TRANSCRIPT Pumpkin Spice Hero

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Pumpkin Spice Hero: The Thrilling But Tragic True Story of Nutmeg, first released on November 7, 2023. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.


JOHN OLIVER: Yes, it’s that special time of year where we voluntarily imbibe pumpkin spice lattes. The coffee that tastes like a candle. But what is strange is that pumpkin spice foods inexplicably seem to grow more omnipresent every year, even though there’s no actual pumpkin in the drinks.

GRABER: Come on John, there doesn’t have to be pumpkin in it, it’s all about the spice part. But John Oliver is right that these days, there’s kind of pumpkin spice everything.

SINGERS: Fa la la la…

VOICEOVER: Your favorite Coffee Mate seasonal flavors are back. So add some delicious Coffee Mate pumpkin spice to your favorite time of the year.

TIKTOK GUY: In the past two hours I had to go to like—four different stores trying to find this. Pumpkin spice Oreos!

TWILLEY: So far so basic, but pumpkin spice doesn’t stop with coffee and cookies.

VOICEOVER: Buff City Soap’s pumpkin spice bar soap smells like a warm slice of grandma’s famous pumpkin bread. Smells so good… you’ll want to eat it.

GRABER: But wait, there’s more, and I have to admit I’m a little bit horrified.

DEEP VOICE: If you like pumpkin spice you’re going to love me.

WOMAN: Who said that?

DEEP VOICE: Over here. It’s me. Bud Light’s new pumpkin spice seltzer. Crack me open. Take a sip. Pumpkin. Spice! Aaah.

TWILLEY: And what does that big refreshing gulp of pumpkin spice Bud Light seltzer wash down?

JIMMY KIMMEL: There’s a new pumpkin spice flavored food item. Pumpkin Spice Spam, that went on sale yesterday. [AUDIENCE GASPS] I know. And already, it’s sold out. In less than seven hours. It completely sold out. And for those who weren’t able to get your hands on any, Hormel is reassuring customers that don’t worry, it’ll be available again when you get to hell. So.

TWILLEY: If only we were making this up.

GRABER: We of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—

TWILLEY: I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode, you’ll never believe it but we are diving into pumpkin spice. But not the whole thing. The seltzer and the spam—that’s too much.

GRABER: Even the full spice mix is too much. Pumpkin spice usually includes cinnamon, ginger, cloves, allspice, and…nutmeg. And it’s the nutmeg that’s our star this episode.

TWILLEY: Before its supporting role in *the* official spice mix of autumn, nutmeg used to be super rare and hard to get hold of. Because it originally comes from islands that are too small to even show up on any but the most specialized maps.

GRABER: And the story behind how it became popular involves all the classics: bloodshed, war, scurvy, ridiculously wealthy men showing off, a forgotten hero, and even the island of Manhattan.

TWILLEY: Which definitely does show up on most maps! Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network in partnership with Eater.



GILES MILTON: So nutmeg is a spice that I guess a lot of your listeners will have lurking at the back of their larders in their kitchen. They probably bring it out you know, occasionally if they make a béchamel sauce or, mulled wine at Christmas time.

GRABER: Or of course a pumpkin pie, if you’re in America. Giles Milton is not in America, he’s an author and a historian, and he wrote a book called Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: or, the true and incredible adventures of the spice trader who changed the course of history.

MILTON: Four hundred years ago, back in the early 1600s, this spice was the most coveted thing you could have in your kitchen. It was a really luxury product, and something that most people would never, ever have access to.

TWILLEY: And the reason for that is because the only place nutmeg grew was very, very far away from basically everywhere.

MILTON: It came from a tiny group of islands, lost in the middle of nowhere. In fact, nowhere in England really knew where they were at the beginning of the 1600s. So to go and source this nutmeg, and then bring it home and actually remain alive during the three years it was going to take you to do this, gives you some idea why the spice was so unbelievably expensive.

GRABER: The islands where you had to go to get nutmeg are called the Banda Islands. There are 11 of them total, but only six are inhabited. Officially they’re part of Indonesia but they’re kind of in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of an ocean, basically also directly north of Australia. But also really kind of nowhere.

MILTON: And they’re absolutely miniscule. They’re volcanic, they’re astonishingly beautiful. If you imagine your classic idea of a tropical island, well, you’re getting pretty close to it, except that instead of palm trees and all that sort of stuff, they’re covered in nutmeg trees. All six islands are completely covered in these beautiful trees that are perched on the edge of these volcanoes and cliffs. And, it’s, it’s the most picturesque place on earth.

TWILLEY: The chances are pretty low that most of us will have ever seen a nutmeg tree covered in fresh nutmeg fruit, but fortunately Giles has.

MILTON: The tree itself is a rather beautiful willowy tree with these pale green, very elongated long leaves. It looks very beautiful. And even more beautiful when the fruit comes into ripeness, because the trees almost look like they’ve been sort of decorated for Christmas. You know, they’re hung with baubles, essentially. Which are these, this yellowy green round fruit about the size of an apricot. Which as it ripens, it splits open. And if you glimpse inside, you could see the nutmeg, the nut of the fruit at the center. But that nut is covered in the most beautiful, exquisite kind of red lacy material, which people will know perhaps as mace, which is sold nowadays as a completely separate spice.

TWILLEY: Mace is really pretty rare as a spice these days—honestly for many people, when they hear mace, they think of the thing you spray to fend off an attacker. But that is actually pepper spray, and not related to the nutmeg tree at all. In reality, mace is pretty similar to nutmeg: warm, spicy, delicious, but also a tiny bit more floral and zingy.

MILTON: So mace, is, is covering the nut itself. And the nut is the- was of course, the prize, that’s what everyone’s coming here for.

GRABER: So the nutmeg tree and its fruit and the fruit’s nut are beautiful, exquisite, a major prize, but it turns out that the nutmeg is also an incredibly fussy plant.

MILTON: It requires a very, very particular climate and a very particular soil. A volcanic soil. And so, in the 1600s, nutmeg only grew amazingly on these six islands. That was the entire global supply came from the Banda Islands, this, this beautiful archipelago. So, if you wanted nutmeg, that’s where you had to go.

TWILLEY: And many people did, mostly Chinese and Malay, trading with merchants in India and the Middle East. But Europeans really really wanted nutmeg. Like Giles says, it was *the* most coveted spice.

GRABER: But how did they get hold of that nutmeg, if the islands are incredibly far away and the spice traders who made it there are mostly Chinese and Malay?

MILTON: So the spices would come from the Banda Islands to another port, and then to another port, and then to another port, and then along the great Spice Road.

TWILLEY: There’s some evidence that the Romans got hold of nutmeg via India, but after the collapse of the Roman Empire, it took until the 1100s or so for nutmeg to really start reaching Europe in any quantity again. Thanks to the Venetians.

GRABER: Venice was a port, and because it’s on the eastern side of Italy, Venice was the point of trade for basically the entire Middle East. So these spices would be taken from Banda by local spice traders from the region, the spices then made their way around India. And then they’d often have be taken over land through the Middle East, and then traders would end up in Venice, the gateway to Europe.

MILTON: And every single time the spices changed hands or were, you know, bought up by another merchant, of course the price went up. So by the time the spices reached Venice, having traveled thousands of miles in extremely dangerous conditions, they were very expensive.

TWILLEY: But if you wanted nutmeg, which Europeans did, for centuries you really had no choice. The spice merchants from Eastern Asia kept the exact location of the Banda Islands a complete secret. They even made up stories about vicious monsters that guarded them. Not one single European had ever seen the Banda Islands or even knew where to start looking.

GRABER: That meant that this spice trade unsurprisingly made the Venetians incredibly wealthy.

MILTON: The Venetian merchants made absolute spectacular fortunes out of this trade. You know, if you go to Venice now, you still see the palazzos that were built with this money. That was, that was made from nutmeg—and also, you know, clove, cinnamon, pepper, all these spices.

TWILLEY: Side note, the only place that cloves grew were a couple of other tiny islands—some of the nearest neighbors to Banda in the Indonesian archipelago. And cinnamon grew on the Banda Islands too, as an added bonus. All of these spices were expensive, but nutmeg was one of the priciest.

MILTON: All controlled, by Venice and all, beyond, the reach of anyone except for the extreme, wealthy class in Europe at the time. Notably, you know, the royal courts. And we hear about, nutmeg is spoken about in Chaucer, and it’s spoken about in Shakespeare. But it’s always spoken about as this incredible, you know luxury product, that if you had a bowl of nutmeg on your table, that [LAUGH] that signified that you were seriously wealthy

GRABER: And the richie riches loved showing off that wealth. At the time, in the 1400s and 1500s, when only the wealthy had access to these incredible spices, the royal courts and the aristocracy loved experimenting with lavish, almost ridiculously creative culinary spectacles.

MILTON: So, one of the famous dishes they concoct was the cockatrice, which is where they essentially assemble bits of various animals and they, they’d create mythical beasts, which they then serve up. These extraordinary, rather horrific things they’d serve up on the table. But these would be filled with spices like nutmeg and cinnamon and cloves, as a way of really, you know, showing just how wealthy you were.

TWILLEY: But aside from being a status symbol, nutmeg was also really valued for its supposed health benefits.

MILTON: It was believed to be a sort of cure-all for absolutely everything, and notably for the plague. People believed if you took nutmeg, you could stave off the plague, which of course was ravaging Europe at this time. And of course, when you’ve got a luxury product that’s very expensive, you might as well tell everyone it’s an aphrodisiac as well, because that adds to its, you know, adds to its value. So nutmeg was sort of had absolutely—it ticked all the boxes. You know, if you had nutmeg, you were, you were wealthy, you had good food, you staved off the plague and, you know, you were wild in bed.

GRABER: Good times.

TWILLEY: Sign me up!

GRABER: But of course, if nutmeg was so wildly expensive and in demand, and if only one city basically had control over the access, well you can imagine that some other people might want to get in on that trade.

MILTON: The Portuguese and the Spanish, two great seafaring nations, they thought, well. We’re going to try and break this Venetian monopoly. We’ve got good ships. We’ve got good mariners. We know what we’re doing. We’re going to sail to the Banda Islands. We’re going to cut out all the middlemen and we’re going to go and bring this stuff home ourselves.

TWILLEY: The Portuguese set off with a fleet of three ships. And they had, let’s say, coerced some Malay navigators to help them find these mysterious islands. They finally arrived in spring 1512, just as the nutmeg trees were blossoming. They could smell the islands before they could see them—one account describes it as “incomparably delightful.”

GRABER: At first, at least according to the Portuguese, the Bandanese seemed pretty happy to meet up with them. They had been trading their beloved nutmeg for a while already, and the Portuguese were just another group who wanted to buy from them.

TWILLEY: For the Bandanese, nutmeg had long been a material to trade, but the nutmeg fruit was also an everyday delight. Giles says it still is today.

MILTON: They use the spice, but principally they use the fruit for making jams, conserves, things that they could then store all year round. Because you can make a quite delicious, very sweet, jam sort of confection out of the, the, the skin of the fruit.

GRABER: Of course the Portuguese didn’t care about the fruit or its skin, they were interested in the pit at the center. They were excited to finally find it at its source, but they weren’t the only Europeans there for long: the Spanish were hot on their heels. In fact Columbus actually set out on his famous trip trying to get to the Banda Islands.

TWILLEY: But he set out to reach it the opposite way round from the Portuguese—he headed west from Europe instead of east. That’s not because he didn’t have a sense of direction, it’s because the Pope had kindly split the world in two. The east belonged to Portugal, the west belonged to Spain, and the King of Spain suspected the Banda Islands might be on his side of the dividing line.

GRABER: Columbus, as we all know, landed in what’s now the Caribbean, but eventually the Spaniards did figure out the correct route and they made it to the Banda Islands, too. But, they didn’t get too much quality time alone there with the Portuguese—the Dutch and the English were also determined to make it to the Banda Islands, and they were about to set a war in motion that would change the course of history. That story, after the break.


MILTON: By the late Elizabethan period, this is the golden age of exploration. This is a period where the English are building these revolutionary new ships. They were fast. Well, quite fast. But the Dutch, also great mercantile trading nation. And what both the English and the Dutch do, they do something a little short of spectacular, which is going to change everything. They form these joint stock companies. Now this sounds boring, but it’s not. Because previously, private individuals would have to finance these voyages to the other side of the planet. And they were extremely costly. And if your ship sank, you lost everything. But a joint stock company meant that you get lots and lots of people to invest in your voyage. Which meant that everyone had a small share in it. And it meant that when the ship came back, assuming it did, you shared in the profits. Now this made it a much less risky enterprise, for the merchants who sat in London waiting for their ships to come back. It remained very risky for the sailors on board, but for the people investing in it, it allowed them, really, to send much larger fleets. So instead of one ship going or two ships going, you’d send out six or seven.

GRABER: Which means if you lost a ship due to shipwreck or to piracy, you didn’t lose everything.

TWILLEY: This innovation—this way of de-risking the nutmeg trade a little—the reason it was so important is because the nutmeg trade was almost unbelievably risky.

MILTON: Yeah, I mean, I’ve read a lot of the captains’ accounts of these voyages and they are absolutely horrific. Why anyone would ever want to sign up for them, apart from the chance of making a lot of money? Because it was about a three year round voyage, to go to the Banda Islands, the source of nutmeg. But, you’ve got to remember that about one in every three ships sank. So everyone was killed. On the ships that survived the voyage, about two out of every three died on that voyage. So, you know, they died of scurvy. They died of dysentery, the bloody flux, as it was called. They also starved, you know, they ran out of food very early on, it was very difficult to resupply vessels when you’re sailing down the coast of Africa. You know, they ran out of water.

GRABER: So they carried watery beer because alcohol would help kill off any bugs, but even that went off after a while.

MILTON: By the time you’ve been in the tropics for a few weeks or a few months or a few years, this stuff has gone completely rancid. It’s full of flora and fauna. And now men describe how they had to clench their teeth to sieve out all the, all the bits in the beer, before they drank it. And, you know, also they had to contend with, native populations who were not best pleased to see a band of men arriving at their shores intent on, you know, filching as much food as they possibly could. So there were endless battles as well on route. And there were obviously tremendous storms, which they had to navigate through in these, what were essentially very small wooden boats. It was horrific.

TWILLEY: So yeah, even with lots of investors and more ships, the risk of losing everything was very real.

MILTON: Well, the first few missions were really stricken with disaster. Many of the ships sank and very, very little spice made it back. But once the East India Company sort of gets into its stride, and they’re beginning to get quite serious investment. They’re sending out much bigger fleets. The boats are much better constructed. They know how to deal with the tropical seas. They know what you need to do to the underside of your ship when it’s been, you know, in tropical waters for several years.

GRABER: And then when those boats did make it back to England or the Netherlands, the investors got very very wealthy.

MILTON: A sack of nutmeg would cost one English penny out in the, the spiceries of the East Indies. And that would sell for, you know, about 600 pennies when it came back to London. Now, that is a markup, I’ve put this through a number of calculators, it’s a markup of about 54,000 percent. So it kind of explains why people were prepared to risk a three year hideous, you know, grim voyage to the other side of the world.

TWILLEY: Although, to be completely fair, the people making that kind of money were the people who had invested in the voyage, not the people who had actually sailed the ship and who had undergone all the horrors.

MILTON: But of course, individual mariners, they thought, well, you know, we’ve risked our lives to do this. We’re going to try and nick some of this stuff and take it ashore when we get to London and sell it on the black market. And so actually—and here’s an amazing fact, which I found in the East India Company archives—that the mariners were issued with their own dress that they had to wear on these ships, and they were not allowed to have any pockets. So this was to try and deter the individual sailors, the, the rough sea dogs of Jacobean England, from filching some of this nutmeg, stuffing it in their pockets and then selling it, on the black market in London. But we do know that this happened, and continued to happen, because we’ve got an account in Samuel Pepys’ diary of him going down to the docks and buying nutmeg on the black market. So clearly some of these men got away with it.

GRABER: Whether they made money off black market nutmeg or not, these men did get their share of glory.

MILTON: Oh my God. These men were treated as absolute heroes when they got home. But not only were they coming back with spices, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, these things that everyone wanted to get their hands on. They probably had quite a bit of treasure on board because they would have sunk a Spanish ship or two, or captured a Spanish ship or two en route. But best of all, they had fabulous stories to tell. And, you know, they’d go to the local taverns of Jacobean London and they’d be bought endless drinks by people who just simply wanted to hear their stories.

TWILLEY: And then their stories were collected into books that were the bestsellers of their day.

MILTON: Because everyone wanted to hear—these were real sort of boys’ own adventures. And stories of derring-do and, and, you know, hardship and, and violence. People couldn’t get enough of them.

GRABER: But really, the books and the glory were nice, but it was all about the money. This newfound spice trade was bringing back riches to both England and the Netherlands, and it completely transformed northern Europe.

MILTON: I mean, I think the nearest equivalent—I mean, it’s difficult to draw equivalents, but the trade today in cocaine is perhaps the nearest we get to having some idea of the value of this spice, you know, of this trade.

GRABER: So you can start to imagine the scale, it’s kind of like everyone involved was a newly minted drug lord. In the Netherlands, some people became so rich that they could afford to decorate their houses with beautiful imported porcelain and they could commission art from people like Rembrandt. They could invest in putting out books, and so Amsterdam became the center of the publishing world. The money from the spice trade created the Dutch golden age.

TWILLEY: The impact of nutmeg in England was equally transformational. Music, art, architecture, landscaping—all of it flowered. And so did an entirely new social class.

MILTON: It really changed everything. Because, previously the wealthy people in the country would have been the great aristocrats, the nobles who lived on vast estates, who were, you know, awarded their titles and fortunes by Queen Elizabeth the first. And now suddenly, with the rise of the East India Company, everything changes overnight. Because the people investing in these voyages, they tend to be merchants. And you get a rise of a new mercantile class, which simply didn’t exist before. So, the whole structure of society is beginning to change because of this new trading ability. And of course, you know, this will explode over the decades to come, and effectively the East India Company really sets on, sets in motion the entirety of the British Empire. The domination of India, taking over much of the world all comes out of this trade in spices, in nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, pepper. Quite extraordinary.

GRABER: But en route to world domination, the English and the Dutch weren’t so happy to share their nutmeg bounty, just like the Spaniards and Portuguese before them. And the solution wasn’t as simple as a religious daddy figure splitting the world in half and giving each half to one kid, telling them to stay on their side of the room.

TWILLEY: The Dutch thought they they had a legitimate monopoly on nutmeg: they’d reached the islands before the British, they’d crushed the spanish and portuguese by bringing more and better boats, they’d built forts, they’d murdered many Bandanese, and they had persuaded the rest to sign a quote unquote, “Eternal Compact.” So from the Dutch point of view, the English who were trying to trade in nutmeg were taking something that was rightfully theirs.

GRABER: But the Bandanese weren’t necessarily on board with this supposed Dutch monopoly and eternal contract. It’s questionable whether they even knew what they were signing—it was, after all, in Dutch. But also they weren’t so interested in what the Dutch had to trade with them. They were like, all this heavy woolen fabric, why would we even need that? And they weren’t big fans of the Dutch in general.

MILTON: They literally hated the Dutch, who were extraordinarily violent and barbarous. The master of the Dutch East Indies, out in the East Indies was a complete monster who would torture, behead, you know, kill countless numbers of native islanders.

TWILLEY: Meanwhile, the English had built their own fort on the most remote of the Banda islands, an island called Run. It was surrounded by dangerous reefs and it was basically inaccessible for half the year due to monsoon winds, but it was also covered with a dense forest of nutmeg trees.

GRABER: And the Bandese were in support of having the Brits around, because one, they were paying more for the nutmeg, and two, because the Bandanese could use some help against the Dutch.

MILTON: They realized that actually the English might be quite a good thing. You know, they could hold off the Dutch. And so they agree to give the English a monopoly on all the nutmeg that grows on Run Island, provided they keep the Dutch at bay. So provided they defend this island against the hated Dutch.

TWILLEY: The Dutch were obviously extremely annoyed by this, and long story short they ended up massacring what is estimated to have been about 90 percent of the Bandanese. And, they went to war with the British.

GRABER: The two nations were warring over all kinds of trade issues, not just nutmeg, but nutmeg was key. The British wanted to defend their tiny outpost on Run, and of course the Dutch wanted to kick them out so they could have a monopoly. Which brings us to the hero of Giles’ book, a guy named Nathaniel Courthope.

MILTON: So Nathaniel Courthope was a mariner. He signs up for a voyage, which is going to leave in the spring of 1610. And its destination ultimately is the Banda Islands.

TWILLEY: As per usual, it wasn’t a luxury cruise.

MILTON: Now this voyage meets with absolute disaster when it reaches Yemen. They all get captured. They get marched inland to the capital, Sanaa. They’re all imprisoned and 18 months later, they finally get released or they escape, and they set sail across the Indian Ocean.

GRABER: They were stuck in a Yemeni jail for a year and a half! And then they still had to sail all the way to Indonesia! Once they got there, Nathaniel was given command of two ships, and he was told to head out to the isle of Run.

MILTON: And now, herein lies the real problem in our story, or the difficulty that he’s going to face. Because the Dutch are determined to carve out a global monopoly on the nutmeg trade. They want to control the entire thing. And they are coming very, very close to doing it because they’ve already controlled—they control and have subdued five of the six Banda islands. So there’s only one island up for grabs. And this island is the island of Run. Nathaniel Courthope realizes that, if he can retain that island in the possession for England, he’s stopped the Dutch getting their monopoly on nutmeg.

GRABER: For once, the British were welcomed by the natives. Like we said, the Bandanese were suffering hugely at the hands of the Dutch, so they celebrated Nathanial’s arrival with a party. And they gave him a nutmeg tree in soil as a sign of their trust and they pledged that they’d only sell their nutmeg to the British forever more. But they did have some terms and conditions: There was to be no quote, “un-reverent use of women, maintaining of swine in our country, forceable taking away of men’s goods, and misusing of our men.”

TWILLEY: All very reasonable and Nathaniel was on board, but there was a problem. The whole deal was premised on Nathaniel defending Run against the Dutch, but he was a little bit under-resourced.

MILTON: He’s got actually very few men and many of them, soon die. And, he’s got cannons. So he’s got the ship’s cannon. He brings those ashore. He knows he’s going to be attacked by the Dutch, and the Dutch have got a fleet of, you know, a dozen ships or more. Big, powerful vessels. They’ve got more, a garrison of more than a thousand men on the, on the other islands. And they’ve captured a number of English ships and they’re holding English people prisoner, on actually the neighboring island to Run. And they’re being held in the most miserable conditions.

GRABER: But it’s not just that Nathaniel had very few men left, he also didn’t have enough provisions.

MILTON: He’s got very little food, very little water, and there’s no obvious water supply on Run other than rainfall, which is collected by the locals, but there’s not very much of it. So, he’s facing a situation where he’s got very few men, he’s got very little food, almost no water. And he’s got to hold out on this island against an army of Dutchmen, which is absolutely enormous and very powerfully armed.

TWILLEY: Honestly it sounds as though they were doomed. But Nathaniel was determined to hold onto England’s last remaining nutmeg island.

MILTON: And, he writes some of these amazingly colorful letters back to the East India company. Which amazingly, years later, actually arrived back to the company, describing how he will valiantly hold this island. He will not ever give up this island. He’s the—the ultimate sort of patriot. But, you know, he’s facing constant battles against the Dutch. They’re constantly attacking him. The supply ships, English supply ships, try to come to the island, but they’re invariably captured by the Dutch or, or sunk. They meet with various disasters. So by the end, he’s holding out with a band of about 25 men.

GRABER: If you think he was faced with an impossible situation, he did have one tiny advantage in his favor: Run Island has incredibly steep cliffs, so it’s really hard to land a boat.

MILTON: And it also has a little islet at one end of it called Nailaka. And essentially, if the Dutch are going to capture the island, they have to capture this little islet of Nailaka. And he sticks these big ships’ cannons onto this thing. So anytime the Dutch come near, he can fire off his cannon and scare off the Dutch. So he’s in a—although he’s in a very difficult position, he’s also got quite sort of impregnable defenses when he’s on the island.

TWILLEY: After their backup ships were destroyed, the East India Company essentially threw their hands in the air and sent letters back to Nathaniel telling him to give up, he was free to leave the island and come home, thanks for his service but it was a lost cause. But Nathaniel was weirdly determined to hold the fort.

MILTON: He holds out for 1,540 days, you know, this is years he’s holding out on this island. An extraordinary feat with only a few men.

GRABER: He held on for more than four years, but his stand did eventually come to an end.

MILTON: In the end, Nathaniel Courthope is, is really, completely desperate. And he is tricked into believing that the Dutch are going to come to some sort of deal with him. And to be honest, he’s got so little food and supplies left by this point that I think he sees this is possibly his only possibility of surviving. He sails over, to negotiate some sort of deal. And unfortunately, it’s a trick. And we are not entirely sure what happens, but certainly the boat he’s in, the rowing boat, which is going, rowing across to the, the principal Dutch islands, is attacked. And tragically, he’s shot. And the last thing we hear of him is of him being shot and falling, sliding out of the, this little boat into the water. And, and, and almost certainly he drowns.

GRABER: This is obviously a tragic ending for brave Nathaniel. But though his holdout on the island was extraordinarily long, it also sounds kind of pointless. He held out, but then he lost. So why are we still talking about this guy who manned a fort on a tiny island out in the middle of the ocean, more than 400 years later? That story after the break.


MILTON: So what happened next is quite sort of eye raising really, because what happens is the, the Dutch obviously land their troops on Run Island. They have now got all six islands. They have a global monopoly on nutmeg. This is what they always wanted to achieve and they have achieved it.

TWILLEY: But unsurprisingly the English weren’t super supportive of this fabulous Dutch achievement. So they tried to retake Run, the Dutch fought back, the island swapped hands a few times, and each time the Dutch took over, they burned down and chopped up all the nutmeg trees.

GRABER: This wasn’t the only place the British and the Dutch were warring, they were fighting off the coast of Italy, they were fighting in the North Sea, their boats were basically attacking each other everywhere they could over all sorts of trading issues.

MILTON: And this comes to an end in 1654, when the warring parties, they decide to sit down at the negotiating table. And they decide that all grievances dating back decades are all going to be resolved. And amazingly, as part of this, Run is handed back to the English. So the Dutch have their five islands and they agree to give Run back. But you know, hardly is the ink dried on that treaty, then they sail across and they grab the island of Run again. So they’ve re-established their monopoly on, over the global trade in nutmeg. The English are absolutely furious. They cannot believe that the Dutch have been so treacherous. And they think, okay, we’re going to now hit them hard.

TWILLEY: The English came up with a plan: an eye for an eye, and island for an island.

MILTON: And what they do, they sail across the Atlantic and they seize the Dutch island of New Amsterdam and they rename it New York.

GRABER: Yep, that New York. In case this is new history to you, the island we now call Manhattan was once called New Amsterdam—at least that was the name of the Dutch settlement at the southern tip of Manhattan that was the seat of the local larger colony that they called New Netherland. The Dutch had set up trading posts there, they claimed it, they named it, but the British decided they should capture New Amsterdam in this global Dutch-British battle going on at the time.

MILTON: And so there we have, the story of these two islands, which eventually will be resolved in a treaty, the Treaty of Breda, in which the Dutch are allowed to retain the six islands, the Nutmeg Islands or the Banda Islands, and the English are allowed to retain New York. Very few people know this, especially very few people living in New York, know that the early history of their city is wrapped up in the story of nutmeg on the other side of the world.

TWILLEY: And this is why Nathaniel’s lonely, heroic, kind of quixotic defense of this one tiny nutmeg island that no one has heard of called Run—this is why it changed history. Because the English had fought so hard to hold onto Run, it became the leverage they needed to get Manhattan, and Manhattan turned out to be quite the prize.

GRABER: Giles went to New York to see if Nathaniel was somehow commemorated there. He hoped he’d find some sign of Nathaniel and the role he played in New York’s history, maybe a statue on the waterfront somewhere…

MILTON: Absolutely nothing. He’s been completely forgotten from history. No one, in fact, until I wrote the book, I think no one knew much about him at all. But he was a real person. He was a real hero. He wrote vivid letters, which still survive. And, really, it’s a great tragedy that he’s been completely overlooked by history because he really changed the course of world history in what he did on that tiny little island on the other side of the globe.

TWILLEY: At the time of the trade, the Dutch thought it was a good deal—the nutmeg trade and Banda Islands were incredibly important, and Manhattan certainly wasn’t what it is today. For more than a hundred years, that was probably true. But in the early 1800s, the value of the Banda islands tanked.

MILTON: Well, actually, there’s a very interesting story there because everyone was also trying to break the Dutch monopoly. And they realized that although nutmeg was a very, very difficult, plant to grow, it would grow elsewhere. And so they managed, the English managed to acquire some seedlings.

GRABER: The Dutch weren’t paying as much attention to the Brits as they had been in the past, because they’d been invaded by Napoleon at the time. So, you know, they had other things to occupy them. The British took advantage of the moment to try to find a new home for the nutmeg tree.

MILTON: And they didn’t just take the seedlings, they took them in earth. So they already had roots and everything. And they began to plant them in, on the coast of India, where in certain places nutmeg would grow. But most importantly, they took nutmeg to the West Indies. And they planted it in the West Indies. And the West Indies had a very, very similar climate, and soil, it should be said, as in the Banda Islands. The, the nutmeg thrived there. And in fact, I believe that the nutmeg, which I’m told is now used in, is one of the key ingredients in Coca Cola, comes from the nutmeg plantations in the West Indies.

TWILLEY: These days the world’s nutmeg supply comes from all over, lots from the West Indies like Giles says, but also from India and Guatemala as well its original home in Indonesia.

GRABER: But even though there’s a lot more of it around, and a lot more people can have as much nutmeg as they like, nutmeg isn’t nearly as popular and valuable as it once was.

MILTON: I mean, I think it, it remained in fashion throughout 17th century, 18th century, but it was no longer quite such a luxury good. It had lost its cachet, if you like. So it was still used. And certainly in the 18th century in, in England, there was a great love of spices, especially in meat pies, which people love to eat. They were infused with all sorts of spices. So, you know, it, it, it. It was still used, for culinary purposes, but it didn’t have the value, it didn’t have the star quality that it had had in the 1600s.

TWILLEY: For one thing, as time went on, Western ideas about medicine changed, and nutmeg was no longer the cure-all that it had been seen as.

GRABER: And also, once more people had access to it, then making a highly-spiced cockatrice was no longer worth the effort. So the elite in northern Europe decided that spices weren’t hot anymore.

TWILLEY: Instead the new fashionable way to cook was all about letting the individual ingredients shine. No more heavily spiced everything, instead the aristocracy was all into delicate sauces and minimal embellishment.

GRABER: As for the Bandanese themselves, they were under Dutch rule for hundreds more years until they officially became part of an independent Indonesia in 1949. For all those centuries, they were actually a Dutch colony, not just an exploited trading partner. Not that this helped much.

MILTON: They, they suffered tremendously and, and got no sort of gain, economic gain out of this spice that grew there. The Dutch simply took it and, and, and didn’t pay them for it.

TWILLEY: Giles told us that things haven’t changed so much for the better, at least economically, even today.

MILTON: They’re pretty poor. There’s very little local economy. Nutmeg is still bought and sold. But, they, yeah, there’s not a lot of money there.

GRABER: Giles wanted to see it for himself in person. But it’s still really hard to get there.

MILTON: Oh my god, [LAUGHING] it’s a, it’s a nightmare to get there and it’s very—it felt very dangerous at the time. I mean, I flew to Indonesia, to Jakarta, and then I got a second flight to Amboina, and from there, there used to be a little plane that flew to the main Banda Island, but it had crashed the week before I got there. And so that, that wasn’t an option, so I had to take a ship.

TWILLEY: The ship had recently run aground and was half full of water and leaning dangerously to one side. But, it stayed afloat long enough to get Giles to the main Banda island.

MILTON: But, you know, I was desperate to get to Run, that’s where I wanted to get to. And that was a journey in itself, because, as I said, it’s ten miles from the main island to Run. Now, ten miles, okay, you think, well, that’s not very much. I can tell you, when you’re in a tiny little dinghy, fitted with an outboard motor, and, and you’re going through the monsoon seas, it’s absolutely terrifying. It’s the most terrifying voyage I think I’ve ever undertaken.

TWILLEY: Which explains why even today, not many tourists make it to the Banda Islands.

MILTON: They’re difficult to get to, they’re expensive to get to. People who mostly go there, they go nowadays for the diving. Because they’re surrounded by reefs and they have the most spectacular underwater sort of you know, uh fish and goodness knows what. So people love to go for that.

GRABER: Despite everything, Giles says the islands are still worth a visit, if you can get there—largely because of the nutmeg.

MILTON: They’re beautiful. And as I say, they’re still covered in these incredible beautiful um nutmeg trees. Which at the time of the nutmeg harvest, you know, all you can smell, the whole air is filled in this wonderful scent, which is really, you know, I don’t know if you ever grate nutmeg yourself at home—you should never buy ready-grated nutmeg, by the way, always buy it to grate yourself. And you just start grating it and you get this fabulous aroma that sort of fills the kitchen. Well, the entire Banda Islands are like that, they smell like that, it’s wonderful.


TWILLEY: It’s really kind of incredible that this entire, mostly forgotten story of intense violence and suffering with some heroism, glory and riches thrown in—it’s the story that lies behind every single pumpkin spice latte, candle, and even canned meat.

GRABER: We have more stories about that pumpkin spice mix, like where the original blend came from, in our special supporters’ newsletter,

TWILLEY: Enormous thank you this episode to Giles Milton, there’s a new edition of Nathaniel’s Nutmeg coming out next year which is very exciting. And thanks also to our one and only, all star producer, Claudia Geib.

GRABER: We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a brand new episode, ‘til then!