Over the past few years America has become obsessed with one thing during the fall season. Pumpkin spice! Everything from coffee to soap is now available in pumpkin spice, but what exactly is that spice? It’s actually a mixture of cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cloves, and nutmeg with nutmeg and cinnamon making up the primary ingredients. Spices have always been important throughout history, and a prime example is the amazing history of nutmeg.
Nutmeg is a spice from the ground seeds of the myristica tree. The trees only grow in one place. Situated in the eastern part of Indonesia, there are the Banda islands, a group of eleven small, volcanic islands. During medieval times and into the Middle Ages Muslim traders brought nutmeg and mace (a spice derived from the aril, or lacy, red covering of the seed) to the Mediterranean and Europe.
The Banda islands became one of the earliest ventures of European traders in Asia i.e. in 1511 the islands were conquered by Portugal. However, due to Arabic competition, they were unable to gain full control of the nutmeg trade. For the next 100 years this arrangement was the status quo in the region.
In 1621, to obtain a monopoly in the region, the Dutch East India Company waged a bloody war against the Bandanese. Before this invasion, the islands were populated by an estimated 15,000 people, and only 1,000 people were left afterwards. The Bandanese were killed, starved while fleeing, exiled, or sold into slavery. During the 1600s, the Dutch established nutmeg plantations, forts, and colonial towns.
However, the Dutch didn’t succeed in creating a monopoly. The British negotiated a deal with the island of Run. In exchange for protection from the Dutch, the British would get that island’s nutmeg. Run, accepting King James I as their sovereign, became the first overseas English colony. Forty-six years later, the British traded Run to the Dutch in exchange for a little island called … Manhattan! The British then renamed the colony there from New Amsterdam to New York.
Despite a few years of unrest during the Napoleonic Wars, the Dutch retained control of the islands until World War II. During the 1800s, myristica trees were transplanted to locations all over the globe. Today nutmeg production averages 10,000 tons per year!
This week I was reading a book written by Virgil A. Lewis, one of my ancestors and a somewhat famous Mason Countian. In the preface to this book he said, “History is but a record of bleeding centuries preserved by the historians … for it is little else than a narrative of war, plunder, devastation and desolation. But there are noted exceptions to this. Some historians have preferred to write of the victories of peace rather than those of war.” (Source) This quote stuck with me as I considered a topic for this week.
The history of nutmeg is a bittersweet tale. On the one hand you have the genocide of 15,000 people, but you also have a moment that was somewhat pivotal in the creation of the United States. It’s hard to tell how the history of colonial American might have changed had the Dutch retained control of Manhattan. These are just a few things to ponder the next time you enjoy a nice pumpkin spice latte.