Nathaniel’s Nutmeg – Giles Milton

In the times of European colonization, the Spice Islands were a hot spot of trade.  The small archipelago is found surrounded by the Philippines to the North, Indonesia to the West, Papua-New Guinea to the East, and Australia to the South.  The islands are protected by reefs and steep, rocky coastlines, but their soils produced a wealth of spices, mainly nutmeg.  In the Sixteenth Century, European nations were pointed in the direction of these islands by traders near India.  Portugal, Spain, Holland, and Britain were the major countries pushing to find the source of the spices, which would reduce their cost and increase their profits, if the ships could survive the journey in between monsoons, hurricanes, and a murderous reef protecting the shoreline.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg took a strong focus in the English accounts of the period, but also provided a lot of Dutch perspective as well. These were the two main forces battling for control of the small islands.  Stories in letters from the time and company records were used to research and piece together the perilous adventures the seamen made.  While both sides were apt to brutality, this account puts the brunt of accusation on the Dutch, who even forced false confessions of an English uprising through relentless torture in Amboyna.

The book’s namesake, Nathaniel Courthope, a British subject, held control of the island, Run. For over four years, his forces starved as the nearby islands were controlled by the enemy Dutch forces.  With three ships left in the harbor, guns unloaded to fortify the island, two sailed away to secure provisions and were captured by the Dutch.  Nathaniel was trapped.  He attempted to sneak over to a nearby island to rally some troops and he was ambushed in the middle of the night in his small boat, never to be seen again.  The handful of British men left on Run gave up the island to the Dutch unopposed.

Much of the world’s history has been involved in the tale of these small islands. The book delved into the stories of adventures to find the fabled shortcuts to the islands, the Northeast Passage and Northwest Passage.  It told the story of the creation of the East India Trading Company, and the Dutch East India Trading Company, better known as the Seventeen.  It also told of how the Dutch and British came to a final agreement to settle ownership of the spice laden island of Run.  British forces captured New Amsterdam in the late Seventeenth Century, and both sides agreed to hold the respective colonies they acquired and to give up claim for the lost land in the Treaty of Breda.  This gave the English full sovereignty of New Amsterdam, which they quickly renamed New York and the rest is history.

The book was well researched and told of many aspects of the adventures seeking fortune in the spice trade.  With over two hundred years of stories, it was at times difficult to follow all of the names of the merchants and captains, along with the names of the distant islands, some now so small and insignificant they are hardly mentioned on maps. Even so, I really enjoyed learning about this subject and the book was a good source for that.

*******7/10

Twitter: @blookworm

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The Great Train Robbery – Michael Chrichton

Author of the world famous ‘Jurassic Park,’ Michael Chrichton penned the novel ‘The Great Train Robbery’ about the 1855 heist.  This was a major event in England for several reasons. First, the trains were a new technology in Victorian England, nobody had thought to make such a daring robbery on a train line.  Second, the plan was well thought out and spanned a period of over a year in preparations. Third, it took nearly a year of detective work to track down the mastermind of the event.

Chrichton did his research well on this event and presented a narrative of the event from the perspective of the criminals, not unlike Capote had done for the Kansas crime novel, ‘In Cold Blood.’ The leader, Edward Pierce, was continually described as ‘the red bearded man.’ He had the appearance of a gentleman and was little suspected to be a criminal, as most believed Victorian criminals were of the lower class.  Pierce created a master plan to rob the London train heading to the coast with a load of gold intended to pay troops in the Crimean War.  While he collected information, he also rounded up necessary men and women to aid the heist.  As he hired the men he needed, he told no one of the impending robbery details, just what their particular job would be.  He hired Robert Agar as a lock picker early in the the preparations and left him in the dark as they worked together to bring the plan together.

The robbery entailed robbing the trains on the go, in a special guarded and locked car, sat two state-of-the-art Stubb’s safes which had two locks apiece, requiring four keys to get in.  The four keys seemed the most difficult part of the preparations.  Two were locked in a cupboard in a guarded office, two others were each held by managers of the bank employed to supply the gold shipments.  One man was seduced by a young prostitute to obtain the key, the other was burglarized at home during the night, the key being in his wine cellar.  The other two keys in the guarded office took an elaborate scheme.  Pierce hired a boy to act as a thief, who ran into the office and broke a ceiling window in a failed attempt to escape.  Pierce’s cab driver  was a large brute with a noticeable white scar on his forehead, acted as a policeman to chase the boy and take him away safely without real repercussions.  Later that night, a man Pierce had hired for his climbing ability and agility climbed through the roof into the room to unlock the door.  Agar then waited until the guard went to the bathroom and ran into the unlocked room and made wax copies of the keys, returning to his hiding place on the platform before the guard returned. Several months later, after careful planning, Agar and Pierce were ready for the big day.  Agar was disguised as a corpse in a coffin to be loaded into the guarded car.  Agar had met the guard a few months before as he practiced unlocking the safes, the guard had been payed off, and was believed to be no threat to the operation.  Pierce boarded the train in the second class cars and had one all to himself.  During the route, he climbed onto the roofs of the speeding train and walked to the guarded car, where he unlocked the door from the outside.  The gold was bagged and thrown off the train to Pierce’s awaiting cab driver. Bags of lead shot replaced the weight of the gold and the safes were locked up again, every one returning to their original places as well.  The train delivered the safes to a ferry crossing the English Channel, then were transported to Paris to pay the troops.  It was in Paris it was discovered that something was amiss.  The train blamed the Parisian government, the ferry blamed the train, and the British and French governments blamed each other. After such careful planning, nearly everything went according to plan.

Over a year later, a lady-friend of Agar’s was caught robbing a drunk man and when begging and bribing didn’t get her out of police possession, she gave up information on Agar’s involvement in the robbery. Agar was apprehended, which led police to the train guard, and to Pierce.  The trial was a national event, however, overshadowed by the Indian uprising against British troops on the Indian peninsula. Pierce was cool, calm, and collected the entire trial, explaining in detail his plan and the execution of the robbery.  Upon sentencing, Pierce was taken into a police cab, to be taken to jail.   The guards woke up and reported that they don’t remember anything but a large man with a white scar on his forehead beating them.  Pierce, his mistress (who was involved in the robbery) and the cab driver made a clean escape and were never heard from again.

Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story – Paul Aurandt

Hearing ‘The Rest of the Story’ programs by Paul Harvey was always a treat.  It has been several years since I’ve heard one on the radio.  I found this book last year and finally picked it up off the shelf and read it.  Most of the anecdotes are about 2-3 pages, all of them were interesting.  I’ll share a few here that I found especially captivating, without his signature suspense…

Chicago’s O’Hare airport is named for Butch O’Hare, a WWII hero, the Navy’s number-one ace, and the first naval aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.  The rest of the story centers around Butch’s father.  Artful Eddie worked for Al Capone in the 1920’s Chicago and lived comfortably.  He had no reason to turn on the master crook, but he did.  He made a decision to go straight for his son.  Capone’s men ended up killing Butch’s dad but without going against Capone, Artful Eddie’s son might not have ever had the opportunity to be the war hero he became.

A novel named ‘Futility’ described a gigantic ship which sunk after hitting an iceberg in the Atlantic.  The ship’s name was Titan, and along with the name and demise, it also shared similar dimensions to the real-life Titanic. With all of the similarities, ‘Futility’ is still considered a work of non-fiction, with no copyright infringements.  The reason is because the book was written in 1898, fourteen years before the Titanic set off on it’s fateful voyage.

In New Zealand, an old salt known as Pelorus Jack was known for leading vessels through the dangerous Cook Straight.  For years Jack led many boats through the challenging waters for no fee, as a kind of retirement.  After a long time in service, Jack disappeared and many knew that his time had come.  The rest of the story is that the Maori natives had a story that two men fell for the same maiden.  The one who lost the woman went into a rage and killed the other man and woman. The punishment was for the man to forever be reincarnated to be the Pilot of Pelorus Sound.  Jack was a Dolphin, and many of the locals believed he was this reincarnation.

All of the stories had that Paul Harvey signature, a very enjoyable feel of suspense as you read.  As the stories are all short, it makes is so difficult not to glance at the end of the story and reveal the rest of the story too soon!  This was a great read and different twist on history.

Rating: *********9/10

Twitter: @blookworm