left spellbound. David Middleton had a dramatic escape from the cannibals of Ceram; the dilettantish William Keeling performed Shakespeare in the mangrove swamps of West Africa, whilst William Hawkins paid a visit to the Indian Great Moghul and spent the next two years watching gladiator battles of a scale and brutality not seen since the days of imperial Rome. There was Sir Henry Middleton, David's brother, who dropped anchor off the coast of Arabia and distinguished himself by becoming the first Englishman to visit the interior of the country, albeit as a prisoner with 'a great paire of fetters clapt upon my legges'. And there was James Lancaster, commander of the pioneering first expedition to be organised by the East India Company, who spent a delightful evening listening to a scantily clad gamelan orchestra that belonged to the lusty Sultan of Achin.

  After all the disasters and false starts it was appropriate that England's first contact with the nutmeg islands should be with Run, the smallest and least accessible of them all. It was also fitting that they should arrive in such an undignified fashion, washed up as shipwrecks after a ferocious tropical storm in 1603. But what was all the more remarkable was that these English mariners, unlike the Portuguese, struck up an instant and lasting friendship with the native chieftains. Long before the sea-salt had stiffened their hair they were toasting each other with the local palm toddy.

  England had scarcely launched herself into the spice race when she learned there was a new power to contend with.

  In 1595, the Dutch despatched their first fleet eastwards with a crew more menacing and warlike than had ever before been encountered in the tropics. Faced with competition from both the English and Portuguese, they changed their goal from trade to conquest — the conquest of the Banda Islands — and they pursued this with a brutality that shocked even their own countrymen. But on the island of Run they were to meet their match. What happened on that remote atoll, just two miles long and half a mile wide, was to have consequences that no one could ever have imagined.

  The extraordinary story of Nathaniel's nutmeg has been largely forgotten for more than three centuries. It is not always a pleasant tale, for although the captains and leaders of expeditions liked to refer to themselves as 'men of qualitye', that did not stop them from indulging in torture, brutality and gratuitous warfare. Such were the grim realities of life in the East, a harsh and bloody existence that was lightened by the occasional flash of humanity and courage - true feats of heroism that were epitomised by the bravery of Nathaniel Courthope.

  But more than a century of expeditions and mis­adventures were to pass before Courthope set sail in the Swan. His story begins not in the sultry climes of the nutmeg islands, but in a land of icebergs and snow.

  chapter one

  Arctic Whirlwinds


  T WAS THE LOOK-OUT who saw them first. Two crippled vessels, rotting and abandoned, lay at anchor close to the shoreline. Their hulls were splintered and twisted, their sails in tatters and their crew apparently long since dead. But it was not a tropical reef that had wrecked the ships and nor was it m
alaria that had killed the crew. England's maiden expedition to the Spice Islands had come to grief in the ice-bound waters of the Arctic.

  The historic 1553 voyage was the brainchild of a newly founded organisation known as the Mystery, Company and Fellowship of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Unknown Lands. So impatient were these merchants to enter the spice race — yet so unprepared for the risks and dangers - that they allowed enthusiasm to overrule practicalities and long before the ships had left port a catalogue of errors threatened to jeopardise their mission. The choice of expedition leader, or 'pilot-general', was sensible enough. Richard Chancellor was 'a man of great estimation' who had gained some experience of seafaring in his formative years. His adoptive father, Henry Sidney, so eulogised his young charge when presented to the Company that the merchant adventurers thought they had a new Magellan in their midst. Sidney explained that it was Chancellor's 'good parts of wit' that made him so invaluable and, never shy to blow his own trumpet, added, 'I rejoice in myself that I have nourished and maintained that wit.'

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