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Tragic History of Nutmeg. Forgotten Spice Once Worth More than Gold. Forgotten Island Exchanged for New York City

Between the 1300s - 1600s, Europe was ravaged by a series of deadly plagues (pandemics). Doctors at that time believed that wearing a pendant with a nutmeg inside would ward off infection.

Everybody wanted nutmeg but the fruit came from only a few tiny islands in today's Indonesia, on the other side of the globe from Europe. A round trip between these islands and Europe took nearly two years. At that time, nutmeg was worth more than its weight in gold.

Two countries, the Netherlands and Great Britain raced to monopolise the nutmeg trade. The result was tragedy for the locals and some fateful twists in history.

Nutmeg was found only in the Banda islands in today's Indonesia. When the Dutch arrived in 1599, a handful of Portuguese were already there. That was easily solved as the Dutch fleet simply blew the smaller Portuguese force out of the water.

The Dutch then met with resistance from the Banda islanders. From 1609 to 1621, the Dutch invaded the islands with a force of some 1,600 soldiers and a few hundred mercenaries from Japan. First, the Dutch rounded up all the local chiefs and promptly executed them. Then, they depopulated the island of locals, killing most of them and sending the rest away to Batavia (today's Jakarta) as slaves. The local population fell from 15,000 to less than 100 by 1681.

The Dutch then repopulated the Banda islands with slaves from Java to work on the seized nutmeg plantations. (This is a similar pattern as seen in South America. The colonisers depopulated the land of locals and then repopulated it with captured slaves from Africa to work on the farms and plantations.) 

The locals of nearby Pulau Run island (10 miles west of Banda islands) struck a deal with the English in 1616 - accepting English sovereignty as protection against the feared Dutch and allowing the English to extract nutmeg from their island. This, of course, infuriated the Dutch.

The Dutch attacked the English in Pulau Run in 1616 and captured it only in 1620, thus establishing absolute Dutch monopoly of nutmeg trade.

The Dutch had a fort on the island of Ambon over 1,100km north of the Banda islands. There was a small community of English, Portuguese and Japanese on Ambon. Suspecting that the English and Japanese were conspiring against them, the Dutch tortured and executed them.

In retaliation, the English crossed the Atlantic and seized the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. In 1667, the Dutch and English signed the Treaty of Breda which the two sides agreed to keep their respective seized territories i.e the English kept New Amsterdam while the Dutch kept Pulau Run (a small island 3km by 1km in size blessed / cursed with nutmeg).

So, that's how New Amsterdam became today's New York City.

But, the English never really forgave the Dutch. During the Napoleonic Wars (1803 - 1815), the English took the opportunity of a weakened Netherlands to seize the Banda islands from the Dutch in 1810.

This time the English dug up thousands of nutmeg saplings in the Banda islands and transplanted them to their colonies elsewhere e.g. Bencoolen in south Sumatra and Penang.

When the English and Dutch signed the Treaty of London in 1824, giving the Dutch control of Bencoolen in exchange for Malacca, the English again transplanted the nutmeg saplings. Thousands more were transplanted to Penang and Singapore.

In Singapore, the nutmeg saplings were planted around Orchard Road (mostly at Nutmeg Road behind today's Lucky Plaza). The plantations thrived for a while but were unfortunately ravaged by a plague of beetles which destroyed the crops.

In Penang today, there are still small nutmeg plantations. The fruits are used for beverages, mace (spice) and nutmeg ointment. A mug of refreshing fresh nutmeg juice can be had for a couple of ringgits. The juice has a unique mildly green, tannic taste.

The next time I enjoy nutmeg juice or mace in my nasi biryani, I will remember the sad story of Banda islands.

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Written by Tony Boey on 21 July 2021


Image of torture courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of nutmeg courtesy of pxfuel. Map of Banda islands courtesy if Wikipedia.

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