"Nathaniel's Nutmeg"

A new history of the early spice trade could clean up at the box office.

Published May 12, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Heads up, Hollywood agents, here's a movie treatment:

The Spice Islands of the East Indies, the early 1600s. A world of pepper, cloves, cinnamon, mace and nutmeg. Also a world of shipwrecks, treachery, famine, disease and cannibals. The risks are high, and so are the rewards -- provided you can get the stuff back to European markets. Ships from two countries, England and Holland, each trying to control the lucrative trade, have been blasting one another out of the water for decades. Enter Nathaniel Courthope, a British captain with a ragtag band of sailors, who has been charged with defending a tiny atoll that contains the world's only forest of nutmeg trees. With an inaccessible coastline, the cooperation of the natives and a few well-placed cannons, Courthope and his men hold the island against a vastly superior Dutch navy over the course of four grueling years. They face food and water shortages, disease, exhaustion, loneliness. But the iron will of their leader keeps the defenders' spirits alive -- until one day he is betrayed and gunned down by spies. The Dutch take over the island, and the stubborn leader who said he would not "turn traitor unto my king and country" is forgotten.

But not quite. Some 40-odd years after Courthope's death, Holland strikes a deal with England in recompense for taking the island. The Dutch hand over a different island in a different hemisphere, an island called Manhattan. And New Amsterdam becomes New York.

That's the distilled version of this history by Giles Milton. The full version has more, a lot more. The pages are filled with graphic descriptions of long-term sea travel and the brutality of the explorers toward the natives (and one another), as well as of the avarice and petty jealousies of those who oversaw early global trade. There's a lot of background here -- almost too much: Milton gives biographies for nearly all the players, both major and minor, with detailed descriptions not only of what they did but also of the motives behind their actions.

Some of the descriptions are terrifying: The graphic accounts of Inquisition-like tortures (taken from actual diaries and logs) are more disturbing than anything we see on film today. I actually woke up late one night, sweating from nightmares of being chased by interrogators with pointed beards hurling hot irons and uttering the most heathen and horrible threats.

But I'm sure the movie people will temper that part, or at least find ways to make it fit their formula. Everything they'll need is in there, even the basis for a love interest -- an Armenian Christian woman who married an English captain. Just move her over to the besieged island, hook her up with Courthope and get ready to pull out the hankies.

None of it will, of course, have anything to do with history, much less with what actually happened. But if it's handled with at least a token measure of intelligence, a movie could draw attention to the book. And we all know that, as usual, the book is better.

By Steve McQuiddy

Steve McQuiddy is the editorial director of Intangible Publications, a nonprofit arts and humanities Web site.

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