Sun, 06 Aug 2000

How greed put the East Indies on the map

Nathaniel's Nutmeg, or The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed The Course of History By Giles Milton Published by Penguin, USA 400 pages US$24

JAKARTA (JP): The proper title of this book should perhaps be "Plunder, Greed and Gluttony, Engines of Empire". It is the story, entertainingly, even colorfully told, of the 16th century and 17th century European hunger for spices that changed the face of history and took humankind off on a new trajectory.

The spices, principally cloves and nutmeg, were, as we all know, to be found in the East Indies in what is now Indonesia. Once European navigators had located their sources, fierce competition ensued between Portuguese, Dutch and English sailors to take them back to markets where profits beyond the dreams of avarice could be achieved; a staggering 3,200 percent for nutmeg in London, for example.

It is a tale of armed commerce in which piracy was a commonplace (after all, England's Queen Elizabeth I lovingly called Francis Drake "mine own pyrate"). It is a story of how European merchants arrived in the East with a fierce drive in their bellies to establish trading supremacy by any and all means.

It focuses fascinatingly to some degree on an Indonesian island so tiny that it figures on very few modern maps. The island in question is Run in the Banda archipelago, where nutmeg trees grew in great profusion. Today Run is little more than a seldom-visited, windblown and surf-surged speck, but 400 years or so ago it was a magnet for these adventurers from Western Europe.

Among them was one Nathaniel Courthope, an English sailor who pitted his wits against the best of the Dutch to secure cargoes of nutmeg for the London market. Milton tells Courthope's story and that of other merchants like the painstaking Ralph Fitch, who spent eight years in Malacca studying the spice trade, in rich detail. Courthope is one of those figures in history who has fallen into oblivion, and the author has done a remarkable job of rescuing him from it.

There were more than enough rogues, scoundrels, misfits and generally colorful characters ready to chance their arm and head for the East. But, unlike Courthope, not all were entirely suited to the demands of navigation -- it was long before the Englishman Joseph Harrison solved the mystery of accurate measurement of longitude -- or of captaining a crew. One fantasist described by Milton announced one day to his crew as their ship headed into the South Atlantic that he intended to make himself king of St. Helena. He was only dissuaded by a near-mutinous gathering of the men.

For others the perils that lay athwart their journey were just too many and numbers of ships foundered on alien shores for lack of proper charts. One of the greatest enemies of these European crews was not the rocky coastline or the hidden shoals and reefs, but scurvy. An unrelieved diet of ship's biscuits and salted meat was no good for anyone; it being a century and a half before the great English navigator Captain James Cook discovered the value of vitamin C to his men, many died from malnutrition. In some cases ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope would put in and shoot seals and penguins from the huge local colonies, but that meat proved only a temporary expedient.

Of course when they got to the East Indies, if they ever did, crews would find plentiful supplies of fish and then fresh fruit ashore. First they had to overcome the sometimes rightful suspicions of local populations. For the Dutch in particular, having established a reputation for bluntness and insensitivity, it was not always an easy proposition.

Interaction with local populations is part of the narrative, and it is certainly interesting to learn that the Sultan of Aceh, having been appraised within weeks of the English victory over the Spanish Armada, was able to send congratulations to Queen Elizabeth. Not everybody was so comfortable with the new arrivals. One native crew was preyed upon by an armed English merchantman; "indignant at the blatant act of piracy (they) set upon the Englishmen and suffered terrible injuries before leaping overboard", as Milton has it.

The truly intriguing information in the book is that Run was traded by the English for a Dutch-owned island on the other side of the world, and that island became one of the richest pieces of real estate in history, Manhattan.

For anyone seeking a readable account of the beginnings of empire, Giles Milton has provided it in this rich source book.

The literature on adventurers to the East in the 16th and 17th centuries was also recently added to by Yale University Press' reprinting of The Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet, a collection of writings by one Georgius Everardus Rumphius. The lonely German eccentric arrived in the Indonesian archipelago with trading notions on his mind, but settled in Ambon and became an early and avid collector of marine specimens.

Fascinated by the profuse marine life in and around Ambon's waters, the German began a taxonomy that preceded the work of the great Swede Linnaeus. What is truly extraordinary about it all is that he went blind at an early age and following an earthquake lived out a solitary life, having lost his wife and daughter.

Two very different stories. Nathaniel's Nutmeg is one to whet the appetite of those who want an understanding of raw history and of the ruthless mentality that shaped European colonialism in this region. Rumphius' tale provides a different picture.

-- David Jardine