Books by Giles Milton


John White 

I don’t know about you, but I like to read history books for fun. I often find that there’s more blood, guts and gratuitous sex to be found in history than in any made up schlock you buy down Waterstones. I tend to read the sort of books that tackle well known episodes of history; Berlin (Germans act like utter beasts in Russia then get rather upset when the Russian hordes rape the shit out of anything with a pulse in Germany), Stalingrad (Germans act like utter beasts in Russia then watch in dismay as their toes go black and drop off in the cold), anything by Richard Holmes (good, honest Tommy goes to Flanders for King and Country and gets blown to smithereens by the Hun) and any other book that involves historical carnage.

A few years ago my older brother introduced me to a book called ‘Nathaniel’s Nutmeg’ by Giles Milton. Milton seems to like writing about the parts of our history which for some reason or other have slipped from our national conscience. Often the reason for this slippage is that later events were so colossal that they eclipsed the earlier events, or that over the years our society has altered its priorities slightly on what is, or isn’t, important to us. Either way, the events he writes about were, at the time, very important and would have been well known in good old Blighty.

I’ve read four of his books so far; Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, White Gold, Big Chief Elizabeth and Samurai William. All were superb. If you like that sort of thing. By ‘that sort of thing’ I mean stories of gentlemen adventurers trying to make a fucking fortune, getting lost, losing vast amounts of crew to sickness, mutiny, cannibalism by savages, torture at the hands of the Dutch and Portuguese and generally making a complete arse of everything. Right up until the moment they somehow manage to pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hat and escape with their lives, and some of their teeth intact. Or not, I have to admit that an awful lot of these men just die really, really horribly.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg focuses on Nathaniel Courthope, a rash chap who led a rag-tag group of adventurers to the Spice Islands, particularly a godforsaken hole called Run where, at the time, was the only place you could find nutmeg. This made nutmeg very expensive back home and if you could bring some back (as well as cloves) you could retire as one seriously rich bastard. The slight problems were that Run was the furthest place away on the map (not far from Australia) and that the Dutch had found it first. The Dutch in those days weren’t the dope-smoking homosexuals we all love today, but were in fact the sort of murderous bastards who’d make Idi Amin cringe in disgust. During the wonderful caper that is Nathaniel’s Nutmeg various jolly jack tars are captured by the Dutch and the sort of stuff that happens to them would make you puke. Or turgid, depending on your bent. It’s great.

Samurai William is about an Elizabethan hooligan who gets lost and ends up in Japan. You thought the Japs were a bit rough in Nankin? Just you wait to see what they did to criminals. It involved a lot of swords and lumps all over the ground, some needle and thread to put them back together and then more swords and lumps all over the ground. The real baddies in this book are the Jesuit priests who got to Japan first, utter, utter bastards.

Big Chief Elizabeth is more familiar in that it’s about the English trying to establish a colony in America for the first time, you’ll know some of the people who crop up, Pocahontas being one of them.

White Gold is a real revelation. It’s about the one million European slaves who were taken from their homes (or home waters) by the North Africans and kept in slavery in the 17th and 18th Century. How most of us don’t know about this is a mystery, but one reason may be that at the time we were fighting an awful lot of European wars and we preferred to read about our triumphs over the Frogs than about a bunch of Africans who were landing in places like Cornwall and clearing out whole villages and setting off for Morocco. Fact. They even went as far as Iceland, I think they nabbed about 200 from there once. It all ended of course when Napoleon was finally defeated and we could concentrate on getting a few gunboats down there and razing some of their cities to the ground. Fascinating stuff.

If you like reading sterling quotes such as “his fingers turned black as inke” or “whereon they were eaten by savages, their screams were most piteous to hear” then you’ll love these books. They can be a little hard going in places, you have to refer to the maps a bit since names of places have changed in the last few hundred years (you won’t find a city called Bungo in modern Japan) and some of characters can blur into one another (one Elizabethan sociopath with a beard and syphilis is much like another) but they are fantastically written and tell of an age before Empire, when we were a small outpost on the edge of Europe, trying to muscle in on the big boys’ patch (Holland and Portugal). Oh, and often dying along the way. I’d recommend Nathaniel’s Nutmeg as the first one you should try. Think Tom Baker’s character in Blackadder (you have a woman’s legs my Lord!), then imagine a whole fleet of them tearing around the globe (often in the wrong direction) causing nothing but havoc as they went. These days they wouldn’t be allowed to own a pet or go to the shops on their own but these were the very people who got the ball rolling for the British Empire. Great stuff.

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6 Responses to “Books by Giles Milton”

  1. piqued Says:


  2. Swineshead Says:

    I still haven’t worked out how these ‘book’ things work.

  3. nursemyra Says:

    I think you’d also like “Colour – Travels through the paintbox” by Victoria Finlay

  4. Swineshead Says:

    The only books Piqued’s ‘read’ are mucky ones. (with tits in)

  5. piqued Says:

    y do u allways hav 2 humiliatte me u cuntsz darling

    i yam only human born 2 mak mistakes

  6. Swineshead Says:

    Cats in wigs:

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