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Nutmeg: A Spice with a Secret That Isn’t So Nice

  • by
  • January 2, 2014
  • 5:30 pm
Nutmeg: A Spice with a Secret That Isn’t So Nice

Editor’s note: This is a Care2 favorite, brought back by popular demand. It was originally published on December 9, 2012. Enjoy!

It’s a spice whose aroma evokes warm memories of the holidays for many — baked into pumpkin pies, kneaded into sausages and sprinkled atop mugs of eggnog. It has a pungent, earthy and slightly sweet taste, making it versatile for use in a variety of foods and beverages. You can find it just about anywhere these days and especially this time of year. But that wasn’t always the case, as Allison Aubrey of NPR recently reminded us.

Until the 18th and 19th centuries, nutmeg was a lot harder to come by. Indigenous to the Banda islands, part of the Moluccas (the Spice Islands) of Indonesia, this was also once the only place in the world that nutmeg grew. And once European spice traders learned of its existence, they began to battle for exclusive rights to the spice.

In the early 17th century, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) seized the islands from the Portuguese and moved to monopolize the trade with what Oliver Thring, writing for the Guardian, described as “paranoid brutality, banning the export of the trees, drenching every nutmeg in lime before shipping to render it infertile, and imposing the death penalty on anyone suspected of stealing, growing or selling nutmegs elsewhere.” The Dutch, in fact, perpetrated a massacre.

When some native islanders dared protest, the head of the VOC “ordered the systematic quartering and beheading of every Bandanese male over the age of 15. The population of the Banda islands was around 15,000 when the VOC arrived. 15 years later, it was 600.” An entire population decimated, and for what? A bit of flavoring for food?

Nutmeg wasn’t just a spice, though. It was also used as an incense as well as a medicine that was supposed to cure stomach ailments, headaches and fever. It was even thought to ward off plague. At one point in the 1300s, a pound of nutmeg cost seven fattened oxen.

At any rate, the Dutch clearly wanted the monopoly on nutmeg, which it just about had but for one nutmeg-producing island held by the British, called Run. After decades of skirmishes, the two companies agreed to a swap in the mid-17th century. In handing over Run to the Dutch, the British got a trading post out west that we now know as Manhattan.

In 1769, a French horticulturist named Pierre Poivre managed to smuggle some nutmeg from the Banda islands to Mauritius, ending the Dutch monopoly at last. The British East India Company brought the tree to Penang, Singapore, India, the West Indies and Grenada, which is now the second largest producer of nutmeg.

What people do for food — or, I should say, what people do to make money on food. To a degree, the Dutch East India Company is not unlike today’s food corporations, whose pursuit of profits comes at considerable cost to people and planet. But the story of nutmeg has come a long way. As sordid as it once was, today there’s a nostalgia for nutmeg as a spice for the holidays, and we might as well enjoy it.

 

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682 comments

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7:52AM PST on Dec 15, 2014

◕ THANK YOU for your time and for posting, interesting! ◕

2:32AM PST on Feb 16, 2014

Amazing what happens when big business shares and breaks the monopoly. Everyone wins including big business.

4:51AM PST on Feb 12, 2014

Food sovereignty struggles are all around us and the only thing that has changed is the methods of manipulating the vulnerable...

3:05AM PST on Feb 6, 2014

Thank you

8:15PM PST on Feb 4, 2014

I have said that so many times Marie-Anne that people think I hate people. I agree with you completely.

8:11PM PST on Feb 4, 2014

It's not mother nature's products, it's people who are dangerous.

4:58PM PST on Feb 4, 2014

Interesting.

7:56PM PST on Jan 30, 2014

The Dutch, usually celebrated as heroes, also have lots and lots of blood on their hands-- like their petty little non-state, Belgium, which gave the world the Congo mass murderer Leopold in the 19th century and the little pervert Van Rompuy, of the EU, who does really have the charisma of a wet rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk in addition to an atrocious accent in French. He's presided over the crimes the EU has committed in Ireland, Greece, and the rest of Europe as well...

7:07PM PST on Jan 17, 2014

Monopolys and coorporate greed have been around forever! Spices like tea made empires! Thanks for the history lesson!

6:40AM PST on Jan 12, 2014

As long as it's not still going on today, I don't see a problem - just don't buy your nutmeg at Walmart!

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