It was spice, not gold, which drove the dreams of men in the 17th century. A time when control over the humble nutmeg would influence four wars, the ownership of Manhattan island and global domination.
During this period, nutmeg bought at its source could be sold for an impressive mark up of 60,000 times it purchases value, making any merchant or sailor who could successfully return with a fully laden ship from the Indies, extremely wealthy indeed. To ensure their place within this new spice race, England established a national company founded from a collective of merchants to compete against the emerging powers of the Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese. This group was called the East India Company.
At a time when the Dutch already monopolised the pepper trade and the Portuguese held loose control over the clove and nutmeg rich Moluccas, Queen Elizabeth (well renown for her love of luxury goods) lended her support of the company’s plans. Regardless, the company’s first voyage to the Indies was blocked by the Privy Council due to fears of upsetting delicate negotiations with the Spanish at the time. Exactly a year later, approval was finally granted and provisions were purchased for the long voyage which included a common cargo of 14 hogshead of aqua vitae (roughly 3340 litres of unaged brandy). On New Years Eve of the year 1600, the Queen signed an official charter to the company which along with privateering rites (legal piracy) and a granted spice monopoly in England for 15 years, created the power needed for the new fleet to set off for the Spiceries in February, 1601.
Commanding the fleet of five from the flagship Red Dragon was hero James Lancaster who was one of the few Englishmen to have visited the Indies on a previous voyage some six years prior. Lancaster and his fleet could not have imagined the series of events to follow which would ultimately help shape much of the modern world we now know, the spirits of our time, the first mixed drinks (punch) and a series of brutal wars covering the next 74 years between the English Company and the soon to be founded and bitter rival, Dutch East India Company.
After more than half a century fighting a long and desperate battle for control the world’s trade on spice, the English East India
Company finally acknowledged defeat and filed for liquidation on the 14th of January 1657. It was short lived however as months after the announcement of bankruptcy, while selling their holdings (included the prized nutmeg island of Run in Indonesia), the company were granted a new charter by Lord Protector of England Oliver Cromwel. After successfully petitioning for further support from private merchants the new company raised enough to retain their prized assets and restart the competition against the Dutch trade monopoly, however this time no longer focusing on the spice islands.If not for Cromwell and his charter, the English would have lost the island of Run and with it their chances of obtaining the island of Manhattan and the eventual city of New York, originally called New Amsterdam during its Dutch occupation. The company re-grew quickly and securely under this new charter establishing a strong monopoly in India which by 1689, developed into the new local government of India, essentially becoming England’s first major British rule. It was here during this time that a new drinking term emerged called punch was derived from the Hindu word for “five”.