Or, the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History

By Giles Milton

Farrar Straus & Giroux. 388 pp. $24

You would need to look to the drug trade to find a good modern analogy for the spice trade of the 17th century. In each case plant extracts are ferried across the globe as an expensive luxury. Astronomical profits provoke turf wars of stunning brutality; cutthroat competition means exactly that. "Nathaniel's Nutmeg," Giles Milton's exciting account of the dangerous voyages, bizarre transactions and desperate battles of the Spice Wars, makes today's drug trade look like a church bazaar.

Indeed, for Europeans in the Renaissance spices were a drug. They had been used to season and preserve food for centuries, but increasingly physicians thought that spices could cure patients as well as meat and so started prescribing pepper for colds, cloves for earaches and nutmeg for chesty coughs. The monk Andrew Borde even thought nutmeg could be used to curb excessive sexual appetite, a theory undermined when he was caught with three whores at once in his chamber.

When the doctors decided that nutmeg was an effective resource against the ravages of the plague, its value soared. Soon a 10-pound bag bought for less than a penny at source could be sold in London for 50 shillings--a 60,000 percent profit. London merchants were so worried about theft that the cargo handlers had to wear special pocketless canvas suits. Nonetheless there was a thriving black market because the badly paid crews would smuggle some spice to sell for themselves. You could retire on the proceeds of a single sack of nutmeg, and why else risk your life on voyages from which typically only a third of the crew returned?

The spice islands lay on the other side of the globe, in what is now the Indonesian province of Maluku. It was a dangerous journey; hundreds succumbed to tropical diseases and dire malnutrition, ships sank and were vulnerable to attack from angry locals and rival traders. Through the 17th century the Dutch largely succeeded in beating out English and Portuguese competition. From the outset they seem to have realized that the territory would be won by force, launching 65 ships in the time it took the more cautious English to send 12. Wherever the English arrived, they would find themselves quickly outnumbered by an apparently endless Dutch fleet.

Milton, writing from a distinctly patriotic English perspective, casts the Dutch as the bad guys, and if this entails a little special pleading when it comes to English atrocities, there is little doubt that the Dutch were exceptionally rapacious even by the grim standards of the time. The book's central episode takes place in the Banda Islands, in the south of the spice region and, at the time, the only source of nutmeg in the entire world. Though the Dutch took all five principal islands, the English managed to secure Run, the least accessible and richest of them all. (Its trees could be smelled 15 miles out to sea.)

The English, in alliance with the natives, held the island for over three years against vastly superior forces, partly because of the natural defense provided by coral reefs and also because of the determined leadership of Nathaniel Courthope, the book's eponymous hero. His powers of motivation must have been considerable; Run produced virtually no food or fresh water, so conditions in the face of a Dutch blockade were wretched. Eventually Courthope was killed and the island fell to the Dutch.

In the following decades Run was often the cause of bloodshed and changed hands a number of times. Fighting a losing battle in the East, the frustrated English changed tack and attacked Dutch colonies in America, capturing Manhattan in 1664. Three years later a treaty allowed the English to keep Manhattan and the Dutch to keep Run. This historic and unlikely outcome is the reason Milton's subtitle calls Courthope the spice trader who changed the course of history, though as he was dead and at the bottom of the Banda Sea more than 40 years before, it is probably stretching his importance a little.

In fact Courthope is a disappointment; he doesn't appear for two-thirds of the book, and next to nothing is known about him. Fortunately unconvincing emphasis on this very English hero never spoils the book's true marvels, which appear at its fringes: the expedition that perished trying to find a route to the Pacific across the North Pole; wayward captains like William Keeling, who whiled away the months at sea rehearsing "Hamlet" with his crew; Edward Fenton, who tried to set himself up as king of St. Helena; Coree, the native of the African Cape brought back to London and left inconsolably homesick until given a complete suit of armor, which he then wore every day. Stories like these--peripheral, inconsequential and fascinating--convey the strangeness of the explorers' experiences as they ranged across a world in which many people never left the place they were born.

Leo Carey is on the staff of the New Yorker.