Have you heard of the Island of Run? Neither had I. In fact this most insignificant island of the Banda archipelago – 1.9 miles by .65 miles – often doesn’t even make it onto modern maps of the region. Nevertheless, for much of the 16th and 17th centuries this tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean captivated the popular imagination and inspired the imperial avarice of the four great powers of that period.
This was the period of the Spice Wars; when the British, the Portuguese and the Dutch engaged in frantic searches for a safer route to the Spice Islands (in what is now Indonesia) and a protracted conflict with the locals and each other over control of the world’s spice supply. The Spaniards for a time also sought a role in the spice trade, but their search for a westward route to the islands led them to the New World where they became distracted by the rape of a continent.
Over all the Spice Islands, Run was the most coveted – covered as it was from one end to the other with Nutmeg trees; trees that would grow nowhere else. At that time Nutmeg was thought to cure the plague; and was the most valuable commodity in the world.
“Nathaniel’s Nutmeg” by Giles Milton is a re-telling of this lost chapter in history. Through meticulous research and extensive quotations taken directly from the journals and logs of the travelers, this book tells the story of the spice wars at their climax. It is a book about greed, betrayal, violence and torture. It is a book about death and disappointment. In some places it was hard to read; not because the prose is cumbersome (the book flows well) but simply because it is difficult to imagine that people would do such unspeakable things to each other simply for a few pounds of nutmeg or mace.
There are many lessons I took from this book. They are not the lessons you will probably hear. You will probably hear that because the protagonists of the conflict (at least one chapter of it) were the Dutch East India Company against the English East India Company, it is an example of how unregulated business is capable of great evil. You will probably hear how the story demonstrates that the true goal of trade is economic colonization.
I glean from this amazing story the opposite lessons.
Both the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company were para-state organizations; with charters from their Kings which encouraged the greed and bloodlust of corruptible men to engage in plunder, in piracy, in genocide, in colonization, in ethnic cleansing, in torture and in the construction of monopolies held by violence. This is the story of pre-enlightenment mischief sanctioned by absolute rulers for the enrichment of a few.
What we saw running amok in the shadowy corners of the world was two imperial powers vying for conquest. What I see in this story is a warning of what can happen with unsupervised authority – when power requires no consent and legitimacy is not derived from natural laws; laws that were rediscovered during the enlightenment and have been steadfastly and progressively protected using institutions built by and for us as individuals at the service of our reason.
The story ends with a moral; a somewhat ironic one. The British defeat at the hands of the Dutch was resolved by Run going to the Dutch and Manhattan (which had been colonized by the Dutch West India Company) going to the British; setting in motion a chain of events that would lead to the establishment of the greatest city the world has ever known. The prize for which so many died is now worthless, while the consolation prize, a piece of land nobody cared for, is now the richest place on earth – built not by violence at the service of looters but by the power of unbridled innovation and uncoerced (read free) trade.
Read this book for a fascinating piece of history you’ve probably never known about. And read it to remind yourself of the value of the enlightenment – when the individual man was placed at the center of society – lest we lose it all and return again to dark times.