The spicy secret of New York’s birth

Jaipur, Jan 24 (IANS) The birth of what is now the world’s most cosmopolitan city is the outcome of a “spicy” conflict over four centuries ago where one man’s bravery in defending a small island growing a precious commodity against daunting odds so galvanised his countrymen that they tried to retake it, and when this proved unfeasible, exchanged it for another island on the other side of the world – that of Manhattan.

From this conflict between the British and the Dutch throughout the 17th century over nutmeg, which grew in a few islands in what is now Indonesian archipelago, was settled the fate of the city which eventually became New York, contends British author of narrative history, Giles Milton.

At a session titled “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: The Spice Trader Who Changed History” at the Jaipur Literature Festival’s fifth and final day on Monday, Milton sketched the history of nutmeg, one of the two spices including mace (jaiphal and javitri in Hindi) obtained from the nutmeg tree, which was prized in 16th and 17th century Europe as luxury and status symbol, and most valuable since it came from far away.

“It could be obtained from one penny per ten pounds at the spice market in Java and this quantity sold for 2 pounds, 10 shillings in London, making it a valuable trade commodity too,” he said.

On its contemporary uses, Milton said that it was not prized for only its culinary use or curative properties, but because it was held to be effective in warding off plague and was also believed to be a potent aphrodisiac.

“It was the Viagra of the Elizabethan times,” he said.

Sketching the history of British attempts to secure the spice’s supply, Milton. whose first successful book had been this story, recounted the tale of various Elizabethan mariners, including of the newly-set-up East India Company, who tried to ensure this, as well as several unsuccessful attempts including by those who tried to find a different route apart from down into the Atlantic, and across the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean.

One man tried to sail north and then southwards, but he and his ship came to a bad end in the Arctic while the second managed to reach Russia’s Archangel and laid the foundations of what soon became the Anglo-Muscovy Company.

But some hardy mariners followed the traditional route and found success, reaching Bantam, a settlement placed in rather insalubrious conditions, but the central spice market, said Milton, adding the arrival of the British sparked off conflict with the Dutch who had already established themselves there, and it was then that came the epic story of Nathaniel Courthorpe.

Nutmeg, which was a “fussy plant, requiring a particular temperature and soil” grew in six islands of the Banda archipelago, and since the Dutch had taken over and fortified the biggest, Courthorpe tried to hold the westernmost of them, Run.

Run, which effectively became the first-ever overseas British colony, was held for nearly five years by Courthorpe and his few men against the Dutch, who were a thousand times more powerful, and despite the island not having adequate supplies of food and fresh water.

Courthorpe was eventually killed in action and the island taken over, but it was not the end of the story. His example inspired his countrymen, and in another Anglo-Dutch war four decades later, the British managed to capture New Amsterdam on the American coast and proposed to exchange it for Run. In the peace treaty, they kept it since the return of Run was unviable and it was renamed New York, in honour of King Charles’ brother, the Duke of York (the future James II) who had led the invasion.

“You may think who got the better dea. It was all for the sake of a little nut tree,” said Milton, citing the old English nursery rhyme.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

–IANS

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