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The Spice Wars

Dutch spice trade in the East Indies leads to warfare

The love of money is the root of all evil, say some of our more dramatic brethren. The love of money is also among the great driving forces of History. Few things drive men as the need for gold and power does. The Age of Exploration stands as one of the greatest examples of this maxim. Much is made in this country, of course, of the discovery and eventual habitation of the New World, but the stories of the Europeans' exploits in the Eastern Hemisphere are at least as interesting.

Every junior-high schoolteacher worth their salt teaches that the brave explorers of the fifteenth century were looking for the East Indies -- and the fabled spices they held. It is indeed hard to imagine today that the rack of spices we take for granted every time we visit the grocery store was once enough to ransom a king. In pursuit of the most lucrative trade in the world, the nations of Europe plunged into what we now call the Spice Wars. Our host, while exploring this incredibly colorful time, is the incomparable British author Giles Milton. His book, Nathaniel's Nutmeg, tells the stories of the men, good, evil, rich and rapacious that defined this era.

Going Dutch

For all the goodwill that a cool accent, red-light districts, a bike-riding queen and plenty of free dope has engendered in modern times, four hundred years ago, the Dutch were among the most rapacious and hated of all merchants. Few were more so than the indomitable Cornelis Houtman, a professional spy. In recognition of his undercover activities in Portugal, he had been made one of the leaders of a very early Dutch foray into the East Indies. It should not be surprising that spies do not make great leaders of men. The voyage that set sail from Amsterdam in the spring of 1595 bears great testament to that fact.

By the time the men of the ships Mauritius and Amsterdam had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, seventy-one had died of scurvy and the rest were busy fighting amongst themselves. Let's face it -- putting one hundred men out to sea for months at a time on a creaky ship with naught to eat but putrid meat seems a recipe for disaster. Ship rules were necessarily harsh. As Milton writes:

According to a Dutch code of discipline, any fight that drew blood would result in the antagonist having one hand strapped behind his back and the other nailed to the mast. There he would remain until he tore himself loose. If the fight ended in death, the man was bound to his victim and tossed in the sea... the most serious offenses were dealt with by keel-hauling -- a terrible punishment which involved being hauled underneath the keel while the ship was moving. In the majority of cases, the victim's head was ripped off.[1]

All Pooped Out[2]

Discontent fomented for months as the crew grew weak with scurvy and the panoply of tropical delights such as dysentery and malaria. The worst varieties of the former were known at the time as the 'blody fluxe' -- something that should give us pause next time we complain about having 'the runs'. A skirmish in the mid-Atlantic doldrums ended with one of the merchants in iron shackles where, like an obstreperous child troublemaker, he was given a pretty serious 'time-out'. Two years later upon the Amsterdam's arrival in Holland he was finally set free.

Upon arriving in Sumatra, the men decided enough was enough, and they might as well get on with the job of buying spices. Their first port of call, a popular site for European traders, was Bantam in Java. Merchants had been making calls to Bantam for some time, and the town had become quite wealthy. Unfortunately for the town, local power struggles left it without an effective leader. High European demand had forced prices way up, leaving a bitter taste in Houtman's mouth. Between dealing with the inflated prices and ever-scheming locals, Cornelis finally lost it.

...Houtman lost his temper. 'And thus,' wrote on of the crew in a terrifyingly matter-of-fact entry in his journal, 'it was decided to do all possible harm to the town.' What followed was an orgy of destruction that was to set the pattern for the Dutch presence in the East Indies. The town was bombarded with cannon fire and prisoners were sentenced to death. A brief pause in the fighting allowed the Dutch commanders to debate the different means of disposing prisoners (the choice was to stab them, shoot them with arrows, or blow them from cannons -- unfortunately, no one recorded which method they settled for) and once this thorny question was resolved the battering continued.[3]

Seacraft Advisory

Surprisingly, the hostilities created by such activities were not easily overcome, and the beleaguered Dutchmen decided they had best move on to other ports further East, where spices would be cheaper. Few of the sailors thought any of this out of the ordinary. Accustomed to the everyday death that tropical afflictions and malnutrition brought, dying was essentially a non-event. Brutality was at least something different than months on months of rolling waves and punishing sun. A few captains kept their crews busy (including an English captain who may well have produced one of the first amateur productions of Hamlet on the swells of the south Atlantic), but most lived in relative splendor and isolation in their cabins.

The natives at the next port of call, the slightly-less-busy Madura, were mercifully unaware of the atrocities perpetrated in Bantam. Calling to mind the Native Americans who would have done better to just shoot every white man they saw, the local prince decided to stage a parade in honor of the arriving Dutchmen with a "little flotilla" of boats.

The Dutch grew agitated as more and more natives rowed out to the ships. Some whispered that it was an ambush; others were convinced that was treachery afoot and argued for a pre-emptive strike. Houtman agreed and, relying on the time-honoured principal that the best defence is attack, his shop 'opened fire and killed all on the big boat [on which the prince was riding]'. It was the signal for a general massacre. Within minutes, dozens of cannon were being fired into the flotilla, sinking boats and slaughtering the welcome party. No sooner had the floating parade been blasted out of the water than the Dutchmen lowered their rowing boats and concluded the day's business with hand-to-hand fighting.[4]

A Sailor's True Calling

It is almost certain the natives felt their parade had been rained on. It is also not surprising that Houtman failed to procure any spices on the rest of his journey. They had been to sea so many months their ships were fast becoming un-seaworthy. The Amsterdam was unloaded and burnt. The trip back was far less eventful -- the shortage of living sailors probably did much to expedite this outcome. On the other hand, tensions may have been relieved by a short stopover in Bali "in order to take advantage of the amorous charms of local girls." Two men decided they'd had enough and lived out the rest of their lives in Bali with aforementioned local girls -- not such a bad ending after all.


  1. Giles, p. 60
  2. Also a maritime pun!
  3. Giles, p.61
  4. Giles, p.62


  1. Giles Milton. Nathaniel's Nutmeg. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

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