I was given “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg” by Giles Milton as a gift in 1999 but only started reading it last week. The tale seems frighteningly prescient reading it now – far more so than if I’d read the book when I’d received it.
Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is a historical novel documenting in great detail the excessive lengths the English and Dutch went to during the first half of the 17th century to obtain that most valuable of commodities: nutmeg. At the height of their endeavors the two countries were at war with each other spending millions of pounds and guilders to send troops, merchants, engineers and settlers half-way round the world so that the precious spice could be brought back and sold in spice-hungry Europe. Thousands of men died in the conflict and there were frequent scandals involving imprisonment, torture, hideous untimely deaths, cronyism, mystery illnesses and the fleecing of vast quantities of wealth by a well connected elite at the expense of the common man.
Sound familiar? Look at the daily news from Iraq and the Middle East and by substituting oil for nutmeg all that’s missing is another powerful country for us to be at war with.
The Dutch and the English, both enormously rich and powerful countries at the time, squabbled for decades and eventually it all came down to a small island called Run which is about the length of your average Jumbo Jet runway. After a blockade which lasted four years the Dutch kicked the Anglos off the miniscule plot and had the entire East Indies to themselves. Rubbing their hands together with glee and anticipated security they continued to ship the as-valuable-as-gold nutmeg back to Europe where the owners of the Dutch East India Company grew wealthier and fatter.
In a separate incident a couple of oceans and continents away the English had booted the Dutch from a small settlement called New Amsterdam without a single shot being fired and had built themsleves a shiny new fort. The Dutch were furious.
Finally the squabbling super-powers agreed to talk and when they totted up the score the Cloggies and the Limeys both realised they’d spent fortunes and whined that the other side owed them gazillions in lost trade and stolen foreign real estate but the deal-breaker was ownership of the two small islands: the Limeys wanted Run back and the Cloggies wanted New Amsterdam back.
An agreement was reached. The Dutch got to keep Run and their precious nutmeg trade and the English got to keep New Amsterdam, which they promptly christened New York, and then went off in search of other opportunities to exploit innocent folk and make fortunes in what would become India.
And now 350 years later here’s the update. The English and the Dutch are fast friends and both rather small players on the world stage; Run is an “unknown and unspoiled atoll” in a region whose ‘capital’ has “a couple of stores, a fish market, two streets, two cars…and the former Dutch governor’s residence which today lies empty and abandoned,”; New York is worth considerably more which is of little use to the English as they no longer own it; and, most importantly, nutmeg is no longer a commodity on which huge fortunes and empires are built. The good news is that Holland is full of Indonesian restuarants and England full of Indian ones.
Last year while visiting Houston I noticed to my amusement that the place is filled with Vietnamese restaurants. They say those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Am I being too naive, too pessimistic, too simplistic to suggest that within a century or two oil will be a valueless commodity, that America will no longer be a superpower, and that every street in America will have its own Iraqi Restaurant?
At the end of the tale it is quoted that, “Under King Charles benevolent rule the directors (of the East India Company) were granted…extensive rights: to acquire territory, declare war, command troops, and excercise civil and criminal jurisdiction.” For King Charles read Bush for the East India Company read…well, you know the usual suspects.