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Futility Closet

Oct 18, 2021

In 1616, British officer Nathaniel Courthope was sent to a tiny island in the East Indies to contest a Dutch monopoly on nutmeg. He and his men would spend four years battling sickness, starvation, and enemy attacks to defend the island's bounty. In this week's episode of the Futility Closet podcast we'll describe Courthope's stand and its surprising impact in world history.

We'll also meet a Serbian hermit and puzzle over an unusual business strategy.


Should orangutans be regarded as human?

How fast does time fly?

Sources for our feature on Nathaniel Courthope:

Giles Milton, Nathaniel's Nutmeg: or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History, 2015.

John Keay, The Honourable Company, 2010.

Martine van Ittersum, The Dutch and English East India Companies, 2018.

Sanjeev Sanyal, The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History, 2016.

Paul Schellinger and Robert M. Salkin, eds., International Dictionary of Historic Places, 2012.

Daniel George Edward Hall, History of South East Asia, 1981.

H.C. Foxcroft, Some Unpublished Letters of Gilbert Burnet, the Historian, in The Camden Miscellany, Volume XI, 1907.

William Foster, ed., Letters Received by the East India Company From Its Servants in the East, Volume 4, 1900.

Samuel Rawson Gardiner, History of England From the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War, 1895.

W. Noel Sainsbury, Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, East Indies, China and Japan, 1617-1621, 1870.

Martine Julia van Ittersum, "Debating Natural Law in the Banda Islands: A Case Study in Anglo–Dutch Imperial Competition in the East Indies, 1609–1621," History of European Ideas 42:4 (2016), 459-501.

Geraldine Barnes, "Curiosity, Wonder, and William Dampier's Painted Prince," Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 6:1 (Spring-Summer 2006), 31-50.

Barbara D. Krasner, "Nutmeg Takes Manhattan," Calliope 16:6 (February 2006), 28-31.

Vincent C. Loth, "Armed Incidents and Unpaid Bills: Anglo-Dutch Rivalry in the Banda Islands in the Seventeenth Century," Modern Asian Studies 29:4 (October 1995), 705-740.

Boies Penrose, "Some Jacobean Links Between America and the Orient (Concluded)," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 49:1 (January 1941), 51-61.

Jennifer Hunter, "Better Than the David Price Deal? Trading Nutmeg for Manhattan," Toronto Star, Aug. 8, 2015.

Janet Malehorn Spencer, "Island Was Bargain for Britain," [Mattoon, Ill.] Journal Gazette, Feb. 22, 2013.

Kate Humble, "The Old Spice Route to the Ends of the Earth," Independent, Feb. 12, 2011.

Sebastien Berger, "The Nutmeg Islanders Are Aiming to Spice Up Their Lives," Daily Telegraph, Oct. 9, 2004.

Clellie Lynch, "Blood and Spice," [Pittsfield, Mass.] Berkshire Eagle, Nov. 11, 1999.

Kevin Baker, "Spice Guys," New York Times, July 11, 1999.

Robert Taylor, "How the Nutmeg Mania Helped Make History," Boston Globe, May 18, 1999.

Giles Milton, "Manhattan Transfer," Sydney Morning Herald, April 10, 1999.

Martin Booth, "All for the Sake of a Little Nutmeg Tree," Sunday Times, Feb. 28, 1999.

Charles Nicholl, "Books: Scary Tales of an Old Spice World," Independent, Feb. 20, 1999.

"Mr Sainsbury's East Indian Calendar," Examiner, March 18, 1871.

"Courthopp, Nathaniel," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 1885.

Listener mail:

"Past Divisional Champs – Little League Baseball," Little League (accessed Oct. 6, 2021).

"Serbian Cave Hermit Gets Covid-19 Vaccine, Urges Others to Follow," Straits Times, Aug. 13, 2021.

Matthew Taylor, "The Real Story of Body 115," Guardian, Jan. 21, 2004.

Godfrey Holmes, "Kings Cross Fire Anniversary: It's Been 30 Years Since the Deadly Fireball Engulfed the Tube Station," Independent, Nov. 18, 2017.

This week's lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tom Salinsky.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Google Podcasts, on Apple Podcasts, or via the RSS feed at

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

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