The Blood-Soaked History of Nutmeg
If not for nutmeg, the Banda Islands of Indonesia might never have been heard of except by their neighbours. Nutmeg is a rare spice and, until the 19th century, it only grew on the 11 small volcanic Banda Islands. The nut is the seed of an evergreen tree with the lovely name of Myristica fragrans. One tree can produce 20,000 nutmegs in a season. Here endeth the geography and botany classes. Time for some history.
The Pricey Spice
By the sixth century the exotic spice had made its way through trade routes to the gates of Europe. Soon, it was appearing on the banquet tables of the rich. Its price put it completely out of the reach of peasants; one German reference from the 14th century values a pound of nutmeg to be the same as “seven fat oxen.”
Traders, who kept its source a secret, ensured a high price for nutmeg by making it scarce; the belief in its medicinal properties maintained its value.
There might be something behind the apparently far-fetched idea that nutmeg warded off the Black Death. Writing in The Guardian Oliver Thring notes that “… fleas seem to dislike the smell of nutmeg, so it’s just possible that someone carrying the spice might have avoided that fatal, final bite.”
In 1493, the Ottoman Turks closed the land route from Asia to Europe through Constantinople (Istanbul today). Nutmeg could no longer grace the tables of the aristocracy.
The Search for Nutmeg
The scarcity of the spice prompted some Europeans to look for its source. Portuguese navigators were the first to find the Banda Islands in 1511. They built forts and for almost a century had a lock on the nutmeg trade.
But, in the minds of others, this was a commodity so valuable it was worth fighting over. And, here come the Dutch and English with cannons blazing.
The Dutch, under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company (known by its Dutch acronym as VOC) ousted the Portuguese in 1603. Meanwhile, the English grabbed the two tiny islands of Ai and Rhun (sometimes Run).
The Dutch didn’t much like someone else having a piece of the nutmeg trade. In 1616, they attacked and slaughtered the garrison on Ai but the English clung on to Rhun. Many skirmishes followed until the two nations decided on a compromise.
The English handed Rhun over to the Dutch in exchange for a swampy island fur trading post in North America. At the time, this unattractive property was called New Amsterdam; today, we know it as Manhattan Island.
The Banda Islands were not uninhabited when the Europeans arrived. There were about 15,000 Bandanese living there and they were forced by the Dutch East India Company to sign what was called an Eternal Treaty. It granted a nutmeg monopoly to the company with the price paid fixed low.
The terms were harsh. Anyone suspected (just suspected) of working around the company’s monopoly faced the death penalty. Some Bandanese didn’t get it and sold nutmegs to the English. This enraged the VOC and its head in the East Indies, Jan Pieterszoon Coen.
With the help of Japanese mercenaries, Coen launched an attack on the Bandanese in 1621. His enforcing of the nutmeg contract was pitiless. Forty local leaders were beheaded, but that was just the start of the bloodbath.
Jan Pieterszoon Coen went about the systematic slaughter of all males over the age of 15. Others were taken from the islands and sold into slavery elsewhere. By the time Coen was done, the Bandanese population was reduced to 600.
To replace the dead and deported workers the VOC brought in slaves to look after the nutmeg plantations.
The Dutch East India company is considered to be the world’s first multinational corporation. It was the first company to issue stock to shareholders and gave itself many governmental powers such as waging war, issuing its own coins, and creating colonies.
Through its aggressive and merciless brand of commerce the company became immensely wealthy. By 1669, it had 50,000 employees, an army of 10,000, about 200 ships, and paid its shareholders a handsome dividend of around 40 percent a year.
Most of this power was based on the monopoly over nutmeg. But, it all came unglued because of a man called Pierre Poivre.
Monsieur Poivre was a French horticulturalist, missionary, and a bit of a Jacques of all trades. In 1769, under the watchful eye of the Dutch he snuck onto the Banda Islands unobserved and stole some nutmegs and trees.
He took his purloined plants and seeds back to the island of Mauritius where he had created a botanical garden. The Dutch stranglehold on nutmeg was broken. Thirty years later, the British swooped onto the Banda Islands and soon nutmeg trees were growing in some of their tropical colonies. Grenada in the Caribbean became the world's second most important source of nutmegs.
So today, nutmeg is available everywhere and it’s inexpensive. Sprinkle a little onto mashed potatoes. Yum.
Pierre Poivre, who broke the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg, may be the inspiration for the tongue-twister “If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled pepper …” which first appeared in print in 1813. An English translation of Pierre Poivre is Peter Pepper. The family name could easily have been changed to Piper because Latin (a source language for many English words) for black pepper is piper negrum. Where the pickling bit came from is anybody’s guess but it was probably the work of some mischievous wag trying to make the sentence more difficult to say.
Unlike Manhattan, for which it was exchanged, the island of Rhu has no phone service, no cars, and electricity is only available for a few hours each evening.
The Salerno School was the storehouse for all of medieval Europe’s medical knowledge, such as it was. The worthies who ran the place said of nutmeg “One nut is good for you, the second will do you harm, the third will kill you.” The warning was issued because the spice contains an oil called myristicin, which, if taken in large enough doses, can cause hallucinations as well as palpitations, nausea, pain, and dehydration. According to Wayne Curtis in The Atlantic “The intoxicating properties of nutmeg have more recently been documented among musicians (the jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker introduced it to his band mates) and in prisons, where Malcolm X discovered that ‘a penny matchbox full of nutmeg had the kick of three or four reefers,’ as he noted in his autobiography.”
- “Consider Nutmeg.” Oliver Thring, The Guardian, September 14, 2010.
- “Who Was Peter Piper Who Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers?” Sam Dean, bon appétit, undated.
- “A History of Food.” Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, Wiley-Blackwell, 1992.
- “No Innocent Spice: The Secret Story of Nutmeg, Life And Death.” Allison Aubrey, National Public Radio, November 26, 2012.
- “My Nutmeg Bender.” Wayne Curtis, The Atlantic, January/February 2012.