When British ships arrived in the city known as New Amsterdam on September 4, 1664, the Dutch colony’s director-general Peter Stuyvesant wasn’t planning to go down without a fight: Despite the city’s limited supply of gunpowder, he prepared to fire on the approaching fleet. What Stuyvesant didn’t know was that the arrival of British warships on his doorstep was the last act in a drama that had started on another island, more than 50 years prior, on the other side of the world — and that this long-running beef revolved around nutmeg, one of the key players in everyone’s favorite fall beverage.
The story that ties together your pumpkin spice latte and the city now called New York is revealed in the latest episode of Gastropod. Its unlikely hero is a forgotten British sailor named Nathaniel Courthope, who set sail from England in 1610. His destination: a cluster of tiny specks in what he considered to be the middle of nowhere called the Banda Islands. Even today, the Banda archipelago, which is now part of Indonesia, is an ordeal to reach. In the 1600s, it would often take European sailors three years just to get there and back, and they had to deal with rotten food, contaminated water, pirates, storms, shipwrecks, and scurvy en route.
These sailors braved it all for nutmeg, the tantalizingly aromatic seed at the center of a pale yellow-green fruit. Although the Bandanese enjoyed the fruit, which they made into delicious jams and drinks, it was the dried brown nut at the center that was prized by affluent Europeans. They grated it lavishly over meat and sweets alike, displayed it in bowls as a sign of wealth, and relied on it as a cure-all for everything from impotence to the Black Plague. “Nutmeg ticked all the boxes,” Giles Milton, historian and author of the book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, told Gastropod. “If you had nutmeg, you were wealthy, you had good food, you staved off the plague, and you were wild in bed.” The only problem was that nutmeg grew in just one place on Earth, the Banda Islands.
The full saga of how European nations fought each other for access to this gold mine — six lush, volcanic islands covered in nutmeg trees — is one of terrible hardship and tragedy, especially for the Bandenese people, and astonishing riches, whose outlines can still be seen in the elaborate palazzos of Venice and the lavish porcelain and artwork of the Dutch Golden Age. But buried within the spicy story lies the tale of how one man — Nathaniel Courthope — changed the past and future of the Big Apple and Starbucks’ fall beverage line-up alike.
When Courthope finally arrived in Indonesia, three years after leaving home, he was named commander of two ships and given a nearly impossible task: Hold onto the tiny volcanic outpost of Run, one of two Banda Islands that had been claimed by Britain. (King James I’s full title was King of England, Scotland, Ireland … and Run.) By this point in our story, the Dutch controlled the rest of the Banda Islands — and, with them, the world’s supply of nutmeg. They’d planted their flag on the islands at the start of the 1600s, building forts, importing workers to harvest and process nutmeg, and torturing and murdering anyone who got in their way, including an estimated 90 percent of the indigenous Banandese. They were willing to do everything they could to seize control of Run and achieve a complete nutmeg monopoly.
But Run was really hard to reach, even by the standards of the already remote Banda Islands. It was separated from the rest of the archipelago by miles of open ocean, surrounded by treacherous reefs, and inaccessible to sailboats for large parts of the year due to monsoon winds. Many of the remaining Bandanese had retreated to Run, where the British — who were not only the enemy of their enemy, but had also, for once, behaved reasonably honorably in their dealings with the indigenous population — had sworn to defend the island at all costs.
Courthope had two ships, their cannons, and just a couple of dozen crew members who had survived the journey. “He’s got very few men, he’s got very little food, almost no water,” Milton said. “And he’s got to hold out on this island against an army of Dutchmen, which is absolutely enormous and very powerfully armed.”
Courthope’s letters home describe his troubles in vivid detail, but also make clear his determination to hold the island until back-up arrived. Even after he heard that the fleet sent to relieve him had turned back, following a successful attack by the Dutch, he refused to give up. His men and their Bandanese allies held off the Dutch for 1,540 days — more than four years. For a moment, it looked as though he might even succeed beyond his wildest dreams. In October 1620, the men on the main Bandan island rose up against the Dutch. Courthope was determined to join them and launch an all-out attack; he immediately set out, sailing under the cover of darkness, to try to make contact with the rebels on the main island.
Tragically, he was betrayed. A Dutchman on Run, who had claimed to be a deserter, sent a message to his country’s leadership, letting them know that Courthope was on the move. Courthope’s boat was surrounded, and he was shot. The Dutch retook Run and consolidated their control of the global nutmeg supply once again.
Though it might seem like Courthope’s valiant but doomed standoff with the Dutch was, ultimately, pointless, it had an unexpected consequence. The English spent much of the next four decades trying to retake Run, as part of an ongoing war with the Dutch. The island changed hands repeatedly, even after the Dutch burned and chopped down its nutmeg trees.
Finally, in 1664, the English decided to avenge their lost spice island by sailing their ships across the Atlantic and into the harbor of another little island — Manhattan, or New Amsterdam, as it was known by the Dutch who had occupied it since the 1620s. On Monday, September 8, 1664, Peter Stuyvesant signed away any Dutch rights to Manhattan, which the triumphant English promptly renamed New York.
When the two countries finally sat down to negotiate a peace deal a few years later, the English demanded the return of Run, citing Nathaniel Courthope’s valiant defense as evidence for their right of ownership. The Dutch argued that it was the English who were the real island thieves, having stolen New Amsterdam. In the end, the commissioners overseeing the peace treaty hammered out an agreement. In return for the Dutch holding onto Run, the English were allowed to keep Manhattan.
“In exchanging a tiny island in the East Indies for a much larger one on America’s eastern seaboard, England and Holland had sealed the destiny of New York,” Milton writes. Manhattan certainly turned out to be quite the prize. But when Milton visited NYC in search of a statue, monument, or even a plaque to mark Nathaniel Courthope’s role in shaping the city’s fate, he was disappointed. “Very few people living in New York know that the history of their city is wrapped up in the story of nutmeg,” he said. Manhattan’s connection to a tiny island on the other side of the globe has been almost completely forgotten.
And, while New York City’s wealth and global importance skyrocketed over subsequent centuries, Run has not been so fortunate. Nutmeg may be a central element in the ubiquitous flavor of fall, but its value has plummeted from the glory days of the 1600s. Tune into the latest episode of Gastropod for the rest of this spicy tale, and for an act of botanical espionage that launched a thousand PSLs.