Tales of our Times
By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water
Nature brings us many flavorful gifts. Yet, the merest overview of nature’s goods seems to meet with dark chapters hiding in their past.
The history of nutmeg that tops your seasonal eggnog has parts that could sure spoil your fun. Still, the past had its better times, too, which left a patch of hope and a brighter spice to add in.
Nutmeg trees bear fruit, whose nugget-sized seed is nutmeg. The earliest evidence of nutmeg is in the form of nutmeg residues found on 3,500-year-old potsherds from the island of Pulau Ai, one of the tiny Banda Islands in what is now Indonesia. Potsherds carried knowledge from the dawn of written history.
It would be over a thousand years more before writings talked about wider markets for nutmeg. The “new” spice gained new popularity. As trade routes grew in complexity, the Banda Islands remained the world’s sole supply. Chains of buyers and sellers carried nutmeg aboard ships, camels, or carts over busy routes to ports and cities as far off as Europe. The long supply chains for the spice were also chains of profiting. Yet, knowledge of the source was still tightly held and seldom went farther than the first buyer.
By the 1600s, the plot had thickened. With spices in mind, ships from Europe began prowling the seas and islands east of India. The king of Portugal had his ships spreading influence there as early as 1511. Inevitably, they reached the ten volcanic isles in the Banda Sea. Before too long, nutmeg’s secrets had arrived back at the home ports with the ships. Schemes for owning a monopoly on nutmeg boiled up in a range of far-flung countries.
The Dutch East India Company was formed in 1602 and by 1609 had outposts and was planning forts on Banda. The Dutch were not the only ones; the king of England had the same idea. Their competing forts gave the islands a long stretch of grim history.
To be top dog, the Dutch and the English each built its home fort on a different island. The English paid growers higher prices for nutmeg, which pleased the Bandanese and enraged the Dutch. The Dutch turned up the heat on the Bandanese not to trade with the English, which angered the Bandanese. Amid “trade talks”, the Bandanese lured a Dutch contingent into the woods and killed a total of 46.
Times grew worse. The low point came in 1621, in what is known today as the Bandanese Massacre. After the Dutch had torn through the native population of roughly ten thousand, only a small fraction, surely less than half, remained. The rest were killed, enslaved, or they never returned. On the occasion of the 400th anniversary in May 2021, several countries held events looking back at the aftermath.
The Dutch held the monopoly on nutmeg for some 200 years. The monopoly was finally dismantled, not by forces with munitions, but with botanical skills: The French and the English went their own ways to make more homes for nutmeg. In 1770, the French smuggled nutmeg trees to their island colony of Mauritius off the southeast coast of Africa. The colony was once held by the Dutch until the French took charge in 1715. Talk about wayward times! More would follow.
In the early 1700s, Grenada in the Caribbean was run by the French, until the British took it over. Nutmeg trees and seeds got to Grenada in 1843 aboard a merchant ship on its way back to England. The plantings thrived on the island, and so ended the nutmeg monopoly. Today, Indonesia and Grenada remain large producers of nutmeg. Others include India, Guatemala, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Grenada’s flag displays a nutmeg fruit.
For the holidays of our times, glass bottles of roughly 10 nutmegs for $5 are offered on your grocer’s spice aisle.